Bye bye Codecademy, MIT shows off a way to program using natural language

Gigaom

What if you could learn to code just by learning a few commands that match the way we speak or write?

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology have shown off that for a few tasks, such as tweaking word processing documents and spreadsheets, people could use natural language as opposed to specific programming languages. As we spend more time in our digital worlds, making the manipulation of that world easier for everyone is the goal behind several startups such as IFTTTCodecademy or even ARB Labs, and is an essential ingredient for further breakthroughs.

The researchers in the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory demonstrated their findings using productivity software, but their methods might also work for other programming tasks. While it’s not exactly clear from the MIT release how this will work in practice, it’s awesome that such research is even happening. Giving more people the…

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Using Raspberry Pi in class

I’m inspired…

teachcomputing.wordpress.com

IMG_6441_2A practical guide for using Raspberry Pi in class –

This is a modified version of an article I was asked to write for The Guardian Teacher Network.

What exactly is the Raspberry Pi?

Computer Science pioneer, Seymour Papert wrote, “The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge”. The credit-card sized, low-powered Raspberry Pi computer, costing about the same price as a textbook (£18) is one tool that can be used to help create these conditions. Designed and manufactured in the UK, the aim of this computer is to encourage children to tinker and experiment with computing technology at a very low financial risk, but offering massive educational value in return. The unconventional, bare-bones appearance of the Raspberry Pi computer frequently prompts more questions than it answers. In education, that is surely a good thing, for outstanding teaching is more…

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Code Year, Eighteen Months Later

Eighteen months ago, in January of 2012,  I decided to sign up for Codecademy’s Code Year. I wasn’t even sure what code was. But I had some time on my hands and an eleven year old son who was curious too. I was getting less and less work at the newspaper I’d been freelancing at for the last twenty years. And though I didn’t know it at the time, The Montreal Mirror was six months from folding.

In April, after I’d triumphantly (to me at least) familiarized myself with the fundamentals of JavaScript, I had a tiny twitter spat with Jeff Atwood over his now infamous post “Please Don’t Learn To Code.” Jeff, who runs the popular blog Stack Overflow,  didn’t believe that people should learn to code just for code’s sake.  He’d seen too much bad code, broken dreams, and faux programmers in his career to jump on the code learning bandwagon.

I get it. I’m a writer. I’ve heard many versions of this argument applied to writing (too many people taking writing courses to write books that nobody will read, etc.) Still, I have an intractable belief in the adventure of learning. So, I tossed off a counter post, which eventually made it into an e-book anthology, “Should You Learn To Code”, with other people who disagreed with Jeff.

When The Mirror  closed without warning, in June of 2012, it also closed fifteen years of archives, and a huge chunk of my professional portfolio. At least I had my blog. And even more free time. Before this employment crisis, I’d slapped together a little password creating app for for my son after his facebook account got hacked.  That was fun, so I’d signed up for Coursera/Stanford’s Human Computer Interaction course determined to get the studio track certificate in app prototyping.

By the end of July, I’d accomplished this (with distinction!).  I learned not just about design, but got some insights into the cognitive science that the top software engineers work with. I not only had a better idea of how apps work, but how the modern brain deals and doesn’t deal, with the constant potential for information overload.

Meanwhile,  back at Codecademy,  I was struggling through JQuery, hating the virtual checkers project, but doing it anyways. By the end of the summer, I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to do with all my new found functional literacy.  I couldn’t seem to settle on a particular project.

I discovered a Montreal enterprise, PressBooks, that had ingeniously hacked WordPress and turned it into a free multiplatform book writing app.  As an exercise in mastering it, I  wrote a first chapter and an outline for a book about my adventure in code. I’m not part of the kickstarter generation, so I went old school and wrote up a grant proposal for the Quebec Arts Council about a writer learning to code, trying to figure out her place in this new technologically complicated world.

This brought me to September when Codecademy introduced the Python track. I thought JQuery was tough, but it was nothing like the resistance I was feeling towards Python. My savings and credit were running out. Jeff Atwood was starting to make a lot of sense. What had I been THINKING, a middle aged single mother, learning code just for the sake of learning code.  Why was I still doing this?  I had no interest in being the relatively old lady at a start-up. I’m temperamentally ill suited to office work, so  I had no authentic desire to put these skills to practical use in the business world.  Every time I talked to another writer, or any  publishing professional, about what I was doing, they looked at me like I had lost my freaking mind.

I’d hit a wall. I could have so easily quit here. Not learn Python. No one would have been the wiser. But I’d gotten this far in my resolution. I needed to finish this marathon, or all the struggle I’d suffered through would be for nothing. So, I plugged away at Python, learning to, if not to love it, at least like it.

