Making Programming Accessible to Every Student on Earth

The creator and CEO of a coding game built with teachers in mind shares its origin.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

“Everyone should have an opportunity to learn to code,” says Nick Winter, the co-founder and CEO of CodeCombat, a game-based computer science program where students type real code and see their characters react in real time. “I’m bringing computer science to every kid in the world.”

Nick previously developed the #1 app for learning to write Chinese characters; “I had the insight that learning programming should be more like learning a language: students learn ten times faster when having a conversation with the computer than when listening to a lecture,” he says. “Through the magic of game-based learning, all students can have that conversation, no matter their background.”

In his spare time, he learns from his four-year-old and one-year-old sons, develops open-source software, and has written a book about what he calls ‘motivation hacking’. In this interview, Nick jumps right in and addresses his interests, what coding is all about, where it’s come from and where it’s headed—as well as his views on its role in education and the future of learning.

What prompted you to get into this area?

Nick: I remember when I wrote my first lines of code. I was a freshman in college, and I had signed up for the introductory computer science course on a whim after choosing my practical career-advancing courses: writing, chemistry, poetry, and go. I had never really thought about programming as something you could do, even though my dad was an engineer, and it’s not like my high school offered any programming courses.

At first it seemed boring and abstract. String string = new String(“This is a string.”); – Okay, so what? But by the end of the semester, there was an exercise to code a bit of logic inside a graphical simulation of rabbit and fox populations. I finished the assignment and then added zombies. The infection spread. Chaos reigned. I was hooked. Programming was actually more creative than my creative writing class–I was making something out of pure imagination, and it was cool!

But most of my classmates failed the intro course. It seemed like programming was just too difficult, too geeky. The year after mine, the entire college graduated only three computer science majors (out of 700 grads), and they had been coding from an early age. Was it something you just have to start learning early, like a foreign language? If so, why had I already had like sixteen years’ worth of math classes, four years of Latin, and zero minutes of coding? Virtually no one uses multivariable calculus. Everyone uses computers.

What prompted you to found CodeCombat?

Nick: Today, everything is changing. Dozens of countries and most US states are scrambling to offer computer science classes across K-12, with everyone else soon to follow. Yet we haven’t really changed how we teach computer science. Kids don’t think that coding is for them–especially girls and students of color. They try it, and it’s either boring or difficult or both, and they give up. A third of undergraduates taking Introduction to Computer Science courses fail. Sometimes we give students training wheels in the form of visual block-based programming, but when the training wheels come off and they switch to real code, learners often quit in frustration in that moment when they think they can’t code at all.

Having developed the #1 app for learning to write Chinese characters (Skritter), I had the insight that learning programming should be more like learning a language: students learn ten times faster when having a conversation with the computer than when listening to a lecture.

At CodeCombat, we realized that learning programming doesn’t have to be hard or boring. We’ve created a coding game that kids love and that happens to teach kids computer science. 97% of kids play video games, so when you make a great game, it can reach everyone—especially low-performing students, girls, and students of color, who have been underrepresented in computer science. Students playing CodeCombat spend almost all their time coding, so they learn much faster than if they were listening to lectures or reading lessons. It’s more like learning a language–give the player and the computer something to talk about (the game), and the conversation flows as fluency builds.  In a world where computers outnumber humans and virtually none of us speak their language, we want our learners to become native speakers of code. Soon everyone will have the opportunity I wish I’d had when I was eleven.

‘We’ve created a coding game that kids love and that happens to teach kids computer science. 97% of kids play video games, so when you make a great game, it can reach everyone…’

What are a few highlights regarding its growth and development?

Nick: Over the last five years, over twelve million people in 190+ countries have learned to write Python and JavaScript using CodeCombat, writing billions of lines of code and making it one of the most popular coding games in history. In the US alone, CodeCombat has been used by over 45,000 teachers in more than 17,000 schools.

What is your perspective regarding technology’s role in education? What should it be?

Nick: CodeCombat’s ultimate vision is to evolve education through game-based learning. We believe that in an age where entertainment (from games to shows to social media) is becoming acceleratingly addictive, education must learn from entertainment’s ability to captivate if it is to compete in the struggle for our interest and attention, just as entertainment needs to give us more than just engagement if we are to live meaningful lives.

