CoderDojo

CoderDojo

CoderDojo is a fun and welcoming social setting where young people come together to work on coding projects

By Jesse Hawley

Click below to listen to a shortened version of our interview with Karen Wellington of the Fogarty Foundation and Director of CoderDojo WA:

[Extended transcript]
You’re currently working with the Fogarty Foundation. Could you tell me the types of programs they run?

The Fogarty Foundation have been around for 15 years, and it was started by Brett and Annie Fogarty who are two philanthropists here in Western Australia, whose major focus is on education. They have been looking at ways that they can support, assist, and help connect others in the education sector to better improve outcomes for children in Western Australia.

The foundation does have a few different programs. One of them is a scholarship program at the University of Western Australia that usually is focussed on keeping the best and brightest living in WA. So they award scholarships to high-performing students who show leadership capacity.

They get scholarships at UWA, and that means they’re not taking up other scholarship offers at ANU or other states, or internationally. So they keep that group in WA so they can go on to help WA maintain its connections and intellectual talent a little bit, which is sometimes a problem here.

So that’s a really great program that the foundation does. In addition they’ve got another major program which is called EDvance, which has been going for a while now, and that’s all about increasing school performance in lower SES schools around Perth.

They do that by pairing up business mentors or highly experienced principals with principals in lower socioeconomic schools. And so they lead them through this school improvement program, which is all about looking at the leadership of the principals, how they can support improvement in the school, and that’s shown to have great results. They won a social innovation award from Macquarie recently through the work that they’ve done — especially through showing impacts.

They’re very rigorous around documenting what the actual effects of the program have been. They’ve seen improvements in these schools for students who might not otherwise have been able to succeed.

The foundation also does small grant giving to organisations that approach them. The major focus of that is on programs in education or innovative social enterprise initiatives happening in Western Australia. For instance, the foundation assisted a program called Drum Beat.

Holyoake is a drug and alcohol not-for-profit in Perth, and they’ve developed their own drumming program, which is all about improving emotional and social resilience through drumming. And so they developed this whole game around drumming, which is used in prisons and schools, and it’s shown to help young people, especially, who have trouble communicating to get in touch with their emotions. And they’ve developed this computer game around drumming.

So the foundation supported that. So that’s just one such initiative that the Foundation supports.

The program that I’m working on is CoderDojo WA. Basically, what we’re doing with CoderDojo WA is growing an international movement, called CoderDojo, which started in Ireland in 2011. We’re growing that in WA.

With the support of the foundation we’re able to hold training, social events, run awards events and provide some of that cohesion to help the movement grow. We’ve now got 21 coding clubs around WA.

It started in 2011; the foundation has been supporting this since 2013. Between 2013 and 2015 there’s been a growth of up to 21 clubs, which is really fantastic to see.

The foundation does a lot so it’s hard to summarise. It’s definitely a unique organisation. Western Australia doesn’t have a lot of philanthropic activity. And so I think there are some key benefits to working in a philanthropic setting.

I mean, it’s not government; it’s not major corporate or private; it’s not technically not-for-profit. And so you can make these connections, which you might not be able to in government, which is somewhat constrained by the political environment. So the foundation does work a lot with schools, the education department, and the university sector in a way that can be difficult if you were in a political party or in the government, yourself.

As a kind of nimble player, the foundation does a lot of connecting of people and of ideas and concepts, which I think is really beneficial of the overall ecosystem of education in WA.

Do you want to explain what the CoderDojo program is?
[CoderDojo] was founded in 2011 in Ireland by an Australian philanthropist named Bill Liao and an Irish young person, James Whelton. It came out of James Whelton who I think was 19. He was sitting on a train or plane, trying to hack his iPhone and he just had this brain wave ‘oh, it would be fun to do this with other people’, to be around other young people who were also interested in mucking around with technology.

So his whole concept was around creating this network of coding clubs, essentially. So the name ‘CoderDojo’ has had such a resonance with young people. I guess because of the reference to Japanese culture and ninja. It’s kind of funny for their choice of name. It’s boded well for the popularity of the movement.

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It’s gone crazy throughout Ireland and the UK. There’s almost a club on every corner, especially in Cork, where Bill started it at the national software centre. Ireland has a fairly strong technology industry in software, so a lot of software companies have gotten involved with this movement and will come along and run a club for children or mentor a club for the benefit of kids there.

I guess I should explain what the club actually looks like. If you think about a chess club or an art club, it’s essentially just a computer-programming club in the kind of selection of activities that young people can enjoy.

It’s separate from in-class learning; it’s not curriculum driven. It’s supposed to be a safe, welcoming, fun social setting where young people who have that common interest in computing, coding, and creating things with code are able to come together and work on their own projects with support from technical mentors who might be experienced software developers who can help challenge them and push them along to keep improving their projects.