Until I got to list comprehensions. At which point, like anyone who has ever made it to list comprehensions, my mind opened. How could I not feel a tenderness towards this magnificent language, so ugly and incomprehensible  to everyone else, so elegant and rich with potential to anyone who understood it. On that day, towards the end of my code year, my grinchy writer’s heart grew to two sizes, and for a short while even my apartment seemed bigger.

Yes it bothered me, a lot, that for the first time in my twenty year career as a freelancer, I soon might not be able to make my credit card payments. But another part of me felt impenetrably calm. I remember an interview I once saw with Jada Pinkett Smith on Oprah, explaining why peformance anxiety never got to her as an aspiring teenage actress. She’d been to the High School of the Performing Arts, she’d work hard.  There was no reason to be nervous, she explained, because “I had a-bi-li-ties.”

No matter the stresses that seemed to be on the horizon,  I couldn’t seem to shake the confidence that inevitably comes with valued skills and knowledge. In mid-December, just as I got to the point where I thought I might be delusional, I got a letter informing that I’d received the book grant I’d applied for. Not the kind of money one would get for a start up. But the writing life has a pretty low overhead, so it was enough to keep me solvent for another year.

It was also around that time that I learned about the first meeting of Montreal Girl Hackers. It was at Notman House, a slightly dilapidated mansion in the heart of downtown Montreal that had recently been turned into a government subsidized tech incubator.  There were about thirty or so women of varying ages, backgrounds,  interests and skill levels, from computer science teachers to beginners. There was free beer and food, financed by Google and/or  Shopify, I’m not quite sure which.  We stood in a circle and talked about what had brought us here.  I told my story.  Everyone clapped.  It was lovely.

About  a month later I got an e-mail from the organizer. She’d remembered that I’d recently learned some Python and was wondering If I’d be interested in helping out at a weekend workshop organized by the Montreal Python community to teach women some introductory Python skills.

Of course! There I took my first steps out of the sandbox and learned how to set up my own Python environment.  I went over the basics again, learned a bit more through teaching, and hacked a few projects.  It was like any other gathering of women learning a skill, except for instead of the usual pot luck that women always obligate themselves to, there was that free take out again.  I went to a follow up meeting a few weeks later.  More free beer and food, the origins of which were not entirely clear to me yet.  But they soon would be.

Montreal, it turns out, had been chosen to host PyCon, the North American conference of all things and people Python, not just for 2014 , but 2015 as well.  At the last PyCon there had been some controversy over a sexist remark, so Python HQs decision to buy a lot of Montreal women free dinner whenever they got together to learn Python, seemed a wise one.  They were interested in kids too.  Apparently at the last PyCon, everyone had walked away with a free Raspberry Pis.

So here I now am, a little over eighteen months since I signed up for Code Year, taking some time to reflect.

Since January,  I’ve pulled back from my blog to get  focussed on the history and theory behind these skills. With research, I have a better sense of the bigger picture.  I’m working my way through those codecademy lessons again with a slightly more sophisticated eye than I had back when I was half parroting my way through. I’m working at writing the kind of book I wish I’d had when I started.  Something that would inspire newbies to keep at it, and help them better understand their place in the master narrative of computer science.  Something that doesn’t get too tangled up trying to explain the things that they might not be ready to learn yet, but that glimmers with enough light to help them blunder their own way through. Something guided, I hope, by the proverbial finger that directs us to the moon.

I’m reading Tim Berner-Lee’s memoir and just learned that his mother Mary Woods was one of the programmers on the Ferranti Mark 1, the first commercial computer in England. Back then, as in the U.S., women made up roughly fifty percent of programmers.  His parents met at a Christmas party about a year into the project.

Some of those early programmers learned to code because they had a specific job to do. And usually that was the best way. But not everyone learns like this.  According to Grace Hopper, inventor of the first compiler, it took her two years to get her male peers to even look what she had created. They were so enamored with the snippets of code they were playing with. True, none of them can take credit for the compiler, but obviously it led them to other stuff.  I’m not against projects based learning. But I put a year aside to learn to code for code’s sake and doing so has  led to me places and projects I had no idea even existed eighteen months ago.

Fortunately, I have little shame about my newbie perspective. Maybe one day I’ll learn to worry more about all the time I “waste” learning.  I have no idea what I’m going to have experienced or learned eighteen months from now. But if it’s only half as interesting and fun as everything I’ve learned in the last eighteen months, I’ll still consider myself on the right track.

How Codecademy changed my life.

Liz started her coding journey around the same time I did eighteen months ago. We’ve taken very different paths, but have both become code evangelists. I’m hoping to find the time to weigh later on this week.

Update: Since that post, Liz has moved her wordpress.com blog over to a self hosted wp.org.

