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From Issue #41 April 24, 2014

Small Instruction Set

CoderDojo promotes self-directed learning and local mentors to help kids teach themselves to program.

By Ciara Byrne Twitter icon

CoderDojo session at Medialab Prado, June 2013 

At his high school in Cork, Ireland, James Whelton was known for one thing. “I was the guy who could get past the blocks on the school computers to all the social networking sites,” he says. “I was on a first-name basis with the IT guy since I kept messing around with the network. I was pulled out of classes several times by teachers to fix a computer issue. People were coming to me to jailbreak phones. I had a part-time job building Web sites. That became my thing.”

Whelton tried to start a computer club at his school, but there weren’t enough teachers available to supervise it. So instead he created CoderDojo in 2011, a free coding club for kids from all over the city. “We didn’t set out to have a global movement. We wanted to create a single instance in Cork,” Whelton says. But word soon spread to other parts of Ireland, and people wanted to start dojos elsewhere. A hundred CoderDojos opened in the first year.

There are now more than 250 CoderDojos in 27 countries, all of which are run entirely by volunteers. There is no fixed curriculum. The emphasis is on self-directed learning and using the skills of the local mentors. The aim of running the dojos is to provide an enjoyable, social environment for kids aged 5 to 17. At many locations, 40 to 60 percent of attendees are girls.

“All the kids are self-selected,” Whelton says. “They come to CoderDojo because they want to, not because they are forced there like the traditional classroom environment. We just provide the canvas; the kids paint whatever they want.”

CoderDojo has often proved transformational for kids who are having a tough time at school and struggling to find their place in the world—kids like the younger Whelton himself. Former students often become mentors by the time they hit their teens.

“Kids who are within a few years age of each other can convey certain ideas and concepts much better than we can,” says Whelton, now 21.

CoderDojo in London, May 2013. Photo by Paul Clarke

Programming for fun and profit

CoderDojo is the place Whelton wishes existed when he was growing up in Ireland as a self-described socially inept, nerdy kid with learning difficulties. At age nine, he felt he wasn’t really good at anything and didn’t fit into his inner-city, all-male school. As a result, he spent a lot of time on his computer.

“Programming was more a means than an end for me,” he says. “I found Windows Movie Maker, and I started making short animations. All of a sudden people were interested that I had a Web site, let alone the animations.”

Whelton took to spending hours after school at the local bookshop reading computer books he couldn’t afford to buy. When he turned 12, he got the chance to attend a summer program for transition-year students (an optional, vocational year between exam cycles in Irish high schools) at University College Cork. His classmates were all 15 or 16.

“To me, those guys in transition year were super cool,” he says. “They showed me how to do fun stuff with technology like JavaScript prompts to mess with people on browsers. We went into Goth chat rooms with names like Rainbow and Sunflower. So I associated that social environment with people who were fun and doing cool stuff with technology.” The program also introduced him to more complex programming languages like C and pushed him to develop his skills.

CoderDojo supported by BT in Derry-Londonderry, Sept. 2013. Riona Fitzpatrick (right) helps 14-year-old Michelle Heaney with a Scratch program. Photo by connor2nz

At 17, Whelton could also have become a black-hat hacker. He had gained some notoriety for hacking the latest iPod Nano, and he came into contact with other hackers. “I fell into a few of the chatrooms and forums talking to people with botnets of over 20,000 computers,” Whelton says. “I almost went down a bad path.”

“Someone offered me $50 to create a fake PayPal login page which would send the name and password to them. I couldn’t bring myself to send it,” he says. “When you get into those circles nothing that you do in real life matters to your social status. Hacking or defacing stuff is what you do to build up a name, particularly when you have no other outlets.”

From vanity to impact

“The technology world is a bit crazy with vanity metrics,” Whelton says. “We are interested in impact metrics: kids that are doing interesting stuff, kids who are finding new solutions to problems. The kids who eventually come out will be kids who can program, but with a social conscience.”

One of those kids is Harry Moran, who at age 12 and within a few months of his first session at CoderDojo published the game PizzaBot, which displaced Angry Birds as a top-seller in app stores in the UK and Ireland.

Stephen Farry, the Northern Ireland minister for employment and learning, with children attending the Belfast Met’s Dec. 2012 CoderDojo. Photo by Northern Ireland Executive

“I was always been interested in computers and technology, but I had limited access to them,” Moran says. “I was allowed 20 minutes a week, but when I started CoderDojo, my parents loosened up about that. Originally when I told [Apple] I was 12, they didn’t believe me, and they called my dad and asked him. Then they deleted my developer account because I was supposed to be 18 or over, so I had to do it under my mom’s name.” Now 14, Moran just published his second game, Robot Run!, and teaches Web and game development at the CoderDojo in Cork.

“I don’t care about creating the next Mark Zuckerberg,” Whelton says. “While it’s nice to make money, technology can have a much further-reaching impact in a social sphere. If I had the skill set at 12, I would have seen every challenge and problem in a new light.”

Ciara Byrne is a technology journalist currently writing mainly for Fast Company. Her work has appeared in Forbes, VentureBeat, O'Reilly Radar, and TechCrunch. Based in Amsterdam, her interests include data science, health technology, robots, news hacking, and cycling in high heels.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats.
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