There is a huge variety of tools to help young people code

A bright beetle chomping on coloured beans for points, while avoiding ‘bean bombs’; it’s not Angry Birds but this game is just as addictive. And it’s one of the thousands of projects on the Scratch website, created by children and teens.

Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu) is a tool developed by MIT Media Lab to help children learn computer programming, without having to learn the complicated syntax of computer languages. While it was available since 2007 as an open source download, version 2.0, released earlier this month, puts the programming environment in the cloud.

The software is designed for children aged between 8 and 16, but it’s just as helpful for a 55-year-old who is dipping a toe into the digital pond. By simply dragging and dropping blocks of instruction (‘go forward 10 steps’, ‘say hello for 2 seconds’), users can create interactive animations, games (even a gesture-controlled game in one case) artwork, multimedia cards and stories.

In the six years since its release, more than three million projects have been shared with a vibrant community of users under Creative Common licences, the website says.

Fun and visual

Scratch’s success is in that it offers a fun, visual way of learning to create something new or to solve a problem by breaking it down into logical steps. Besides, educators point out, with no brackets to misplace or commands to misspell, failure is less of a deterrent. Results are instantaneously visible, which rewards and reinforces learning.

But Scratch isn’t the only tool to help young persons code. There’s Logo (used by some Indian schools as an introduction to programming) Kodu, RoboMind, Alice, and Small Basic, all for pre- and middle-school. HTML, Visual Basic, Greenfoot, Hackety-Hack, Python and Ruby are for those in high school or entering college.

Raspberry Pi, a credit-card-sized computer that can be plugged into a TV, as well as LEGO Mindstorm, a software and hardware kit to make programmable robots, are also aimed specifically at teaching children programming.

In demand

While the debates about the effects of computer use among youngsters aren’t going to die down any time soon, the clamour to get children to code is only getting louder.

‘Can read, not write’

Today’s ‘digital natives’ are more comfortable with technology than their parents, but that doesn’t mean they are any closer to understanding how to tinker with it.

Comparing coding to language, Mitch Resnick of MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group, has been quoted as saying that children can “read” new technology, but cannot “write”.

“Most participants I see in hacker meets and competitions in Bangalore say they started learning to code in engineering college. They don’t know the basics,” says Abhinay Kumar, a young software engineer trying to set up coding classes for those aged seven to 17.

As part of the CoderDojo network, which aims to provide free and open learning to young people (http://zen.coderdojo.com/dojo), Mr. Kumar wants to offer his students a foundation in coding and trigger an interest in taking it further.

“The world is full of coding,” he says. “We require more coders and software engineers who can build good companies.”

Jobs vs. qualified students

Code.org, a high-profile U.S. NGO “dedicated to growing computer programming education”, would agree with him. By 2020, there will be 10 lakh more computer science jobs available than qualified students, the organisation claims.

In India, Nasscom recently announced plans to enable the creation of 10,000 technology startups over the next 10 years, which is expected to generate about half a million jobs. It also foresees revenues from Indian product companies hitting $10 billion by 2020.

Transferable skills

However, the benefits of learning to code while young, extend beyond the carrot of an enviable pay packet. Programming, educators say, also teaches transferable skills such as logical thinking, prioritising tasks and planning an efficient workflow.

Says Mr. Resnick of his project: “Those skills of thinking creatively, reasoning systematically, working collaboratively... are things that people can use no matter what they're doing in their work... and personal lives.”

Perhaps something good will come out of all the time your child spends in front of a computer.

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