CoderDojo: A Library Program Review

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -George Bernard Shaw

CoderDojo Brisbane is a free computer programming club for children held at 7 Brisbane City Council libraries.  It is sponsored by Brisbane Marketing, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Brisbane City Council as part of the Digital Brisbane Strategy.  Dojos are held on Saturday mornings for 2 to 3 hours for 6-week term blocks.  Securing a spot in a Dojo is highly sought after with all places filled soon after registration opens.  The Dojos are run by volunteers, called mentors, most of whom work or study in IT and have a passion for sharing their coding skills with kids.  Participants are known as ninjas and they can range in age from 7 to 17 years of age, with the average age being 10 years.  Ninjas need to bring their own laptop with coding software already downloaded prior to the session.  The library provides the space, furniture, power and WiFi.

CoderDojo provides a relaxed environment for young people to explore coding with appealing software like Scratch, Hopscotch, Alice and Python.  The set-up is unlike a classroom.  Children lead the learning and are encouraged to experiment and share ideas.  Co-founder of CoderDojo, Bill Liao calls it “play-degogy”, based on the belief that children learn best through play.  

2881823606_8bcef3b113_o   Photo by andresmh / CC BY

In the session I observed, ninjas were exploring Scratch and Tinkercad.  Scratch (see picture above) is coding software suitable for beginners in which labelled building blocks are dragged and dropped together to create a program.  Tinkercad can be used to create 3D designs which can then be printed on a 3D printer, or be imported into Minecraft.  The lead mentor brought in a 3D-printed wheel and cart to show and invited the group to create their own design to import into Minecraft.  There was even a chance of having their creation printed out in 3D, the lucky ninja chosen by pulling his/her name tag out of a bag in the next session.  This got the attention of my teenage son who was looking disinterested.  He stood out from the group because he was much older.  He was already proficient at Scratch and hoped to learn more about HTML.  A friendly mentor, Gabriel,  had given him personal tutoring for a couple of previous sessions, but on that day, he was absent.  On a positive note, I’m pleased that he is interested in registering as a young mentor next term so that he can teach Scratch to his younger peers.  

So, why is it important to teach children to code?  The aim is not necessarily to produce computer programmers, although some may pursue this career path.  In an age where digital technologies are intricately linked to every aspect of our lives and we are saturated with information, learning to code cultivates information literacy.  James Whelton, the other founder of CoderDojo, said: “we need more creators and less users”.  By being creators, they take control of their digital experiences and gain an understanding of the inner-workings of what they encounter on screens everyday.  They progress from being passive users that interact with technology to becoming empowered digital citizens who can express themselves through technology.

What is more, children learn useful mathematical and design skills in the process of creating their projects.  Mitch Resnick, co-creator of Scratch, explains this in the Ted talk below along with showing some wonderful Scratch creations.

I was really impressed with CoderDojo.  It is a well-organised and popular library program where children can explore coding together under the guidance of enthusiastic IT experts free of charge.  One drawback though is that children who do not have a laptop are currently excluded, but there is a suggestion that computers onsite could be used for these children as the program grows.  And from my son’s perspective, the group was too young and other coding programs were not explored enough – Scratch was the main program used throughout the term, as a result, he was not engaged as he could have been.  But, maybe this is what he needed to motivate him to become a youth mentor in future.  We’ll see…  


23 thoughts on “CoderDojo: A Library Program Review”

  1. Hi karen, It is very useful computer programming club for the youngster to share coding experience with other kids. It encourages them to create and learn different coding skills which is very beneficial at the very young age. It encourages other kids too. I think they can learn better when they do not have any pressure of assignment on their mind to get good marks. Coderdojo is really very appreciable club. thanks

    1. Hi Amritpal. I agree with your comment. Teaching kids coding in a relaxed atmosphere where they are free to explore and get help when they need it is more enjoyable than being in a classroom environment with the pressure of assessment.

        1. Indeed. It brings children and their parents/carers into the library. Another thing I like about CoderDojo is that it sounds so cool to a child. The founders, Bill and James were thinking about calling it “Saturday morning computer programming for children”. It might not have been so successful if they had.

  2. CoderDojo sounds like an awesome program (with a super cool name, too). What a great use of community resources. The ethos of being a creator, not a consumer, is very much a part of the makerspace movement I was introduced to last semester in IFN612 (Emerging Tech), and is inspiring, I think. And I definitely agree with the learning through play aspect of this as well. Play is intrinsically motivated, and I think children (and grownups) learn better when they are intrinsically motivated to engage in an activity.
    Thanks, Karen!

  3. This is a really interesting review, Karen. I have long been curious about what CoderDojo was. Your son’s experience is interesting – now that CoderDojo has been around for a while, do you think it is time for the next wave, pitched at older and more experienced coders, or is the program such that once they learn the basics they can go away and do it all independently?

