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.

Combining my favorite topics, family and art, with spicy technology

TED Blog

Flower-video-game

By Andy Robertson

New art forms are polarizing. We love or hate Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde animals or Tracey Emin’s unmade bed but roundly understand that avant garde art has value, the artist trying to challenge us and make us think something.

Video games draw similar fire. Detractors hem and haw that they’re all about shooting guns and wasting time, and worry about the harm they may be doing that we haven’t identified yet. Supporters congregate into defensive groups, highlighting not only their entertainment and relaxation value, but touting that they have educational and self-improvement benefits too.

Having spoken about the meaning of video games at TEDxExeter, I read the recent TED Blog posts “10 online games with a social purpose” and “7 talks on the benefits of gaming” with great interest. However, even with all the talks available, the posts still focused on justifying games…

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Snake Eyes

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Python is killing me.

My enthusiasm of two months ago is drying up and all the things I thought I was going to love about Python, I now hate.  I miss JavaScript. The comforting closure of the semi-colons. Those curly brackets were always more fun than I gave them credit for. They told you where things went. They provided structure, style and whimsy.

Python is all empty space. And while the basic logic is still there, why do all computer languages have to do things differently?

Mostly, I guess I just resent that it’s hard. Which is probably a life problem, not a Python problem. Why do we always think that life is going to get easier?  I’ve been baby stepping my way through, but I’m falling behind.  I was on track to finish Code Year on time, and every week my percentage of completion is getting a tiny bit lower. I feel like a marathon runner who’s fading in the last mile.

Must. Get. The. Passion. Back.

Yesterday I was thinking about the programming satori experience that got this blog rolling. I remember how I felt after I got through the Snake Eyes  challenge. The world took on this complex, computational beauty that I never  would  have seen If I’d given up . For the week after that challenge I was thinking in code. I felt enlightened, stronger.

I’m sure Python has something to teach me too. I just have to be willing to re-commit and set a challenge to make up the ground I’ve lost.

One of the advantages of being the mother of a twelve year old is that I have many inspirational Hollywood movies to choose from in this mission. A scene from  the Karate Kid remake comes to mind. The one where they visit the Taoist monastery and Jaden Smith learns that the snake is not controlling the nun. By copying its movements the nun is controlling the snake!

There is some profound metaphor in there that I don’t quite understand yet. But I will find some way to make that allegory work.

Because if I’ve learned one thing from a year of learning to program, it’s that it’s usually right at the point when nothing makes any sense that the magic is about to happen.

Chris Anderson on how “parenting gone wrong” turned into a multi million dollar company.

TED Blog

Melissa Marshall has a message for scientists and engineers: Contrary to popular belief, the general public is interested in your work and does want to hear the details of your research. The trick is that you must communicate your ideas clearly, because they will start snoring in their seats if you assault them with a slew of jargon and details they’re not prepared to understand.

See, Marshall is a communications teacher. And as she explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012 University, she was asked several years ago to teach a communications class for engineering students. The experience highlighted for her that the ability to speak clearly does not come part and parcel with the ability to do great technical work.

“Our scientists and engineers are the ones tackling our grandest challenges from energy, to environment, to healthcare, among others. But if we don’t know about it and understand…

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The TED talk linked to above is an enlightening and empowering testimonial on how parents can inspire self-study.

TED Blog

As computers have gotten more complex, even tech literate users have become detached from the basics of how they function. This is what Shimon Schocken and Noam Nisan noticed with their computer science students in Israel. As Schocken explains in this talk from TEDGlobal 2012, the pair decided to have their students build a working computer, from the ground up, so that they would “understand how computers work in the marrow of their bones.” They broke down the process into a series of bite-sized, stand-alone units. While students start with building “Nand,” a simple logic gate, and they end by writing games like Pong, Snake and Tetris.

“You can imagine the joy of playing with a Tetris game that you wrote in Jack, and then compiled into machine language in a compiler that you wrote also, and seeing the result running on a machine that you built,” says Schocken

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Further reading in GitHub

TED Blog

The open-source programming world has a lot to teach democracy, says Clay Shirky.

In this fascinating talk from TEDGlobal 2012, Shirky harkens back to the early days of the printing press. At the time, a group of “natural philosophers” (who would later adopt the term “scientists”) called the Invisible College realized that the press could offer a new way to share and debate their work. However, because printing books would be far too slow for this purpose, they came up with a new invention — the scientific journal.

So what does this mean for us today?

Shirky explains, “If I had to pick a group that I think is our Invisible College — our generation’s collection of people trying to take new tools and press them into the service of, not more arguments, but better arguments — I’d pick the open-source programmers.”

Shirky explains a fact that any programmer…

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