Liz Hannaford

HTML
So I’ve just finished the HTML/CSS track of Codecademy and I’m left wondering how I’m going to fill my evenings now it’s over. I really enjoyed it – instantly practical and useful and I recommend it to all journalists!

But instead of twiddling my thumbs or spending my evenings watching endless episodes of Nordic Noir I decided to think about how Codecademy has changed my life. That’s not a flippant statement. It’s actually true. I first started it about eighteen months ago following the Javascript track. It opened my eyes onto a whole new world! Work commitments meant I didn’t complete the Javascript course (I started to flounder once we got onto OOP) and I do need to get back into it before I forget everything I ever learnt.

6 Ways Codecademy Changed my life

  1. Evangelism

    I realised how important this stuff was – not just for an old hack…

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What Most Schools Don’t Teach

5 things I learned about MOOCs in 2012

About  a month ago, The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC. That’s Massive Open Online Course, in case you haven’t come across the term yet.

Given how much time I spent enrolled in MOOCs this year, I kind of knew this already. But for those now dipping their toes into this phenomenon, here are the top 5 things I learned this year.

1.  MOOCs are addictive. Like seriously addictive.  You think the internet is distracting now.  Wait until you’re juggling the demands of the five fascinating  Ivy League courses you signed up with through Coursera.  I’m kidding, but not entirely. Somewhere around July I found myself wrestling between my Code Year resolution with Codecademy and my determination to complete the Studio Track of Stanford’s Human Computer Interaction course. What began as a five week project soon stretched into something closer to eight weeks as Stanford realized how unprepared most people were for the work involved in field researching, building, testing and peer reviewing a web app.  I did it.  But by September I was burnt out.  Had I not dropped out of Machine Learning after half a video and made a firm decision to bear down, I never would have grocked Python (or learned the word “grock”).  So if MOOCs are something that might interest you in 2013, make a resolution now not to become a MOOC slut.

2. MOOCs are an awesome way to meet people in your home town. This is especially true if you live in a tech oriented city. If there isn’t already a meet up somewhere in your town in the subject you’ve become interested in you can probably start one. Or you can start meetups specifically around the course you happen to have enrolled in. Those meet ups will no doubt lead to other meetups. After organizing the first Code Year meet up in Montreal, I met and introduced people who went on to put on the first Montreal Maker Faire. The interests I cultivated through that venture led me to  WordCamp Montreal, Semantic Web meet ups,  MTL Girl Geeks, MTL Girl Hackers, to mention only a few groups I discovered over the year. Problem was I was so over enrolled in MOOCs, I often couldn’t go to all the things I wanted to.

3. MOOCS are like running.  They’re free. They require little expense or equipment. They’re outside the usual  parameters of civilized life. You make your own challenges. You feel your strength, endurance, and confidence build. You’ll want to quit right before you reach the finish line/personal goal/personal best.  But if you bear down, you’ll learn the effort is really worth it.

4. MOOCS are like a treadmill. They can be a great stepping stone to real life learning. If you’re shy of university life for whatever reason, or you want to try out a subject first to see if it’s for you, MOOCs are great.  But at a certain point you need to find an entry point into the complexities of real life learning.  That might be a meet up, a project independent of what you’re learning in the MOOC, or, in the end, a classroom course in that subject. If MOOCs are your only source of learning you’re going to get bored.

5. MOOCs are especially great for women. At one point this year, I came across a popular  tech ed blog, where it was speculated that the gender ratio of MOOCS were probably not much different from those in regular Computer Science courses. i.e dismally biased towards men.  I’m not convinced that’s true. Almost all the people who showed up to my Montreal Code Year meet ups were women. My experience of peer review in the Coursera HCI course is that there were many women in the course. And, while I don’t know the numbers, I feel safe speculating that MOOCs will be a significant factor  in restoring gender balance to computer science. (Yes I did use the word RESTORE.)

MOOCS in my experience are a great gateway to equity. This isn’t to say that societies should abandon a commitment to traditional learning.  We’re all going to have to be careful to make sure that MOOCs enable low cost high quality learning, not undermine it.

But I’m from Montreal.  Here we march in the streets and bang kitchenware to keep university tuition fees low.  As a result one out of two  Montreal university graduates are first generation (i.e. the first person in their family to go beyond highschool), by far the highest ratio in North America.

The MOOC can be an excellent learning path, and can do much to fill the equity gap, but it will never be a substitute for a deep social commitment to affordable higher learning.

Happy Birthday Ada Byron, b. Dec 10, 1815

[Ada Byron] Digital ID: ps_cps_cd3_047. New York Public Library

Click on this portrait of the teenage Ada Byron to learn about her contribution to the history of computer programming.