    1. Hi Karen, my son would like to join a Dojo for older and more experienced coders. Who knows? CoderDojo might introduce this as it gets bigger. I hope so. The beginner ninjas that attended for the term were equipped with the basics to explore on their own. Intermediate coders can do it independently, but one of the aims of CoderDojo is to bring a social element to coding and dispel the isolated geek label it has had for so long. In my son’s case, out of his group of friends, only one of them does a little coding, so meeting other teens who like coding as much as he does would be very satisfying.

  4. Hi Karen,
    As a person who also has teenage sons, I really wish libraries and every other organisation would realise that you just can’t lump 7-17year olds together – or even 8 to 12 year olds for that matter! If kids are interested in this stuff they go and do the workshops as soon as they can and then after the first couple of years they are left with nothing to do because they have already done it all! I find it so frustrating – from about 13 up they are just hanging out doing nothing while waiting to be 18 so they can do some real adult stuff! That is my experience anyway.
    The Coder Dojo program looks very cool and it is amazing how popular it is. I tried to book my son in a couple of years ago when it first started – bookings opened at 10am and when I went online at 10:10am they were all booked out! Thankfully they have expanded the program to a few more libraries now, but it is still hard to get in to I think. My son actually couldn’t have gone anyway because we didn’t have a laptop at all then – I think the bring your own laptop thing is a serious equity issue and really needs some serious solutions ( put in to solving it.

    1. I hear you Sheree. There’s no shortage of beginner courses out there, and parents are keen to get their young kids involved. I would like to see a teen CoderDojo and I’m sure the mentors would like to share more complex programs too. I wonder if there would be enough volunteer mentors willing to run at least 2 sessions on a Saturday and if there would be enough teens to sign up. The CoderDojo website states that it is a grass-roots, open source, volunteer, global movement. How it evolves depends on who wants to run it. BCC has done a great job so far. I’d like to see it expand to include levelled Dojos and locations further out.

  5. Hi Karen, great post 🙂 Do you think the fact that children need to provide their own devices excludes a large number of children who might benefit from the program? You’re right, it’s definitely a downside to an otherwise amazing program; is it furthering the digital divide and most assisting those who are best able to help themselves?

    1. Hi Katie. I really can’t say if a large number of children are being excluded in the current locations, but if a Dojo was opened in a working class area like Inala, I speculate a lot of children might miss out because their families cannot afford a laptop. I think the organisers will need to supply PCs, even better, it would be great if an organisation could donate laptops to run Dojos in this circumstance. I think that the CoderDojo movement is narrowing the digital divide rather than furthering it, but I agree they need to address the issue of equity in terms of providing computers to children who can’t bring one and expanding to areas that are further out. It’s growing and I feel its mission is admirable. Coderdojo has no bank account and relies on volunteers. It might just need more time to gain more ground. In the meantime, hundreds of children are learning to be digital savvy and sharing this with their friends.

  6. Hi Karen, having recently learnt about this it was great to read your thorough review and all the pros and cons. personally I would like to see it extended for adults (I am interested!) and even seniors- would sure beat bingo! Anitra

  7. Hi Karen,
    So glad your son signed up to volunteer, what a champ! My boy has benefitted much from peer support in similar programs, and the young ones really look up to the teens 🙂 I think you explained perfectly the importance of learning to code from a young age, and libraries are the ideal place for kids to learn and experiment without the constraints of a formal classroom setting 🙂

  8. Hi Karen,
    I really enjoyed reading your post and it convinced me to agree with Sharee’s suggestion that we put in a grant proposal for a CoderDojo at Mt Gambier City Library in South Australia where they presently have no CoderDojo in the city. I completely agree with you regarding the exclusion of youths who do not have their own laptop. This is why in our proposal, we recommend that the library uses its computers. Most libraries have at least a small suite of computers so for the sake of good ol’ social justice, the philosophy at the core of modern public libraries, there must be assurance that all youths can participate, not just the more privileged ones.

    1. Hi Lisa. I’m thrilled my post inspired you and Sharee to propose a CoderDojo at Mt Gambier City Library. As you might remember, my group is also proposing one for Redcliffe Library. It is such an in-demand program wherever it is set up that it makes sense to introduce it to new areas. My home is outside the boundary of Brisbane City Council, but because there wasn’t anything like it nearby, I was willing to travel a fair distance to attend a CoderDojo. Making it more accessible will encourage families to get involved. My group is also considering the issue of supplying computers for children who do not have one. Good luck on your EOI and grant application 🙂

  9. Hi Karen
    This is a great review of CoderDojo and certainly it is a wonderful community engagement program for all ages. My brief experience with Scratch during placement at Helensvale Library was much too short – I would love to explore this further as it is a simple program that I could enjoy with my nieces and nephews.
    I think that opening these programs to families gives everyone a chance to enjoy informal learning in a supported environment.

    1. Hi Helen, I agree that a program like CoderDojo encourages families to learn together. I observed this at the Dojo I attended – some carers sat with their young children, asked questions to the mentors and helped guide their children. They learnt along with the children – a teacher’s dream 🙂

    1. Hi Ali. I think it is important for libraries to stay current with their users’ needs and interests, that way they can provide timely programming that not only satisfies their existing patrons but also attracts newcomers.

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