Teaching kids to code and create - Youth Digital shakes up tech education

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 11, 2015
Our educational systems are falling dangerously short on digital literacy. Startup Youth Digital is taking tech education one step further by teaching kids not just how to code - but how to create. Here's CEO Justin Richards' eight keys to better online teaching.

"How are we going to fix the educational system?" It's a potent question that came up at tech shows I attended this year. Schooling is out of whack with the competencies adults need in the robotic gig economy.

Two keys are coding and creativity, and Youth Digital may have some answers. Youth Digital CEO Justin Richards can trace a fascination with games and animation back to childhood. Teaching web design to inner city kids gave him a crash course in what kids dig - and when they tune out. But Youth Digital took form when his Raleigh-Durham tech tutoring business started taking off. "We asked ourselves, 'Why not make this available for kids around the world?'" recalls Richards.

From their first online course in 2010, Youth Digital has now taught more than 70,000 students in 100 countries. The courses are English-speaking for now, but localized courses in other languages might be on the horizon. Youth Digital's online tech courses serve students ages 8-14, and are purchased directly by families. Kids take the courses on their own time, with online teachers available Monday through Saturday, ten hours a day.

These are not bland learning modules. "We created these courses because they were the ones we wanted when we were kids," says Richards. Amongst Youth Digital's offerings: a fashion design course created with input from fashion industry experts, server design (Java), 3D character animation, and - a bestseller - Mod Design 1 (Learn Java with Minecraft).

Justin Richards YouthDigital
Justin Richards

The courses are not just for fun. Nor is the goal "digital literacy". Youth Digital has a more ambitious agenda: they want to turn their students into creators. In the process, they've learned how to engage boys AND girls on technology. During a recent talk with Richards, he shared some curriculum secrets.

Eight tech teaching secrets from Youth Digital

1. Make kids' learning project-focused. Youth Digital designs their courses around an outcome, such as making a game. They design from the kids' perspective: 'I want to make a game,' or 'I want to make an app.' Richards sees how kids buy in:

If you pose the question to a kid, "Do you want to learn how to code," they might say, "Why?" Or, they might say, "No." But if you say, "Do you want to create a game or an app or a Minecraft model, or whatever?" Often the answer is a resounding, "Yes."

Parents who aren't used to this type of curriculum are won over:

A lot of parents say, "Thank you for tricking my kid into learning." We just say, "You know, we're just teaching them what they want to learn the way they want to learn it."

2. Combine online reach with accessible teachers. For Youth Digital, online learning doesn't mean static course content. Teachers MUST be available online to interact and troubleshoot. Richards warns that if kids can't get quick answers when they get stuck, they'll lose interest:

When the kids formulate questions, we get those responses back to them as soon as we can. Imagine a kid learning how to code or learning how to design a 3-D model, and they run into a problem and get stuck. We want to be there to help them get through that challenge.

If teachers are present online, they can actually turn "getting stuck" into a win:

Kids learn a lot - potentially more - by fixing something that's broken then by making something that's not.

3. Gamify troubleshooting into a challenge. Youth Digital has formal troubleshooting challenges where kids are given broken files and asked to repair them. This is part of the plan to shift kids from thinking like tech consumers to thinking like creators. Richards:

Technology is such a huge part of kids' lives. If you can unlock the mystery behind it by revealing how code works, or by showing how something is designed, the kid will never watch an animated movie the same way. They'll never look at a video game the same way. They'll look at it as wanting to create it. That's really what we want to try to instill in our kids; is the idea that they can be creators of technology as opposed to just consumers of it.

4. Teach one step at a time to avoid distraction. The methods behind Youth Digital stem directly from what works in classrooms. That's where Richards learned that when you're teaching kids about tech, you have to get them to face away from their computers if you want their attention. Youth Digital accomplished that in their online courses by moving back and forth from instructor video to hands-on steps and back again.

5. Enable project sharing to spark learning. Kids don't learn in isolation. Connecting with other kids around the world and sharing projects is energizing. Youth Digital created a portal where kids can share their work:

Seeing other students' work is pretty important. Sharing is a huge part of creating. I could argue something's not finished until you share it. In a classroom that's easy, online it's more difficult, so we created this video portal where the kids can upload their projects. Our teachers review all the videos, but the kids can upload and share those projects. They connect with other app and game designers around the world.

6. Smart use of gamification can be effective. Youth Digital uses gamified features in a couple of ways. Kids are given points rewards for getting things right. These points can then be used to download and add things to their project. They can use their points to build out their toolbox or get a cool new piece of code. But Richards cautions that gamification has it limits:

Even when we gamify, we try to still have it be about the project as opposed to just chasing points. We want to make sure that everything has a purpose behind it. Nost of our kids who take our online courses are very excited about making video games. It's nice to have that authentic interest so we don't have to wrap it up too much in gamification.

7. Instructors shouldn't take themselves too seriously - goofy is good. Richards credits the "goofiness" of his instructors for making videos that kids find entertaining:

We make complete and utter fools of ourselves to engage the kids. Often we hear stories of not just the individual students watching it, but their brothers and sisters watching also. Engagement is a struggle with online learning. In the classroom, being a little bit foolish helps a lot. We just ported that and ramped up the volume a little bit online.

8. Teach kids about the open source tools and "friendly hacking" principles used in the wild. Richards credits Youth Digital's ability to support thousands of students with the open source tools his team used to build the platform. He wants kids to have the same appreciation for how open source communities can help jump start projects:

You'd think an idea like open source would be hard for kids to understand, but once they start understanding how technology works, it's not terribly hard to explain the finer details. Once a kid has done some coding, we can explain how GitHub works. Kids can understand, for example, GitHub makes a lot of sense versus losing your work on your own machine.

Final thoughts - can programs like Youth Digital fix education?

Richards and I wrapped with what ails our educational system and whether programs like Youth Digital can impact school curriculums. Richards believes taking education directly to kids is the most impactful thing he can do:

At least for this year, we made a very intentional decision to focus on kids directly.There are people pursuing technology education in the schools. We feel like our specialty has always been to make courses that resonate with kids - and also with parents... We made a hard decision, but we chose to start there for now. There's still lots of things we might do, but we feel that our mission is to reach that kid in Alaska, who lives in a remote city on satellite connection. and this is going to be their connection.

We also talked about the importance of technical education for girls; Richards says that Youth Digital has approximately a 40 percent female/60 percent male breakdown. Youth Digital is committed to making sure that girls gain tech skills, primarily by creating truly engaging courses. Those gender ratios are pretty good, but I'm hopeful that in the future, Youth Digital will have more data and ideas on where tech education for girls can go from here.

For now, Richards' goal of turning kids into creators seems to be paying off. He cited a recent example: an email from a student's parent, whose son had spent 80 hours making a video game. The student spent the whole summer making it. Then he sold the game at an event for five dollars a piece:

He had a little booth, and all the other students came up to him and said, "Wow, you made this? I can't believe you made it yourself." I think that's pretty awesome.

All those game design skills came directly from Youth Digital's courses. But it's not just the tech skills:

If you can do that under the banner of making an app, kids learn far more than just how to build an app, they're going to learn how to project manage, they're going to learn how to design and eventually how to share and - maybe even sell. If you can unleash that passion, you get out of the way and see what the kids do.

Richards sounds like he is still shocked by how far and fast Youth Digital is going:

We say, "At Youth Digital we create creators," and that's what we're really all about: connecting kids with that lifelong passion. It's become more than we could've ever dreamed, which is a pretty humbling experience.

Image credit: Images used with permission of Youth Digital.

Disclosure: Diginomica has no financial ties to Youth Digital.

A grey colored placeholder image