Writing Our Stories, Writing Code: A Community-Centered Approach to Teaching Coding

While working on the Mixed Reality for All project, I started thinking about how you might teach coding to adults in low income communitities where instead of treating them as isolated individuals, you’d take advantage of the power of community. At one point I wrote a quick-and-dirty sketch of what such a class might look like. It’s pretty rough — for example, I had some ideas about how you could take advantage of existing instituions, such as churches or unions, but didnt have the time to think them through. But there are enough ideas here that I think it’s worth sharing.

Google has a VR development kit called Google Expeditions that lets teachers teach through stories by creating “immersive, virtual journeys” for their students. It’s pretty impressive. But when using Google Expeditions, teachers are limited to just the tools that Google decided to put in this toolbox. If teachers need more tools to tell their story, they’re out of luck.

What if people in low income communities could create their own stories in VR/AR, and instead of being limited to the tools in the toolbox a big corporation gave them, they could make new tools? Could they unleash their inner Grand Master Flash, who helped create Hip-Hop by morphing a tool for playing music — a turntable — into a tool for making music?

Or to put it another way: what if we can interweave the art of creating stories in AR/VR with learning  the craft of how to code?

It might look something like this:

In the first workshop, a group of adults meet for a Friday night and half of a Saturday. On Friday night, first they participate in a story circle. Then they learn how to use one simple coding technique to begin the journey of expressing their story in VR. For example, each participant comes up with 3 words that sums up their story. Using a code template that displays one word in VR, they create their first VR page that displays their 3 words (see example at the end). They finish by showing off their VR page and do a brief check-in about how they’re feeling about what they’ve learned so far.

On Saturday, they start adding a few tools to their storytelling toolbox — e.g., tools for adding a picture, a paragraph of text, some simple interactions and animation — so they can create the first version of their story. The workshop alternates between a little instruction, a lot of playing and experimenting with code — possibly working in pairs ala pair programming — and thinking together about storytelling & reflecting on their experience so far. Through play, they practice the same coding techniques over & over so coding starts to feel less scary and more like a means of expressing themselves.

The group meets again for a few shorter Saturday sessions that take place every other week. Each time they learn one or two more coding techniques, a little more about VR/AR design & how to tell a story, plus sharing their stories about the experience. In doing so, they also build the trust & community they need to help them get over any fears (which is at least 50% of the battle).  In between these sessions, they work on their own or with coding buddies on their coding skill and their story — and each week the main group doesn’t meet, there is an optional Saturday drop in session for anyone who needs a little help.

Then they start the 2nd part of the course: learning how to make tools to add to their toolkit. They begin with another Friday night – Saturday half day workshop, then meet every other week for shorter Saturday sessions. Although this part will be harder than Part 1, they will already have a solid grounding in some of the basic skills they need to do this, and they will have enough experience of thinking of coding not as this foreign thing that only super geeks can do but a way of expressing themselves. As a result, rather than each new technique being a chance to feel stupid, it’s a chance to expand how they can express themselves. And they will have a community of trust — a “Band of Brothers and Sisters” — to help them get through any parts that feel intimidating/scary.

In these sessions, they also begin to discuss what it might mean to make an economy where more and more people could make part of their living by making and sharing tools and other ways of creating value, wealth, ownership, and community in AR/VR. For example, what would it mean to say “we own what we make” in this new economy?

By the end of this part of their journey, those who want to continue should be able to start meeting on their own, getting help through the network they have already learned how to plug into of other folks around the country who’ve gone through a similar experience and who — with occasional help from world-class expert techies from around the globe —  have been helping to shape the path people take to keep improving their skills. And perhaps a few of them will learn how to help teach the next set of workshops.

Here’s what the augmented reality example above might look like:

Although you don’t have a virtual reality headset, you can still view and interact with these pages using a desktop web browser– either Google Chrome or Firefox. To move around, use the arrow keys to move forward and back and your mouse to rotate what you’re seeing. You can also view them on a smart phone, although on my iPhone I need to tilt it up before I can see the words.

Many years ago I taught adult education workshops on beginning HTML, and I’m pretty confident that anyone with a high school level literacy could be taught to be comfortable changing the one word template into their own 3 words and to understand what they’re doing. The key is a) starting with a group exercise that lets people understand what it means to code (my favorite: “the boss’s idiot nephew”)  and b) lots & lots of practice with supportive people.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: