CASE STUDY: Coding is the New Cuneiform

Alex Klein

Alex Klein is the Co-Founder of Kano, a DIY computer kit designed to teach children how to code and build computers. Kano is one of the top crowdfunded learning inventions, and has been backed by Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak and Kickstarter Founder Yancey Strickler.

Four years ago, I gave up a job in journalism, encountered a cheap Linux-based brain in a Cambridge lab, saw that hackers were using it to make robots and submarines, and showed it to my little cousin, Micah, aged six. He didn’t get it. What was the point? His challenge was simpler. “I’d like to make my own computer with this. But it should be as simple and fun as Lego. So no one has to teach me.” We started working on a simple computer kit and Kano’s mission was born.

From my little cousin’s challenge, the idea for a kind of ‘Gutenberg Bible’ computing emerged – a learn-and-make system that would let anyone, anywhere, craft devices and play with code.

With friends, I travelled around the world, carrying 20 hand-folded boxes of bits, boards, and books (co-written with Micah). We workshopped with people of all ages in dozens of countries. Physical building – making a computer, syncing a speaker, setting up a screen – provided a tangible start. Our shell command and coding challenges combined traditional text with drag-and-drop blocks – strong storytelling framed level-up moments. A game mechanic, in which mastered syntax unlocks new powers, caught on. And most dramatic of all, a social network, built atop our computer kit (Kano World) played host to shared artworks, Minecraft worlds, songs, apps, and games. We added a self-guided tutorial. Like a share? Click on it, and it gets automatically converted into steps, for you to follow. “Kids GitHub.”

Physical computing plays a big role in building interest: free cheap chips embedded in everything, connected everywhere, enable wizardry and camera filters that respond to movement, musical instruments that turn temperature into tones, ambient sport scores, physical interfaces. Barack Obama echoed the sentiment that, “Coding is the new literacy,” encouraging kids to program their phones, and not just play on them. Like the old cuneiform tablets, rabbinical books, or Latin geometries, programming is today a protected priesthood. Kano’s mission is to show that inventing is for everyone and that creativity is a learned skill. Kano hopes to inspire the next generation of makers to take control of their digital future.

Utility is as important as innovation. In classrooms around the world, the Kano Computer Kit serves not only as a creative coding device, but as a proper open-source PC, a platform to explore the inner workings of a file system, go on a narrative Terminal Quest, or just do homework, watch videos, and browse the web. Other users take their adventures with Kano one step further, like the Tennessee classroom that turned Kano into a weather station, the Oklahoma kid who created a flower-capturing time-lapse camera, the Sierra Leonean teen, proud inventor of a radio station, and the New York musician who used Kano to code a beatbox visualiser. Kano will be the first DIY, open-source PC to reach the shelves of  Toys ‘R’ Us and Barnes & Noble this Christmas, putting learning through play into the hands of the everyday consumer.

Leaps and bounds in technological advancements mean a whole new skillset for the next generation beckoned in by the Indigo Era. As Careerfoundry put it, “Unless workers start training today, this tech skills gap will only widen.” Rather than tablets, we’re after what Seymour Papert once described as a “learning machine.” To quote Dr Papert, “A child who has grown up with the freedom to explore, provided by such machines, will not sit quietly through the standard curriculum dished out in most schools today. Already, children are made increasingly restive.” The sudden convulsion to bring coding classes (or coding apps, paradoxically, on un-codeable iPads) to every school speaks, like it did for the ancients, to a shared sense of lack of control – a world that we seem to feel needs more imitation and order.

We should feed the restiveness, not the fear. Self-directed education is becoming the norm – not instruction, nor imitation, nor pre-job preparation but rather, discovery through doing.

The common refrain is that this generation is narcissistic concerned only with their image, their number of likes. The truth is, with a canny sense for cut-through-the-noise expression, they are sidestepping validation through career paths. A hyper-sensitivity to the needs of the network – when coupled with a real understanding of how that network, and the algorithms and devices that present it work – can give us new kinds of geniuses. Like Battushig Myanganbayar, a Mongolian teen, driven to get a YouTube MIT degree not by a ‘tiger mother’ or a lucrative Facebook gig, but, in his words, “I want to make good things for humans.” Myanganbayar is proof that technology is an empowering force for good for many young people around the world.

Giving the next generation access to computer science education is no longer a luxury – it is fast becoming a human right.

According to UNESCO, due to population growth and mandatory schooling, in the next three decades, more people will receive formal education than in all of human history thus far. But it may be the rise of informal, self-directed education that finally wrests us out of  Tablet School. Beyond disciplines in search of disciples, we can at last have individuals who grow quickly out of imitation, and start reframing and rewriting the old categories – driving not only a new kind of computing, but a new culture too.