Putting the missing element in learning coding and robotics—remotely.
GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Gura
My students were nail-bitingly engaged as they texted in their code suggestions to fine tune the behavior of a robot. This was a serious challenge!
Even more so as, over Zoom, they watched their talented robotics instructor, Kelsey, enter their code values. Truthfully, my class was more exhilarated than I’ve ever seen as it scored the deciding point in that game of Robot Mini Golf.
‘…over Zoom, they watched their talented robotics instructor, Kelsey, enter their code values. Truthfully, my class was more exhilarated than I’ve ever seen…’
Care to guess the grade level of my students? Ha, these were in-service teachers in the course “Technology Integration for School Leaders” that I teach for Touro University’s Graduate School of Technology!
The Fullest Possible Vision
Each semester I invite in a guest speaker to help me flesh out for my students the fullest vision possible of the field of Educational Technology. This semester we were fortunate to host Kelsey Derringer and Matt Chilbert, the two founders of CodeJoy, a newish group that provides direct instructional services to students and PD for teachers in the areas of robotics and coding.
Both Kelsey and Matt have been in the field a good while, first as classroom teachers (Kelsey, in a general education classroom, and Matt, a Technology teacher) and as professional development and content creators for BirdBrain Technologies, a pioneering STEM education organization which was Founded at the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University in 2010.
In 2019, Kelsey and Matt decided to follow their own vision and provide experiences for students, as well as PD for their teachers—remotely. As they put it, their idea received an unexpected shot in the arm in the shape of the COVID Pandemic-mandated national shift to distance schooling. This was a good time to be offering high quality, remote STEM instruction.
An Appealing Approach
As someone who has long followed the evolution of Educational Technology, I appreciate how CodeJoy has developed such an appealing approach to providing rich, high quality standards-based, yet fun learning experiences online. Especially so, because it turns that unsatisfying, first important technology-supported instruction experience that was had by so many teachers and students during the COVID School Shut Down on its head in such a wonderful way.
Lamentably, many educators who were not onboard with technology before the crisis walked away from it seeing tech in their rearview mirror as a crude, ineffective approximation of face-to-face instruction, the real thing. CodeJoy just might be the antidote to that.
I thought so viewing the exhilarated reaction of my students as they uploaded their code for the Mini Golf challenge. I took that as testament to the fact that if done well, a remote instructional experience can be something in the same ballpark as magic.
Treated to a Tour
During our class session we were treated to a remote tour of the CodeJoy studio, something that Matt, a graduate of film/media school before becoming an educator, designed and put together in a two car garage. There, what my class and I experienced through our weekly Thursday night Zoom connection was not the usual talking heads commenting on my screen-shared class notes, but what amounts to a TV studio that approaches the level of the popular Educational TV that many of us grew up on.
One element that I think deserves highlighting is that the robots students encounter through CodeJoy are homemade. And while they are legitimately robots, replete with moving parts and electronic components like servos and motors, they are made of cardboard and have puppet-like elements, like eyes, lending them warmth and appeal. In our tour, Matt and Kelsey showed us how these are constructed, the great takeaway being that they are so simple that kids and teachers might produce equivalents on their own.
CodeJoy engages its audience over commonly used web conferencing technology, the kind that just about all schools now have the tech capacity to access. But what we saw on the CodeJoy side of our screens is produced in a multi-camera, multi-interface studio from which a highly entertaining “show” hosted by a cheerful teacher emanates.
What’s extraordinary about this, beyond that the content teaches the sort of graphic, object-based coding that has become so popular in recent years because of its user friendliness and easy to comprehend design and function, is that the experience is very much personalized learning. Classes of kids are recognized by Kelsey, their teacher guide, by name. Imagine something on the order of The Electric Company just for you! Things develop at the participants’ level and pace and interaction is with the sort of learning guide any kid would want to engage with.
A Lot to Have
I find it highly significant that this sort of coding experience can be had without so much – without acquiring a coding app (the coding is done on the CodeJoy side, students need only provide numbers), without the purchase of robotics kits (these, too, are on the CodeJoy side), without extensive professional development for teachers, without much lead and prep time, and on and on.
Perhaps the best facet of this is that through the teachers; facilitating the class’s online participation, a very rich variety of professional development is had. The teacher is afforded what amounts to a risk free and highly enjoyable opportunity to learn alongside the kids, observing the full process, and empowered to take away insights into how it all might be replicated or extended independently.
In our post-demo debriefing, in addition to the enthused ‘how to’ questions a few of my students asked, my own background as a district-wide Instructional Technology leader moved me to ask about the affordability of CodeJoy… “Is this something that only wealthy, suburban districts might take advantage of?” I asked. And I was very pleased to be set straight on this, as it turns out that a very great many of the schools and districts CodeJoy has worked with have had little trouble finding grants and available funding and not having to raise cash on their own.
Tremendous Unmet Needs
In just a few short years CodeJoy has served 30,000 students and over 5,000 teachers across the country and across the world with their interactive student sessions, and hands-on, virtual professional development. Most of these initiatives have been provided and funded by national, state, and regional partners like the Infosys Foundation USA, the Connecticut Department of Education, the Iowa STEM Scale Up Program, and Penn State’s ABC CREATE Network of districts.
While I can see a great many schools taking advantage of the services of CodeJoy, I’m also looking down the road at the scope of tremendous unmet needs. Both for the type STEM instruction CodeJoy delivers, as well as the greater one of evolving a far richer hybrid version of instruction, in general. So many of us educators have come to see that we must move beyond legacy, hard-copy era, traditional face-to-face instruction, I’m inspired by Code Joy’s model of what’s possible. And based on what my class and I experienced—I think what’s possible is pretty wonderful!
Mark Gura is Editor-at-Large for EdTech Digest and author of Creative SEL: Using Hands-On Projects to Boost Social-Emotional Learning and of The Edtech Advocate’s Guide to Leading Change in Schools (ISTE), and co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next (EdTech Digest). He also authored Make, Learn Succeed: Building a Culture of Creativity in Your School (ISTE). He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system. In addition to his role at EdTech Digest, he is currently a professor at Touro College Graduate School of Technology.