Vast market forces lead gaming to more finely tuned pacing, where players quickly learn how to play complex games, but if we can create games with real-world skills for game mechanics, then these forces act in your interest. Play becomes learning, learning becomes play. This is the promise of game-based learning. Flow. Grit. Growth mindset. Collaboration. Personalization. Everything we want in education can naturally be found in games, leading to the possibility of a perfect learning experience for every player. And games could give us what we need instead of just what we want. Don’t just level up your hero; level up yourself.

It’s hard to make a good game, and hard to make great educational software. It’s a monumental challenge to do both at the same time. If the industry can pull it off, we will have evolved education from something school gives you, to something everyone has the agency to explore for themselves. Skills will no longer be restricted to those lucky enough to have access and exposure to specific educational opportunities, but will instead be open to everyone with an internet connection and the faintest spark of initial curiosity.

‘If the industry can pull it off, we will have evolved education from something school gives you, to something everyone has the agency to explore for themselves.’

Let’s narrow in from all education to computer science, the #1 job skill in terms of new wages, the subject with the largest shortage of trained teachers, the fastest-growing market, and the area where we can have the biggest impact. We live in a world where a third of all college students that fail their first real CS classes–even with these elite students having access to expert professors, bringing an initial interest in the subject, and committing significant money and time to success. This same world wants and needs to somehow get most public school sixth-graders to reliably learn the same basic coding skills, but without the pro CS teachers or the student interest. This calls for a dramatically better learning system. We believe that game-based learning technology can help.

Computer science should be available to everyone. I believe that a game-based learning approach can cultivate the interest in CS that so few students start with. I believe that any teacher can teach CS with the right curriculum support. And I believe that our pedagogical model can make learning real-world coding possible for any learner. If the promise of game-based learning is achieved, it will inspire a generation of learners to create the future that is locked in their collective imaginations, with meaningful 21st century career skills supporting whatever they can dream up. It will also equip them with the voice and agency they’ll need to represent their diverse communities and participate in shaping an increasingly technological world.

What are your major issues and challenges with CodeCombat as you move forward?

Nick: Our main challenge is to continue to evolve our product to get closer to our ideal of effective game-based learning while managing to serve the growing demand amongst our customers–staying attentive to users’ needs even as we scale.

Any trends you see on the horizon regarding edtech that should be paid attention to? What makes you say that? 

Nick: In many ways, edtech technology and business innovations being forged in China’s hot education ecosystem are progressing much faster than their counterparts in the U.S., where the edtech markets are more challenging. A lot of this is fueled by the gigantic after-school training center market, where parents in the world’s largest country spend around 20% of their disposable household income on supplemental education (compared to 2% for the US). Dual teacher instruction, the rise of 1:1 and small group classes, AI teaching, a booming education tournament ecosystem, an education-results-focused culture, and aggressive government education reform initiatives are all making China the place to watch for edtech trends, especially Beijing.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning ed, tech, or anything else?

Nick: We are excited to announce the launch of a new computer science program from CodeCombat called Ozaria – the first 2 hours will be available to play for free on August 28th at Ozaria.com. Ozaria is an adventure game that places students at the center of a legendary story, where they must save the world of Ozaria from impending darkness by mastering the lost magic of coding. The unfolding narrative creates a powerful student-centered learning experience, with each student’s investment in Ozaria’s story paralleling the investment they are making in their own learning journey.

We are taking all of what we learned in the last five years from making CodeCombat and building Ozaria to become the most captivating way to learn Computer Science. On their learning journey, students build real world skills via a thoughtfully-designed content progression that includes game levels, instructional character dialogue, cutscenes, and more. They learn to type real code, problem-solve using computational thinking, demonstrate understanding through formative assessments—and apply what they learned by making their own projects.

SAVING THE WORLD WITH CODE. CodeCombat just announced that they have developed a new computer science game geared for educators and students, called Ozaria. In Ozaria, students find themselves at the center of a legendary story where they must save the world from impending darkness by mastering computational thinking, learning Python or JavaScript, and building creative projects. Prologue: The Sky Mountain is now available free for all educators to use with students. To create Ozaria, expand further in the U.S. and build partnerships in China, including with partners NetEase and Tarena, CodeCombat announced just recently that it has closed a $6M Series A round of funding led by Veronica Wu from Hone Capital. Other investors include Andreessen Horowitz, Extol Capital, and OceanOne Capital. Learn more

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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