Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Magic of Harry Potter Meets the Magic of Coding

I recently talked to a group of fourth-graders about coding and found myself with the age-old CS teacher's dilemma. If I presented code the kids could understand, it wouldn't be interesting. If presented code that was interesting, they wouldn't understand it. The Harry Potter Kano Coding Kit deftly handles this challenge by offering coding newbies heaps of interesting and understandable coding experiences. But don't take my word for it, 9½ year old J. and I spent a good 3+ hours playing with the system this last weekend and we both left impressed.

Here's what makes the Kano Coding Kit so successful:

1. It's Harry Potter themed. Dang this was a brilliant move. J.'s love of all things Harry Potter meant that he was hooked before he even started. While he was only working on small snippets of code at one time, in his mind they were part of a bigger story. At one level, this all fluff. There's really no difference between animating an orange circle and animating a Quaffle. On another level, it's a brilliant mind hack, and what helps make the Kano Kit larger than the sum of its parts.

2. It has a dash of hardware. The kit comes with a 'wand,' which is a tiny computer fitted into a bit of molded plastic. I'm amazed I never thought to build something like this myself, as the hardware is relatively low cost. The micro:bit computing platform I'm so fond of contains Bluetooth connectivity, an accelerometer and a compass, which are the basic ingredients needed to build such a wand (note to self: build this). J. enjoyed playing with the wand, and it allows for a more immersive Harry Potter experience than using your mouse, even though in many cases a mouse would be simpler to operate.

3. It's all about the challenges. What really impressed me about the Kano Coding Kit was its use of coding challenges. This is the magic that let's a budding programmer feel the excitement of coding without being overwhelmed. The challenges build on the puzzle-piece like coding style of Scratch and add to it layers of guidance. The guidance varies from absolute hand-holding, to open ended problem solving. J. soaked this up, embracing each new challenge with excitement. I liked that that the challenges, once solved, allow you to continue to experiment with them. Once J. had figured out how to float a feather using the 'wand up' motion, I suggested he have it shrink and grow by using wand right and left. This capability lets you think of the challenges as starting points, not rigid exercises.

Of course, the Kano Coding Kit isn't perfect. A number of times we fought with the wand to get it to remain connected via Bluetooth. This was terrifically frustrating because once the wand lost connection it wasn't obvious how to get it back. One time I simply had to close the laptop and walk away or risk damaging something. And while I appreciate the elegance and simplicity of the wand, for $100 it shouldn't require you pop-out the batteries to keep them from running down. A USB rechargeable battery would be an ideal solution, and failing that, a simple on-off switch would work.

On the software side, J. found casting some of the spells to be quite tricky, almost to the point of being impossible. Though, that may just take practice.

For my part, I found the software's biggest shortcoming to be the lack of an obvious way to re-do challenges. Surely this is supported. Looking at the way J. proceeded through challenges I think this shouldn't just be possible, but be an essential part of the program. J., in his excitement, zipped through earlier challenges which is to be expected. Later challenges no doubt assume you've mastered the previous ones, though there's a fundamental difference between completing an exercise and mastering it. Ideally more complex challenges would direct students to re-try specific simpler challenges rather than leaving students guessing or admitting defeat.

The Kano Kit isn't cheap, and the hardware wand alone doesn't justify the price. But if you want to help a fan of Harry Potter learn to program, whether child or adult, this kit seems like a smart investment. It won't teach you to program any more than playing language CD's in the background will teach you speak a foreign language. You still need to put in the work. But the 'work' sure becomes fun, and on the quest to learning a new skill that can make all the difference.

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