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“Miss, I need help!”: FutureLearn and Code Club

Nicky, one of our front-end developers, talks about how some of the FutureLearn team help out at a local Code Club, teaching kids the basics of coding

Code club
Image from Code Club.

What is a Code Club?

Code Club is “a nationwide organisation of volunteer-led after school coding clubs for children aged 9-11”. In short: it helps kids learn to code. Code Club puts schools in touch with willing volunteers and provides guidelines and advice for both parties, as well as a curriculum to use in the classroom.

The curriculum starts with Scratch, a free event-driven visual programming language and environment that can be used entirely in a web browser. They provide worksheets with pre-defined tasks for the students to work on. Each sheet has really well-designed steps with screenshots so that even if you’re not completely familiar with the coding aspect, you can follow along with your group and help them out.

Once the students have worked through all the Scratch exercises, they move on to learning web development using HTML and CSS, aided, again by some very well presented exercises and worksheets. The most advanced worksheets use the Python programming language, and the students can put into practice all the concepts that they have learned from Scratch in a more traditional programming environment.

How did FutureLearn get involved with a Code Club?

A few Futurelearn employees volunteer at a Code Club at a school that’s a short walk from the British Library, where the FutureLearn offices are. The club has been going for two years now and Matt, who organises it, was looking for more volunteers – to help cover times when people are on holiday or otherwise busy, but also because it’s a good idea.

FutureLearn’s club started in early 2014 when Matt got in touch with the school through the Code Club website. Initially it ran during lunchtimes on Thursdays with roughly 15 children attending. But as word of the club spread throughout the school the club became more popular and grew. Now the Thursday lunchtime session has expanded from 15 to nearly 30 kids and we have also started a smaller session on Tuesday, after school! From FutureLearn a volunteer group of 4 manage these clubs on a rota. Even given this growth, our club still has a long waiting list.

What it’s really like helping a Code Club

The first thing that you’ll have to do when joining or starting your own Code Club is submit an application to the Disclosure & Barring Service (DBS) (this has replaced the old CRB check). This sounds scary, but is a very easy and simple process which Code Club and the school will help you through. Once you’re successfully vetted, you are provided with a certificate that states that you are allowed to work with children. All you need is a couple of  pieces of ID to get started.

Our Club group is partway through learning Scratch, and we’re working through the games with the children. It’s all too easy to point out the answer when you know it, but the key is to nurture the students problem solving ability by asking them questions and prompting them into thinking of the solution for themselves.

I was most worried that someone would ask me how to do something that I didn’t know how to do, or wouldn’t be able to figure out. With this in mind, I reminded myself that problem solving together is an incredibly useful skill to learn.

Overall, I’m thoroughly enjoying helping the group learn to program – watching kids get the ‘Eureka!’ moment when they’ve solved a problem I’ve helped with is gratifying, and it’s good to see them learning valuable skills.

What I’d do differently if I was starting again

I’d do just a little bit more preparation – I had just a very brief introduction to Scratch from Matt the morning I went along for the lunchtime group. Since then I’ve been through some of the projects and used Scratch a bit more just to make myself a bit more familiar with it. It’s not essential – the worksheets really do make it all very easy to follow – but preparing can really help if you’re feeling a bit less confident about the technical side of things.

Why you should definitely get involved with a Code Club

If there’s anything you can do to make time for a local Code Club, I’d highly recommend it. From a purely selfish perspective, it was so much easier and so much more fun than I expected!

In a bigger sense though it really is an important initiative – in a world with massive gender, race and class inequality I think anything we can do to help fix the balance and put power in the hands of the next generation of coders is a good idea.


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