With more than 7 billion people inhabiting a highly interconnected and competitive planet, discrepancies in the quality of education will be the factor that sets children apart. Different organizations, programs and educational materials are addressing this question.
As innate learners of computer science, children as young as 5 are already mastering the art of coding and programming. How is education evolving to match their technological literacy and to prepare them for the future? A number of organizations are addressing this trend in the education technology, or EdTech, space.
“Programming is a new literacy that’s crucial to unlocking creativity,” says Grant Hosford, CEO and cofounder of codeSpark, based in Pasadena, Calif. “The original inspiration for the company was my daughters. When they began showing [an] interest in computer science, we found that there were no child- or girl-friendly coding games [on] the market.”
Determined not to let his daughters down, while also understanding that coding is a crucial skill to develop and to have, Hosford built his own startup aimed at teaching children around the world how to program. Coding and programming are often associated with lines of java script, which are incomprehensible to the average person. So how does Hosford manage to engage and teach children the skill via codeSpark?
The answer lies in combining education with gamification. “Kids are super engaged; they’re coding 30,000 to 35,000 games a day on our platform — and these are kids primarily aged 4 to 9,” says Hosford.
"Nine out of 10 parents want their children to understand programming. They get that the future is all about software."
Children are not given conventional coding material. But all they need is visual instructions to process, understand and begin coding. Using these visual cues, they begin to recognize patterns and become familiar with the basic concepts of coding. To complete a level in the game, for example, children must navigate their avatars by dragging command icons into a sequence that imitates coding principles. Through this exposure, children can build critical-thinking skills and problem recognition.
“Three years ago, when I first started thinking about this, there was a really big question of whether or not parents would really care about coding,” says Hosford. “Now, nine out of 10 parents want their children to understand programming. They get that the future is all about software.”
“Learning how to code is a better way out of poverty than dreaming of being an NBA player,” says Joe Shochet, cofounder and chief product officer of codeSpark. “Software is going to be a part of your life, and if you at least understand it and can talk to someone technical about it, you’re going to be better off.”
With the ambition of making their educational app available and accessible to children across all geographies and socioeconomic statuses, the codeSpark team has managed to secure $1.35 million in seed funding. Starting in the fall, it will launch its subscription gaming service in an effort to create a sustainable finance model. As the number of schools and parents downloading the app grows, codeSpark hopes to see a positive correlation with the number of children who become literate in programming.
STEAM:CODERS similarly runs on the mission to teach computer science combined with science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) curriculums. As a nonprofit organization, STEAM:CODERS, also based in Pasadena, has served more than 1,250 students since starting in 2014 and continues to grow its footprint among various educational institutions and groups. Focused on exposing children in underserved communities to technology and computer science, the organization uses programs like Google CS and Harvey Mudd College’s edX to teach coding in a fun and engaging way.
“I want kids to have the opportunity to be more competitive,” says Raymond Ealy, CEO and founder of STEAM:CODERS. “If you know what you’re doing and you can compete, then you have a shot at being successful.”
According to The College Board, roughly 48,000 students took the AP exams for computer science in 2015 and according to exam data from 2013, less than 20 percent were female, 3 percent were African-American and 8 percent were Hispanic.
Given that competition for acceptance into notable colleges and higher educational institutions is high, students in underserved communities with less access to technology find STEAM:CODERS helpful in advancing their academic trajectory. From field trips to the Apple store to after-school and weekend classes for elementary and middle-school students at college facilities, STEAM:CODERS dedicates itself to teaching critical thinking and problem solving through programming classes.
"If you know what you’re doing and you can compete, you have a shot at being successful."
“It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved,” continues Ealy. “The students win because they get to learn; the schools win because they get to say they contributed to society; and the instructors win because they gain experience and can claim volunteer hours.”
With many public schools in the Los Angeles area lacking computer labs and programs, the demand for STEAM:CODERS’ services is growing. “You’ve got to be patient and not panic,” says Ealy. As a nonprofit, the biggest challenges for the organization are fundraising and finding quality instructors to educate students. Despite the expansion of the organization, Ealy hopes that it will one day become obsolete as a result of all public schools offering quality STEAM education through higher technology.
