Rise of the code schools
A major driving force of every coding site is gamification. Rather than just finishing a lesson and moving on, users unlock badges to go on social network-style profiles, alongside progress charts and activity logs. It’s education given a layer of 21st-century instant gratification. Codecademy even borrows from the latest online games, with users building up point streaks if they log in and learn every day.
Then, when a course is completed, the sharing begins. When a “Tell your friends you survived” button on an early Rails for Zombies course proved popular, the Code School team wondered how far they could push it. They added more buttons, and as founder Gregg Pollack explains, “people not only tweeted about it at the end of a course, but they tweeted between each level they completed. People love sharing their accomplishments.”
The Codecademy team knows this better than anyone. On 1 January Codecademy launched Code Year, in which users resolved to learn to code in 2012 via weekly online lessons. By day three, 100,000 had signed up; within nine weeks the figure had topped 400,000. “We tried hard to make the sign-up process as frictionless as possible,” said co-founder Zach Sims at the time. “It also turns out this was a commitment that people wanted to share.”
That sharing was all the advertising the site had, and it worked. Codecademy now has “millions of students in more than one hundred countries” learning the basics of coding for free, and recent investors include Sir Richard Branson.
Approaches to creating content vary hugely from site to site. The Khan Academy funds its new courses through donations, with significant backers including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, and courses are created by academics.
At Code School, teaching properly takes time and money. “Each course is about a two-month process,” explains Pollack. “There’s a lot involved from just putting together the course outline, to writing out all the content and figuring out what we want to teach. Sometimes we work backwards; we start with the challenges: what are we going to want people to be able to solve? Then how do we teach that? It’s putting together the slides, getting all the slide animations in there, filming in front of the green screen, getting it all edited.
“On top of that there’s a huge technology cost. Every time we jump into a new technology we have to figure out a good way to evaluate code. If somebody is solving a challenge, we want to test that they’re able to solve it, and there might be multiple ways to solve a challenge so we want that to be okay. [The cost] is why we only really do one course a month.”
Funding such advancements is a big issue as these sites grow. Code School has 150,000 users, more than 5,000 of whom pay $25 a month to access courses – but even that won’t cover a move into some new areas. “An iOS course is going to cost a lot more than a typical course because of the hardware,” says Pollack, and “because of all the software we have to write, and it definitely has a higher risk factor.” So Code School crowdfunded its “Try iOS” course instead. “Kickstarter seemed like a great way to make sure there was enough interest.” It raised more than three times its $50,000 target.
Investment has also been rolling in for Codecademy, but the long-term plan remains a mystery, with Zach Sims merely confirming that everything on the site will remain free for the time being. One potential revenue stream could come from the personal development of the users themselves. Employers could evaluate potential recruits by their course progress, with candidates suggested depending on the requirements of the job. “People are already putting Codecademy on their résumés, so this is a natural next step,” Sims told Bloomberg. Udacity already provides certification on some courses, with major technology companies “actively recruiting from the Udacity student body”.