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Rise of the code schools

Posted on 23 Nov 2012 at 12:09

When it comes to programming, the classroom is moving online. David Bayon looks at the new wave of start-ups that are making coding trendy again

Learning to code used to involve a school computer room, a bearded teacher in a cardigan, and a book the size of an encyclopaedia. Not any more. To the delight of shoulders everywhere, there’s a new breed of code school on the scene: one that expects no physical attendance, that won’t put you on the spot in front of the class, and doesn’t even require a textbook. Welcome to the online code school.

Then again, “school” is perhaps not the best term. You can work at your own pace and in your own home, and the courses provide instant feedback, both in the form of subtle pointers towards what you’re doing wrong, and rewards when you do things right. Progress is encouraged not through the threat of detention, but via a social profile that fills with badges as you learn new skills. It’s the gamification of school, and it’s working.

Each week a new course on JavaScript, CSS or Python arrives on Codecademy; at Code School thousands pay monthly for interactive Ruby and GitHub instruction; over at Udacity high-resolution videos range from the basics right up to university-level topics. In this feature, we explore why online learning is so hot right now, we talk to these digital teachers about their methods, and we ask whether the traditional classroom is under threat.

Code School

A new way of learning

The current boom in online coding has its roots in two desires. First, there’s the desire of the teacher to reach as many people as possible – to educate beyond the walls of the classroom. Online, every student can benefit from the best teaching, and a lesson needs creating and testing only once. That lesson is no longer confined to a class of 30, but can be used by hundreds of thousands, even millions of students in some cases.

That’s combined with the basic desire to learn a skill that’s increasingly important in the digital age. As Codecademy co-founder Zach Sims put it in an interview: “I think coding is 21st-century literacy. Traditionally, there are the three Rs of literacy: it was just reading, writing and arithmetic. We think the fourth should be algorithms.”

The different schools take different approaches. The Khan Academy began with some novice tasks geared towards programming and graphics. Codecademy goes right to the beginning of JavaScript, with its first task being simply to type your name. Services such as Treehouse and Code School aim a little higher – at the developer who wants to refine their skills or learn something new, and Udacity has courses as intense as Applied Cryptography.


The idea of learning online isn’t new and it won’t suit all subjects, but here it makes sense: ask an expert programmer how they learned their craft and most will say they progressed with hands-on experience. A sense of active involvement is key, so these online schools place interaction at the heart of their lesson plans, their site design and even their growth strategies.

Khan Academy course creator John Resig says its open code, easy feedback and encouragement of experimentation are all influenced by his open-source experiences. Instead of explicitly teaching the fundamentals of programming, it’s more productive to “put the student into code of graduated complexity and encourage them to manipulate, explore, and write their own programs.”

Lessons are typically broken down into digestible chunks, with the instruction and the user input closely tied together. At Codecademy, a chatty text instruction sits beside a live code window, often with a fragment of code pre-entered as a starter or as something to fix. Make a mistake and the interface lets you know; solve the problem correctly and you unlock the next lesson. Code School, Udacity and Treehouse go a step further with professionally produced video tutorials.

A major driving force of every coding site is gamification. Rather than just finishing a lesson and moving on, users unlock badges to go on social network-style profiles, alongside progress charts and activity logs. It’s education given a layer of 21st-century instant gratification. Codecademy even borrows from the latest online games, with users building up point streaks if they log in and learn every day.

Then, when a course is completed, the sharing begins. When a “Tell your friends you survived” button on an early Rails for Zombies course proved popular, the Code School team wondered how far they could push it. They added more buttons, and as founder Gregg Pollack explains, “people not only tweeted about it at the end of a course, but they tweeted between each level they completed. People love sharing their accomplishments.”


The Codecademy team knows this better than anyone. On 1 January Codecademy launched Code Year, in which users resolved to learn to code in 2012 via weekly online lessons. By day three, 100,000 had signed up; within nine weeks the figure had topped 400,000. “We tried hard to make the sign-up process as frictionless as possible,” said co-founder Zach Sims at the time. “It also turns out this was a commitment that people wanted to share.”

That sharing was all the advertising the site had, and it worked. Codecademy now has “millions of students in more than one hundred countries” learning the basics of coding for free, and recent investors include Sir Richard Branson.

Student fees

Approaches to creating content vary hugely from site to site. The Khan Academy funds its new courses through donations, with significant backers including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, and courses are created by academics.

At Code School, teaching properly takes time and money. “Each course is about a two-month process,” explains Pollack. “There’s a lot involved from just putting together the course outline, to writing out all the content and figuring out what we want to teach. Sometimes we work backwards; we start with the challenges: what are we going to want people to be able to solve? Then how do we teach that? It’s putting together the slides, getting all the slide animations in there, filming in front of the green screen, getting it all edited.

“On top of that there’s a huge technology cost. Every time we jump into a new technology we have to figure out a good way to evaluate code. If somebody is solving a challenge, we want to test that they’re able to solve it, and there might be multiple ways to solve a challenge so we want that to be okay. [The cost] is why we only really do one course a month.”

