Redefining the Introduction to Computer Science


I’m incredibly excited to take this opportunity to announce a new project that I’ve been leading here at Khan Academy: Khan Academy Computer Science.

We’re releasing a completely new platform that targets people with no programming knowledge and gives them an engaging and fun environment to learn in.

Over everything else we wanted to emphasize creativity and exploration and make it approachable for people of all ages, including young kids.

Sal Khan and I recorded a video giving a good introduction to what we’re releasing:

To get started feel free to visit the Khan Academy Computer Science site:

http://www.khanacademy.org/cs

Explore, play around, and build something!

Jamie Wong, who worked on the CS platform this summer, has also written up a blog post on his experience developing the platform.

Methodology

Earlier this year I was working on an iteration of the CS platform which was heavily focused on structured curriculum leading towards exploratory projects.

Until I saw Bret Victor‘s mind-blowing talk on using a responsive programming environment.

After watching that video I couldn’t shake the feeling that what he presented was a fundamentally different way of approaching how to interact with, and learn how to, code.

In an environment that is truly responsive you can completely change the model of how a student learns: rather than following the typical write -> compile -> guess it works -> run tests to see if it worked model you can now immediately see the result and intuit how underlying systems inherently work without ever following an explicit explanation.

When code is so interactive, and the actual process of interacting with code is in-and-of-itself a learning process, it becomes very important to put code front-and-center to the learning experience.

Rather than starting Computer Science education off by explicitly teaching how a computer works or fundamental programming concepts (like variables, logic, control structures, etc.) you put the student into code of graduated complexity and encourage them to manipulate, explore, and write their own programs.

Once they start to explore and figure out things for themselves then they can begin to dig into all the explanatory tutorials and documentation that are provided to clarify how things work.

The desire to learn and understand can be a powerful accelerant for students and it’s something that is completely missing from almost all Computer Science education.

When I look back at how I became interested in programming, or ask other programmers about how they started to program, the answer is very frequently: “I was given a [Basic/QBasic/Python] compiler and a bunch of programs and I wanted to understand how it all worked so I could write my own!” It was only after digging in to the code that the student wanted to understand how to tackle certain programmatic challenges – but they then did so with great gusto!

The Khan Academy Computer Science program is a distillation of this process into it’s purest form: Directly encouraging experimentation, exploration, and creativity as a direct gateway to deeper learning.

How do we teach?

On the site we provide dozens of programs, at a variety of skill levels, across a number of disciplines (including art, mathematics, and science). We wanted students to find the niche programs that could capture their excitement while also being able to provide a direct line from normally theoretical concepts (such as algebra, geometry, or physics) towards direct evidence of their utility in a tangible medium that the student can control.

We provide a number of tutorials that cover concepts that come up frequently in the programs that we’ve developed (from programming concepts like variables and conditionals to other concepts inherent to the medium such as drawing and animation). These tutorials should cover most of the questions that students have when they’re just beginning to program and can be accessed at a student’s leisure.

I’ve talked before about how I think that JavaScript, and specifically learning how to code in-browser, is inherently a better way of learning. Reducing the complexity of getting started down to zero will result in more people learning. Additionally the ubiquity of JavaScript only serves to educate people in a language that will be generally useful.

I also feel that learning how to code in an environment where the output is visual and highly enticing can better excite the student towards wanting to produce, and thus learn, more. I feel that purely textual coding environments (or coding environments that favor textual output over visual output) serve as a highly uninteresting introduction to programming.

At a fundamental level we want the students using the platform to be self-directed learners, choosing to drive the direction of their education in a way that best suits their interests.

We’ve taken some steps to provides students with some level of possible direction which they could follow, if interested. For example when viewing an introductory program that only does basic drawing we encourage the student to explore variables or animation — ways of bringing their program “to life” which simultaneously getting them excited about attempting to learn those, comparatively, complex subjects.

We already have a number of programs for students to explore, and we will be adding many more (highlighting some of the best from the community as well). With that being said we don’t want to be the sole arbiter of programs that a student might find to be interesting. For this reason we’re working to put community, sharing, and collaboration as pillars of the platform.

We want students to work up to the point at which they feel comfortable writing their own projects. We’ve already seen some pretty phenomenal output from both people here at Khan Academy and from middle-school-aged students who’ve never programmed before.