Because these clubs are free to attend, children are supposed to only attend if they’re opting in by choice, because it’s not this forced activity, for children or young people it’s got that sense of buy-in and ownership of learning over their participation in the club.

I speak for WA, but I’m sure it’s the same across the world in these clubs. The young people’s feedback after dojo sessions is so positive. It talks of how they enjoy the freedom of this environment. They enjoy being respected because they’re not instructed or talked down to.

It’s more emergent learning that takes place. Individual interests are respected and often a mentor will guide a young person to figure out how to take their interest to the next level with technology, so they’re really empowering for young people.

Young people don’t often get that opportunity. I think it’s highly complementary to what they could be learning in school. So they can take some of their in-class learning, take it to the club, and they can explore it further without any pressure.

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Image courtesy of CoderDojo WA.
Tell me more about the mentors, what type of people do you get in?

Mentors can be tricky because some locations don’t have any software developers around. So what I tend to say in WA to people thinking of starting clubs is ‘just start the club as a champion, as an organiser, and the children — the young people in the room — can often start to mentor each other’.

So I just want to pre-face what I’m about to say with that description of a club that it doesn’t need to have 100 software developers in it. People can start it without any. And we have seen that in some schools, say a high school providing mentors to a primary school. That’s one way a club can happen.

If your location is lucky enough, you could get some developers in: it could be a parent, it could be a developer from a local web development company. And it’s really any kind of expertise they might have could be useful in the setting. There are so many different types of developers and IT workers nowadays.

What, I think, most of them tend to have in common is a really strong feeling of wanting to support young people in a way, perhaps, that they didn’t have when they were growing up. They may have started programming at the age of 10, but had no real mentor in that area.

It can be a lonely thing developing those skills without anyone who really understands what you’re trying to achieve. For a lot of the mentors, they’re really compelled to give back to this next generation, to enable all the opportunities that they weren’t so lucky to have.

The mentors that we have in WA are the most generous, amazing people you could meet. They come in and spend time on the weekend, or after school to give their time to children. So if they have anything in common, it’s that they’re passionate about technology, what it can achieve, and they have a strong belief in passing on their knowledge to the next generation.

What’s it like having that breadth of ages through the sessions: 7–17?

It’s really great, actually. There’s such a difference between a 7 and a 17 year old. Some 17 year olds wander in and you don’t know if they’re a mentor or a ninja, they can be very mature. Kids tend to naturally hang out together with others of a similar age.

But you’ll have a 9 year old and a 12 year old striking up a friendship, maybe a 15 year old coming over spending some time helping a 7 year old. School doesn’t tend to lend to that kind of inter-year interaction very well. The informal setting that dojo provides can really enable that in a very natural way.

It’s not like they are all in there making friends with 7 to 17 year olds, but it’s instances of interaction that you’ll see, which are quite lovely to watch. It definitely happens and it’s definitely encouraged as well.

There is a lot of variability of ability between a 7 year old and 17 year old. There might be a 10 year old that might actually know more than a 17 year old, so if they started early, it kind of takes down that hierarchy a little bit as well, a hierarchy of knowledge and power that can occur in a school.

The adult in the room might know the least and it might be a 10 year old who’s the master of C++. You can’t make any assumptions when walking into this environment.

Is there a consistent ‘larger’ message that you try and leave the ninja with, regardless of age or their project — something that they can leave the program and be aware of?

With the dojos themselves, a huge intention of running these coding clubs is to encourage the children who are attending to carry forward their interest in coding into their own free-time. I’m not sure what the current average would be, but we know that most young people spend a large amount of time per week either watching television or playing video games.

So it’s our interest, and our hope, through the dojos, instead of using all that free-time for that kind of passive screen entertainment, our hope is that they’ll start utilising it to set their own projects. Pretty much all of the top programmers and anyone who is a digital creative today tends to spend part of their free-time furthering their own profession just out of a love of it and a passion for it, rather than feeling like it’s an obligation.

So that’s really what we’re hoping for, for the ninja that are attending to have that passion for coding ignited. It encourages them and makes them feel the motivation to go home and continue working on whatever project they started during the dojo session. To be honest, that’s really how the best technologists progress their skills; they’re very self-motivated. They don’t wait to be taught in schools. Schools are struggling to keep up with where children and young people are at with their coding.

We can’t expect teachers to be able to teach all elements of software development. There are some 15 year olds that we know who are doing more advanced things than computer science at university. There’s no waiting to be taught with the ninja in these dojos. We’re really trying to get them to understand how they can progress their skills in their own way with self-motivation rather than waiting for someone to instruct them to do something.

