Codecademy and the Future of (Not) Learning to Code

News crossed the wire last night that the ed-tech startup Codecademy has raised $2.5 million, led by Union Square Ventures. That's a nice chunk of change for a very new company (it's only been in existence since August.) It's also a strong vote of confidence for the startup's vision and product from one of the most respected investment firms in consumer tech, one that's also funded Twitter, Etsy, and Edmodo.

Headlines talk about Codecademy as "the future of learning" and the new path to "coding mastery." Me, I took to Twitter with my reaction:

I know. That's harsh. And as a huge supporter of education technology startups but also of tools to teach people how to code, let me apologize for cussing. And let me clarify:

See, I'm currently trying to learn to code. Other than some BASIC I taught myself some 30 years ago, I have absolutely zero programming knowledge. I've never taken a class. I've never cracked open a How To book. But I want to learn, particularly as a technology journalist who's committed to looking "under the hood," if you will, of the tools that she covers.

I've opted to learn JavaScript, mainly because I think it's one of the essential building blocks of the Web. Also, if this whole education writer thing doesn't work out, maybe I can get a job using node.js.

One small problem: it's actually damn hard to learn to code if you have no background in engineering or math. And frankly, Codecademy has been no help.

I've worked my way through all the "Getting Started with Programming" lessons and I've even tackled the Intermediate Javascript course. I've got badges. I've earned achievements. And I don't know shit.

If you were to sit me down in front of a blank IDE and ask me to build something, I wouldn't have any clue how to begin. (And the fact that I know what an IDE is probably sets me apart from a lot of novice would-be programmers.)

I can set a variable. That's one of the first Codecademy lessons, and no doubt its most compelling one. And let me give the startup huge kudos for that, because I think the process of on-boarding people, particularly non-programmers, into programming is a challenge in itself. It can be intimidating -- both the code and the coders, frankly -- and I like the idea of a Web interface that makes it easy and non-threatening to learn to program. "Fun" is good, "easy" is good -- all in the service of demonstrating to non-techies that this is a skill they can indeed obtain.

But once you're past that first lessons, then what? Codecademy offers an interesting UI, sure, but let's not confuse interface and understanding, lessons and learning, engineering problems with education problems. There's no help with definitions or concepts, for example (um, WTF is an array?!) In fact, there's no help at all.

I'm fairly convinced that those who love Codecademy and see it as the great new way to learn how to code already know how to code. (Either that or they've just tackled the first two lessons.) And as such, this seems like a tool that can really only benefit those who are already programmers.

That's a shame and a missed opportunity. We need to help extend the skills of programming to others who aren't tech elites -- to girls, to minority youth, for starters.

The pursuit of knowledge about programming shouldn't be conflated with the pursuit of badges. That's the beauty of this sort of DIY learning tool too -- the people who want to learn to code want to learn to code and the reward should be that knowledge, not some virtual item.

A lot of people have come to Codecademy. In investing in the startup, USV points to the interest the startup has already attained -- some 500,000 registered users. But these sorts of numbers, while touted in consumer tech, seem like the wrong metric when it comes to ed-tech. You can look at something like Instagram in contrast, another "hot new startup" that boasts some 5 million users and over 100 million photos. You can ask, "how many of those photos are actually crap?" and the answer is probably "it doesn't matter."

But when you ask "how many of those 500,000 Codecademy users actually learned any JavaScript?", the answer is actually really important.


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