Over this past summer we held a number of “Discovery Lab” sessions at Khan Academy in which kids of roughly middle school age did a number of learning activities. We had the opportunity to watch them interact with the Computer Science content and were blown away with what they created. In the first hour they were designing and drawing their own characters, in the second they had added in variables and were starting animations, by the end of the third hour they had functional draw loops and were adding in logic to control the animations.

We’ve never seen students of that age progress so quickly through such challenging concepts. It was noted that they were moving faster than most college age students taking a normal intro Computer Science course.

One project that I particularly enjoyed was made by a student who really loved Minecraft. He designed some characters from the game (drawing them using a number of points and rectangles) and then added in some user interaction. He made it so that you could control the the position of a creeper by moving your mouse, as it came closer to “Steve” he would start to hiss and blink, upon hitting Steve he would explode into a firey cloud. This was done over the course of maybe four hours and two days.

To say that I’m excited to see how people are going to use this platform is an understatement.

Coding Environment

The environment is built around a two-panel view: The left being an Ace editor and the right being a canvas.

All of the user’s code is written using JavaScript and uses Processing.js to generate all the graphics.

All code is executed in real-time. Not only is the code re-run (which is relatively easy to do, just re-evaling the code) but the code that you change is live dynamically injected into the runtime — this gives you the ability to change variables, colors, or even functions on the fly without the program ever restarting.

We did a lot to try and take advantage of the real-time nature of the environment, giving the user all sorts of tools to adjust the code, and thus the state of the program as well.

We have a number picker:

We have a color picker:

and we even have an image picker (using images from the always-excellent Lostgarden.com):

We’ve also put a lot of work into the error correction. We build off of the existing linting that we do to try and provide extra levels of hinting. We do spelling correction, provide argument suggestions, and try to make suggestions for common beginner mistakes.

In our experience students who’ve never programmed before can be left unattended using this environment and be able to resolve almost all of their issues via the error hints or the tutorials.

As it turns out it’s really, really, hard to build the real-time execution environment that Bret Victor proposed, in practice — even harder in a browser. I plan on writing many posts about the nuts-and-bolts of the implementation when we release the code-and-editor as Open Source (which should be soon).

To make the environment we have to use a lot of features that only the latest browsers support. For this reason we are only actively supporting Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and IE 9+. Chrome, Firefox, and Safari will have the best experience as they also have Web Worker support (which we make extensive use of).

Thankfully we’re able to make this hard call as less than 6% of our user base fails to match the above criteria — and that number is quickly shrinking.

Side note: One area of the implementation that would benefit from an Open Source library is some form of in-browser, pure-JavaScript, ECMAScript 5 linter. We use JSHint right now and we’d really appreciate being able to enforce true strict mode (JSHint’s strict mode support is rather limited in nature).

Collaboration and Community

With the Khan CS platform we wanted to provide an environment that effectively mimicked the best aspects of great programming communities like Github.

Students can always see the code associated with a project and it’s always displayed next to the output. Students can change any code they see and and save it to their own personal account (aka “forking” in the Github parlance).

(Note the authorship details and the “Based on” link with screenshot that shows up below a project that has been “forked” from another project.)

Community feedback and discussion is also large part of the benefit that we hope students will be able to derive from the platform. Students will be able to solicit feedback from others and have discussions within the context of their code. We’re not to the point of having line-level comments yet but we hope the initial discussion functionality will be very useful to everyone using the site.

To a large degree the Khan Computer Science platform is influenced by the Open Source communities that I’ve participated in: All the code is open, experimentation is encouraged, and feedback is easily provided. I feel that this particular environment is highly conducive to learning as you can easily see many ways of tackling a problem. You can also get feedback on your personal attempts, creating a tight feedback loop.

(I should note that we do have versioning baked in to the system as well but we haven’t exposed it yet, though probably will at some point.)

We also really wanted students to feel excited about sharing their work with others. We provide the ability to share it through traditional social media (Facebook, Twitter, and email) but also on the site and through their profile.

On a student’s profile they have the ability to choose some explorations that they wish to explicitly share with others. We want students to take pride in their best work and feel open to sharing it with the world.

Tutorials and Next Steps

While students exploring the content of the platform will certainly learn some things simply by exploring and manipulating code, we wanted to go a step further and provide tutorials and a clear narrative to help students better understand some of the complex subject matter that they’re seeing.