Code School iOS Kickstarter

Funding such advancements is a big issue as these sites grow. Code School has 150,000 users, more than 5,000 of whom pay $25 a month to access courses – but even that won’t cover a move into some new areas. “An iOS course is going to cost a lot more than a typical course because of the hardware,” says Pollack, and “because of all the software we have to write, and it definitely has a higher risk factor.” So Code School crowdfunded its “Try iOS” course instead. “Kickstarter seemed like a great way to make sure there was enough interest.” It raised more than three times its $50,000 target.

Investment has also been rolling in for Codecademy, but the long-term plan remains a mystery, with Zach Sims merely confirming that everything on the site will remain free for the time being. One potential revenue stream could come from the personal development of the users themselves. Employers could evaluate potential recruits by their course progress, with candidates suggested depending on the requirements of the job. “People are already putting Codecademy on their résumés, so this is a natural next step,” Sims told Bloomberg. Udacity already provides certification on some courses, with major technology companies “actively recruiting from the Udacity student body”.

Goodbye, Sir?

As good as these coding sites may be, how far can any online course completed at your own pace take you before you run out of steam, or hit a brick wall? Pollack believes the internet has its limits. “Self-guided learning can only take you so far. At some point you need to be put in an environment where you’re working with somebody on projects and being mentored. There’s certainly a piece of the puzzle there that we’re not dealing with yet, that a lot of these online self-guided tools aren’t dealing with yet.”

Online learning should be viewed not as a complete solution, but as the beginning. “I consider us the jumping-off point,” says Pollack. “We are the first five or six chapters in a book.” The aim for a site such as Code School is to remove “a lot of the obstacles people hit when they learn a new technology”, and to quickly give beginners “a feeling of proficiency”. The videos, the interaction and the rewards keep you returning where you might otherwise have walked away in frustration.

Self-guided learning can only take you so far. At some point you need to be put in an environment where you’re being mentored

Once the basics are learned, it’s up to the user to drive his or her own development. The Khan Academy encourages you to “dig into all the explanatory tutorials and documentation that’s provided to clarify how things work”. Reference sites such as are full of more traditional information on coding, and some of these online schools end their courses with advice on where to go next – even if that takes the user away from the site.

The longer-term solution may be in teachers integrating these online courses into their traditional lessons. Codecademy quickly opened up its software after the success of Code Year, so in theory a teacher can write a quick online task to be carried out alongside a classroom lesson. In June, Zach Sims claimed “tens of thousands of teachers” have created Codecademy courses for their students all over the world. “We think it’s important for the best teachers to create content on different subjects, so we let anyone create lessons,” co-founder Ryan Bubinski told .net magazine.

If that sounds too time-consuming, the quality of the curated courses means they can often be integrated into a lesson plan as is, with Gregg Pollack telling us Code School has been in touch with professors using its classes. “It’s a really good fit for labs,” he explains, suggesting a teacher might set an online course for the class as an added assignment, for example.

Collaborative teaching

The blend of traditional and online learning is an intriguing one, and it’s also worth noting that these sites allow teachers of other related subjects, such as maths or physics, to easily incorporate coding lessons with which they might otherwise have struggled. We’re way past the days of only programmers learning to code; today, a bit of HTML or JavaScript knowledge can push you to the top of the recruitment pile in any number of careers.

This is just one of the many industries that’s ripe for disruption with the evolution of the internet

Some of these code schools are breaking into the mainstream. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed up to Code Year, and the White House recruited Codecademy to provide a coding course as part of its Summer Jobs+ programme. They have a global audience too: in February, more than 50% of Codecademy’s users were based outside the US.

How big they can grow, and whether they’ll remain the plucky outsiders or be welcomed into the world of education, is anybody’s guess, and part of the fun for all involved is finding out. Between the success of sites such as Codecademy and the huge interest in the Raspberry Pi, both from individuals and schools, coding is becoming cool again – and at a price that almost anyone can afford to pay.

It’s the right blend of technologies at the right time. Video learning is nothing new, we’ve had interactive websites for years, and we all know how popular social media is, but Pollack believes the current craze is down to the combination of disciplines. “Until now, not too many people have done all of them at once,” he says. “People are just starting to figure out how to do that, and this is just one of the many industries that’s ripe for disruption with the evolution of the internet.”

Author: David Bayon

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User comments

Another great site that teachers and students love especially at High School is

Teacher after teacher have commented that the students are much more engaged and learning more with CodeAvengers than CodeCademy.

By CodeAvengers on 23 Nov 2012

Great Article

In New Zealand, we have been trialing out various online code schools for a national roll out. We found one that sat above the rest in way of the actual quality of the lessons (not the site itself yet). Here is a recent story with the Prime Minister of New Zealand learning to code

By MixMastaMike on 23 Nov 2012

Code Avengers

Code Avengers is not only getting strong interest from New Zealand it is also quickly attracting a GLOBAL audience due to its well structured lessons. Try it out and see why at

By RickyRiccardo on 23 Nov 2012

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