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TechSmart.codes - an all-in-one platform to learn and teach Python coding

Ka’ana Solutions supports students and teachers who want to learn how to code. We were recently introduced to a company from Washington state who has created a remarkably well designed program that helps teachers learn how to teach Python programming to students. Python is one of the most widely used programming languages, and arguably the best language for new programmers to learn.

Founded in Seattle in 2012 by Bruce Levin, son of a middle-school math teacher, TechSmart partners with schools and school districts to enable them to teach computer science and coding, both integrated within the school day as part of the master schedule (their recommended approach), or as an after school program. TechSmart has developed a complete K-12 computer science curriculum pathway that includes coding courses at every grade level (2nd to 12th). It includes a comprehensive and unique professional learning program for teachers to enable them to become skilled computer programming instructors.

Contrasting with Code.org and the free computer programming courses available there, TechSmart is designed to go deeper. The company believes that full and robust support for teachers is the most important part of providing programming instruction for kids. This is why they call it “teacher-centric,” because it is built with the understanding that students will have positive, engaging experiences if teachers are confident and engaged in the content they teach. The platform is fully mapped out for teachers, with a required scope and sequence of units and lessons, and includes scripting to help guide the classroom instruction. The teacher platform and the student platform are almost identical in look and feel, with the exception of teacher-only content like solutions to exercises and projects. Unlike a lot of technology-based teaching tools, TechSmart seems to have a real understanding of what a coding classroom needs to look like, and the platform supports a pedagogy that has been developed over many years of real-world classroom experience.

The TechSmart system is made of three parts:

1) A coding bootcamp for teachers that lasts between five and ten days. In the bootcamp teachers learn the platform and go through the same curriculum and lessons that the students will go through. This is traditional PD, with a classroom instructor working with one or more teachers at a time (up to twenty-five or so in a class). The cost of this PD is around $4000 per day, inclusive of travel, for a group of teacher.

2) An integrated platform. This is the differentiator for TechSmart. Their platform combines teacher learning and support with student instruction, all in one place. A teacher does not need to leave the platform to deliver effective instruction, everything he or she needs is available in the browser-based user interface. The platform costs around $2500 per year per school.

3) On-going support. Another differentiator for TechSmart is a built-it on-demand support function that allows the teacher to ask questions and get real-time support from an experienced software engineer. This feature costs between $250 (for elementary) and $500 (for high school) per year per teacher, capped at $2000 per school.

There are two “languages” that teachers and students can learn on the platform. The first is a proprietary block-programming language called Skylark that introduces younger students to programming concepts using a Scratch-like graphical user interface. It prepares students to begin programming in Python, an industry standard and highly utilized language. Python is one of the most popular programming languages in the world, and is considered one of the best languages for beginning programmers to learn. TechSmart also has some Java-based curriculum, but Java has lost some of its luster in the industry (not to be confused with Javascript, which is a highly popular but not as complete a language as Python). The recommended pathway for students is to complete three years of programming coursework which will provide a strong entry-level programming background and allow students to complete a certification like Microsoft’s Python Certification.

TechSmart has benefited from new funding that has been provided to districts, both state and federal level, to grow student participation in computer science, particularly in lower-income communities. As of June 2019 they are working with more than 35 district partners, in 120 schools, with 500 teachers and over 13,000 students.

TechSmart has also been working hard to create more core-coursework aligned activities. Elementary teachers who have students learning Skylark can incorporate math, social studies and science modules into the coursework to provide a cross-curricular learning opportunity. The company, after a year of pilot work in California, has been hard at work on a “coding+math” curriculum that allows students to participate in a rigorous common-core aligned Algebra 1 class using Python program as an integrated tool for practicing and demonstrating content mastery. Embedding computer science in core curriculum is a holy-grail of sorts, and can be challenging at many levels. But achieving this integration will in theory provide an interesting alternative method of math learning that should appeal to many students, especially those for whom math is not a favored subject area.

There are many students and teachers who want to learn to code and there are many paths forward. TechSmart is one that is worth checking out, especially for schools who are fully committed to both teacher and student success.