The primary vehicle for learning is through the tutorials on the site. These are unique in that they both behave like a normal code editor but also as a “video” player. All of the tutorials include audio walkthroughs (playing live from Soundcloud using their API), combined with live playback from the presenter, right in the code editor itself.

We wanted to have the playback take place directly in the editor to try and provide an experience for the student that was more immediate and tangible. Producing hard-coded video explanations or forcing the student to walk through step-by-step written instructions is both tedious and lacks interactivity. With this playback mechanism the student will be able to see the results live, exactly as they would always run in the editor, while also being able to pause the playback and manipulate, or copy, the code that they see. This ability to dig into the meat of a tutorial should serve to deepen, and reinforce, a student’s understanding of the subject matter.

In addition to the tutorials we have a large amount of documentation on Processing.js and JavaScript, all of which is written up and available in a code editor (again, for further exploration). All documentation is available on a dedicated page and beneath every code editor, making it an easy reference for students.

Next to many of the projects that are on the site we also provide some suggested “Next Steps” that the students can follow for some deeper engagement and learning.

We don’t explicitly evaluate the student’s work here and instead we encourage them to share their work with others, providing an external motivator to try and write the best possible code they can. With the active and excited Khan Academy community that already exists students will be able to receive constructive feedback on their work and make a number of improvements thereon.

One question is obviously: How much “Computer Science” do we actually teach? Obviously, right now we’re not teaching very much in the way of traditional Computer Science content, we’ve placed far more focus onto the platform and feel that a lot can be gained from just what we’ve already built. We’re still very early on in the production of content and will be producing much more, of increasing complexity, over the upcoming weeks and months.

We decided that it was much more fruitful for us to tackle the most challenging problem that exists with Computer Science education first: Getting people excited about programming. If we can get people excited about programming, and build (or point them to) the resources they need to learn more then we will have been successful.

Eventually I think we’ll work to effectively replicate the materials one typically finds in a “Computer Science 101″ but in a way that is far more engaging and self-paced than what you would find at a traditional university.

So what’s next? We want to work on providing even more direction and tooling around students writing larger projects. We want to provide easy APIs around storage, network connectivity, and dependencies that will allow for some fascinating projects. Additionally we want to improve peer-to-peer and mentor-student collaboration, finding ways of pairing struggling students with skilled developers. Finally we want to produce a lot more content of a wide range of difficulties and topics.

We’re only just getting started and how the community responds to this release will largely help to drive the direction of the platform as a whole. Feedback is most welcome!

Thank Yous

This is the culmination of a bunch of work by a number of people and I want to take this opportunity to thank them — without them this project would not have happened and would not have come out as well as it did.

Most importantly I want to thank Jamie Wong and Jessica Liu — both of whom worked this summer on the Computer Science platform and have both made tremendous contributions in ways that I couldn’t have even hoped for.

Jamie primarily worked on the Khan CS platform, providing a superb level of quality and scalability that we’ll be enjoying for a long time. He provided contributions above-and-beyond what was needed and even helped to improve some of our development processes at Khan Academy. His expertise has been a massive boon to the project, quickly escalating it to encompass functionality that we didn’t even hope we’d be able to provide. In the short time he’s been with the company he’s already made a tremendous impact upon the organization.

Jessica worked on creating Computer Science tutorials, meticulously researching methodologies and iterating after gathering user feedback. The structure and content of the Computer Science curriculum is largely of her design (if you view some of the CS tutorials you’re sure to enjoy much of her expertise and wit). She also worked on improving the usability of the editor and the curriculum, making it far easier for newbies to get up to speed. Her innate understanding of a new programmer’s mind, combined with her ability to execute on a solution that will aide them has made the platform an incredibly effective tool for self-paced learning.

I strongly hope to have the opportunity to work with both of them in the future.

I also want to thank everyone at Khan Academy for their input into the design process and their help in creating the awesome projects you see on the site. I especially want to thank Sal Khan, Shantanu Sinha, Ben Kamens, Jason Rosoff, Ben Komalo, Ben Alpert, Tom Yedwab, and Mathias Hiron for their help and advice in making the platform what it is today.

I also want to thank the teachers and students at the Khan Academy Discovery Lab for being such willing, and excited, participants in experimenting with the Computer Science platform. Your feedback was instrumental in identifying many issues that we were able to make much better as a result.

And so, on that note, I hope you will all enjoy the new Khan Academy Computer Science platform!

Posted: August 14th, 2012


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