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[March 23, 2014]
Rise of the open-source coder generation: Irish 21-year-old who founded CoderDojos computer clubs tells of big impact on youngsters worldwide
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) The innovators Sponsored by the Big Innovation Centre Angry Birds was the biggest selling app in the Apple online store when in November 2011 it was pushed off its perch by a 12-year-old schoolboy's creation.
Harry Moran's Pizzabot, a reworking of Space Invaders, also drove down a release from the Call of Duty series when it debuted on the chart, leading to the Irish boy being dubbed the youngest successful app developer in the world. More remarkable was that the game was produced as a homework assignment from his local computer club.
Harry is one of thousands of children aged between five and 17 across 27 countries who have learned computer skills though a network of volunteer-led CoderDojos, afterschool clubs that teach coding, website development and game creation among other skills.
The 220 clubs that have sprung up worldwide over the last two and a half years started when James Whelton, now 21, saw demand for his after-school meetings teaching HTML and CSS expand beyond the corridors of Presentation Brothers College in Cork.
By that stage, the young Irishman had been earning money building websites for local businesses for six years and was the first person in the world to hack a new iPod, in turn building up his reputation among online peers. It was a distant cry from his more solitary early years. "I say to people that some kids have friends when they were growing up, I had keyboards," he said.
"I saw that computing was a very real thing just through the feeling and pure ecstasy of solving a problem, or getting people to visit a website and seeing that it was a sustainable thing.
"People heard that I could hack because I had my track record as an academic underachiever and people thought that if that idiot Whelton can programme, then anyone can. I think my friends were interested and we organised a get-together. It was now cool in a lot of people's eyes." Whelton's online reputation resulted in an invitation to speak at the Dublin Web Summit in 2011, on the same day that he was due to sit his mock final maths exam, where he met Bill Liao, an Australian entrepreneur who wanted to take the classes further.
In 2011, the CoderDojos - named after martial arts training areas or "dojos" - began to spread, around Ireland and then abroad. In the UK there are 37, with 10 in Japan, four in India and one each in Panama, Bolivia, South Africa and Brazil.
IT professionals give up their time to help children learn to code, at the same time encouraging the children to eventually become tutors themselves.
The classes are held in universities and company offices empty at weekends - among other venues - in what is called "an open-source, volunteer-led, global movement" where children under the age of 12 have to be accompanied by an adult. Rules are thin on the ground, apart from: "Be Cool - bullying, lying, wasting people's time and so on is uncool." "The idea of a computer club is not new, you are just essentially throwing people in a room and trying to teach them. But what you are teaching them - helping others, being open and transparent - was what defined us," Whelton said.
"There were a lot of philosophies we liked around the dojo - when you go to one you get help, work in teams, practise what you have done, show off what you have done. The more senior you get, the more you mentor young people.
"We applied a lot of these logics and principles to a coding club. We thought that if we influenced how we taught kids programming we could get to make more apps that were open source. We could get them to make apps for social causes and for good." The appetite for the computing dojos grew quickly. The Dublin class was frequently booked out in less than a minute, while word soon spread to Japan and the United States, where dojos were also set up.
Their success comes from working with a generation of children who have had access to computing since they were a young age, while at the same time not having to adhere to traditional classroom teaching structures, said Whelton. Some of the measurements of the clubs' successes are how previously insular or isolated children come out of their shells in the classes, he said.
"Screw creating the next Mark Zuckerberg. I want to see kids who become passionate about programming and go into medicine and politics, go into whatever field and use their skills to solve problems there and completely revolutionise it. I think that is infinitely more powerful to our society," Whelton said.
The CoderDojo movement is reflective of a discontent within the IT industry that governments are not doing enough to teach children proper computing skills, limiting lessons to how to use word processing and spreadsheet programmes.
"I felt that if we could identify ourselves as an entity outside government, we could operate independently. We are more powerful outside government," said Whelton.
"It is pretty mind-blowing to me. It is a lot of stress and I think that because you want to do well for these people, you push yourself more and more. When you are working in non-profit your metric is impact, how much we do. If I have to get myself pumped up to talk to people, that is when I have to pull up the feelings of parents and the impact of what it has done [for] their child." Whelton, who spent his early days on the project hopping between friends' couches, was named by Forbes magazine as one of 30 people under the age of 30 to watch. A foundation was recently set up to manage the CoderDojo movement. His next goal is to make himself redundant from his position as figurehead of the movement. "I'm not the wick nor wax but the spark," he says.
Captions: 'I [was] an underachiever and people thought that if that idiot Whelton can code then anyone can,' said CoderDojos founder, James Whelton Photo: Felix Clay (c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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