“I think, in this day and age, if you don’t have the technology to empower and deliver content, you’re just not going to get students to consume content,” says Walter Yuan, CEO and cofounder of MobLab Inc., a Pasadena startup that is using gamification and technology to teach college students real-life applications within the classroom.
MobLab is helping professors stay ahead of technology by encouraging them to use the company’s app to bring case studies to life inside the classroom. Students have the opportunity to role-play as different characters in the app for their case studies, and professors are able to use data collected from students in real time to demonstrate how the experience supports the theory being studied in the classroom.
“We have to work very closely with the instructors to see how they’re teaching in the classrooms and to know their needs as well as their students’,” says Yuan. “About 30 to 40 percent of my time is spent in classrooms – when I’m not doing administrative work, talking to investors or meeting with the team.” Being in the classroom allows Yuan and his team to create games that are relevant to and support the class curriculum. Despite having professors from prestigious institutions such as Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, University of California at Los Angeles, and New York University participate, the biggest challenge for MobLab remains sustaining a steady adoption rate. Having gone through two phases of growth which includes the involvement of more than 2000 colleges, MobLab has since grown quickly and projects a six-figure revenue by the end of the year.
“It’s very difficult to change classroom behaviors,” says Yuan. “A professor may use the app a few times in conjunction with their course curriculum, but stop using it as often once the novelty wears off.” MobLab, in addition to personal interactions, has now included digital reminders and recommendations on how to integrate its games into course materials after a professor has been inactive on the app for a certain amount of time.
Low adoption rates and inconsistent use of high technology in classrooms and educational settings are challenges that will persist. Advancements in technology happen much faster today than they did a few years ago. What’s trending today may become obsolete tomorrow. EdTech pioneers like codeSpark, STEAM:CODERS and MobLab are working to equip the digital engineers of our future to thrive in a fast-paced and technological space.
The education sector must adapt quickly and encourage students to push their limits in order to breed a culture of innovation. The cost of education today is stifling to many parents and students, and the numbers show a stronger enrollment trend for online schools, programs and courses. As more institutions realize they must not only keep up with the speed of technology, but also stay ahead, EdTech startups will become increasingly valuable. So far, gamification seems to be the most successful method of engaging youth in educational content. To keep students interested, the EdTech space must continue to integrate things that students find interesting.
Global funding into the EdTech space is growing, especially in 2015, with annual funding up 64 percent to more than $3.1 billion and 491 deals, according to CB Insights, but 2016 has had a sluggish start. CB Insights predicts that the industry will see only 376 deals and $1.3 billion in funding this year. EdTech companies in China and India received the largest deals this year, CB Insights says. Although the EdTech space hit $1 billion in investment at the end of 2015, according to ChicagoInno, the publication predicts that investors will become more selective in the long term.
“Most of the major funders for EdTech are in the Bay Area, New York City and Seattle,” says Andy Wilson, cofounder of Innovate Pasadena, which incubates a number of local startups, and also co-founder and CEO for Rexter, a venture-backed software startup. “Los Angeles has the largest concentration of charter schools in the country, where much of the school-and-classroom-level innovation is happening. There’s an opportunity for innovation to grow directly out of the ‘grassroots’ of classrooms and schools instead of top-down from companies and platforms.” Wilson adds that colleges and universities increasingly turn to entrepreneurs for innovative, customized solutions, as the internal capacity for innovation often isn’t there.
“We have to meet children where they are at,” says Wilson. “Outside of their educational experience, they’re being saturated with technology — cloud-based collaborative software, social media apps — and media content in the newest forms.”
EdTech is the way forward and will determine the future of the next generation. From teachers sharing their ideas and resources online to students gaining access and learning new skills, digital technology will become omnipresent in the education industry. The current narrative is no longer about whether technology in the classroom enhances learning — it now addresses the question of how to use higher technology to improve learning.