The ninja work on their own independent projects, what are some standout projects that you’ve seen?

Last year we held project awards, and that allowed us to see the full range of different projects that were being made. There was one where a ninja was writing a project for his school, which was all around the history of the Prime Minister John Curtin.

Instead of submitting a normal essay, he created a website and then created an amazing interactive online quiz. Which was all about the life of John Curtin, and after that he won a history prize — either a state or a national one — and I just love how he was using technology to explore his own interests and provide something back to his teacher, which he wasn’t expecting at all. So that was fantastic.

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There are a lot of games that ninja tend to create during the dojo sessions, and we definitely see that coming through in the project awards.

There was one, which was called Tracer, which was a parkour game. He created this game, which is basically doing parkour, so the character would be leaping between buildings and jumping over things and walls and you could see he was interested in parkour and did it in his own life as well.

Once again, it was great to see how he was transplanting his other interests through software into a playable game, which could be explored and played by other ninja.

We also have another ninja, Alexandra, who is very much into creating narrative online experiences. So she was creating a blog, which was part-narrative, part-diary, but she was incorporating a lot of visual, graphical elements. She was also expressing some of her own interests through technology in this fantastic way, and I can completely see her going on to become a web-developer. She could understand how to take her art and then transform it in a way so it could be explored through the digital medium.

Image courtesy of CoderDojo WA.
Image courtesy of CoderDojo WA.
Why is it important for young people, or anyone, to learn the language of code?

You can’t deny that we’re living in a world dominated by technology. Anyone who has a smart phone or uses the internet, or uses a computer as part of their job, relies upon the creation of computer scientists or programmers who created the software, which they’re spending most of their waking hours (for some).

I feel that as technology’s becoming more and more seamless and integrated into our lives, it’s harder for people to understand how they can play a role in the creation of it — because, the creation can be quite gritty and frustrating at times as a coder to create something, which on the surface, looks completely seamless and easy.

It’s almost, the smoother something is, the harder it was to create.

As we move towards a post-digital age, where the devices will become less and less obtrusive — where we’ll be speaking into our phones, rather than typing — and using gestures to active technology — it’s a fear, I guess, that people won’t be able to understand what’s going on behind what they’re experiencing and what they’re using on a daily basis.

Through CoderDojo, it’s not just our hope that we’re creating programmers, it’s our hope that we’re creating this generation of young people that will take an interest in the back-end of this technology that they’re using.

Maybe understand some of the basic concepts, and realise that they can actually be a part of creating some of the software and technology that they use, and not just be a consumer of it.

Is it an apt analogy to say ‘it’s like watching TV without knowing how to read or write’?

Exactly. You would worry for the future if fewer and fewer people were able or interested in creating what it is that they were using — the frameworks of our life, almost. That’s kind of the bigger picture. Here in WA, we’re really interested in what’s going to be the future jobs of young people living in our state.

There are all these sorts of reports that are talking about disruption in all industries, and how they’re all set to change — every sector — due to these incoming technologies, and it would be very disappointing if young Western Australians or Australians in general weren’t armed or equipped with skills to be able to be a part of the shaping of this revolution.

We’re also hoping to trigger some growth of interest skills in young people in WA today with the hope that in 10–15 years they’ll be potentially leading some of the innovations and taking advantage of some of the opportunities that will come with that.

A lot of people talk about ‘how do we prepare for jobs of the future that don’t exist yet’. Our only hope with the dojo is activating passion and interest in the ability to seek information, and ability to feed curiosity.

That can be applied to any topic if you’re able to solve problems on your own; if you’re able to, perhaps, see beyond the next step and see what might be possible, and move forward beyond written instruction, then we feel that’s a way we can help young people comprehend, or move into a future, that we don’t even know how it will look for them. It’s more about the skills and the attitude, which we hope they’ll carry forward to bring them success in whichever path they choose.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

I think our message with CoderDojo is: it’s an open source movement, so virtually anyone can start a dojo. And you don’t need to be a coder to actually start a dojo.

It’s mostly about providing a fun, free, open and social learning environment in which young people can just come together and spend time working on their own projects. We’ve been spreading that message in Western Australia and if this has a national audience, it would be perfect for anyone considering starting their own dojo anywhere in Australia.

It’s not that hard to do, it’s just like any other club, like a chess club or a sporting club. So if you have the room and there are young people around, and they like technology, this is a perfect way to give them a chance to take their interests that next step further.

Anyone in Australia can jump on coderdojo.com and explore the resource page, which basically steps them through preparing a dojo. And here in WA we do provide support for those who are setting up their own dojo, but anyone in Australia can do it, and we hope to see more and more coding clubs pop up.

Jesse Hawley

Author: Jesse Hawley