The Academy of Code started out in 2014, a little over 5 years ago, with a vague aim of giving our students the opportunity to learn to code at a young age. As we look into the second half of our first decade there’s a lot to look forward to, and plenty to reflect on from our first half decade in business.
The current state of play
While we have a long, LONG way to go in terms of making our classes available to every school child in the country (or even across Dublin), we’ve also come a long, LONG way since the early days of one weekly class in Oatlands College.
The number bobbles up and down a bit, but we expect to be working directly with something over 20 distinct venues for weekly classes during this coming autumn term. All in all we reckon we should have somewhere between 900 and 1200 students attending classes every week by the time the dust settles in mid-September.
What’s happening this year
As always, we have a few changes in the works this year. One big decision we took was to change the focus of our primary school Tech Clubs (after-school classes, which run immediately after the end of the school day, and generally are restricted only to students of the schools in which they run). Whereas before they were very similar to our evening and weekend classes, this year they’ll be significantly more fun-focused, with more opportunity for students to learn through play and less pressure on them to get-the-work-finished-right-now.
Why the change?
A few reasons. Partly it is because students coming into us after a full day in school often struggle to focus on highly academic material for ANOTHER full hour. Partly too it was around expectations: most after-school activities are fun, whether it’s dance or football or music or whatever else, and placing a highly academic activity into the mix was a bit jarring for some students.
Perhaps the biggest reason is that we’ve become more and more convinced as time has gone on that the real key for primary school students is simply fostering and cultivating their interest in the subject.
Our evening and weekend classes are more academic (albeit fun too), and they are there and available for the more enthusiastic of our tech club students to come along and get on the Pathway to Computer Science. For those not ready for the leap the Tech Clubs are a fun way to spend an hour a week learning about technology, and hopefully many of those students will decide somewhere along the line that they’re ready for more.
Pathway to Computer Science
Our flagship program is called the Pathway to Computer Science, and it’s a 9 grade program which brings students from absolutely no prior knowledge through to the college-level grade 9 course. While the naming is new, and the presentation is more refined than it’s ever been before, this retains the core of what we set out to build five years ago.
The later grades in particular have seen a lot of work over the past few weeks, and will be getting a lot more love and attention over the coming year too. The goal for grade 9 is to get students to a level where they have the skills and confidence to approach and solve almost any programming problem that’s put in front of them. Obviously we can’t teach them everything, but what we can do is instil in them the core concepts and techniques which allow them to adapt to whatever problem is in front of them, and to pick up and use whatever language, library or framework is best suited to their particular project.
As well as really drilling them in some more advanced concepts of object oriented development and data structures, we are also building into the curriculum a number of larger projects which will stretch their design skills as well as their programming ability. As part of these projects we are also running formal code reviews with experienced professional developers. This is an incredible experience for our young coders, and should prove hugely valuable to them in refining their coding skills.
What else is happening in 2019/2020?
We have a few exciting bits coming together for the year ahead. We certainly hope to be continuing our work with Fingal Libraries and South Dublin Libraries over the coming months - we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to introduce coding and technology to kids in libraries across both counties. We also have a project now underway with COGG (An Chomhairle um Oideachas Gaeltachta & Gaelscolaíochta), an Irish language agency who are working with us on providing a new set of classes and classroom material as Gaeilge.
With a bit of luck we’ll be cooperating with the UCD IoT4F (Internet of Things for Food) conference again in 2020. Last year we ran a really exciting coding competition for our students to showcase their coding skills and their understanding of the IoT4F space, and we have a few interesting ideas on that front which might have an opportunity to see the light of day this coming year.
Our Virtual Venues classes will be running again this term too. These online, instructor-led classes fill a gap between our in-person classes, which require a student to physically travel to one of our venues, and free online courses, which can be both impersonal and difficult to motivate oneself through. We’re still very much in proof of concept stage, but we look forward to growing the numbers of students joining us through this platform, and are excited to see where it can take us in the long run.
The long term vision
There’s a hugely exciting few years ahead of us here at the Academy of Code, and for coding education more broadly in Ireland. The government has become much more committed to coding and tech education over the past few years, and while that is obviously competition for us in some ways, it is overwhelmingly a positive for everyone in the country, us included.
As our numbers grow we can take on more exciting projects, and offer a greater number of one-off workshops and events. Our students will benefit from more events and activities tailored to their specific level, and we can also invest more in the tools which keep things running behind the scenes. This year, for example, we’ve built a new student management system, which will help us keep much more on top of each individual student’s progress, and quickly spot any situations where a student is not being adequately catered to. It also helps us to facilitate the full roll out of our new Pathway to Computer Science curriculum, which required detailed records of each student’s progress through the course.
We can also become a better workplace for our whole team as we grow, which is hugely important to our success as an organisation. The success of our students is hugely dependent on our staff being healthy, happy and motivated, and some of what we’ve had to do over the past few years hasn’t necessarily been conducive to that remaining the case in the long run: late finishes followed by early starts; classes where the curriculum hasn’t been fully fleshed out; venues where computer rooms are operating some way short of 100% capacity. All of these and more take their toll on teachers, but we’ve gone a long way to addressing them in the past 12 months. Other challenges can and will arise, but having filled out the team significantly over the past 18 months we’re extremely well placed now to ensure that our tutors get the support they need to do their best work all the time.
In the long run we want the Academy of Code to be the place where motivated teachers of computer science and technology want to come and work. We want to draw in the best teachers, give them the best support and the best facilities, and make sure that all of our potential students and their parents know that this is the place to be too.
We also want to cooperate more with the broader Dublin tech community. We’re taking small steps in that direction already, bringing tech professionals in to meet with our students and offer both career advice and more technical feedback and advice as well. We’re always talking about throwing “irons in the fire”, and it’s true that not all of them come to fruition (not sure the metaphor stretches all the way there), but we have a number of irons in the fire in terms of building partnerships in the tech community, and with a bit of luck at least some of them will come to fruition in the coming months and years.
Which all adds up to…
A busy, busy year ahead. Inevitably we’ll have to prioritise some things and put a few others on the back burner, but it’s going to be interesting whatever happens. 30 months ago we had one half time staff member and about 250 students. We’re up to 6 full time staff and over 1000 students now, and that number is clipping up at a pretty steady 25-50% each year. Hard to say where exactly we’ll be 30 months from now, but it’s going to look very different to where we are now.
Most importantly, we’re building a great community of students, parents and educators, and it’s great to have you all along for the ride. Here’s to the next 30 months, 5 years, and beyond!