Code Jumper: Supporting Educators in Teaching Young Students Computer Coding Basics

Image shows a teacher helping students with a computer assignment.

By American Printing House for the Blind

Code JumperTM epitomizes universal design principles. Not only does it teach both visually impaired and sighted children about computer coding from a young age, it builds skill and confidence in teachers who may never have taught coding before.

Initially designed by Microsoft® and developed by American Printing House for the Blind (APH), Code Jumper takes coding off the screen and turns it into a tactile experience any student can engage with to learn the basics of coding. Brightly colored plastic pods with oversized buttons and knobs are connected by thick cords – much like computer cables – to create computer code that can tell stories, play music and even make jokes.

Computer coding falls under the learning discipline of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), an area of study that can lead to a wide range of career options for students who are blind or visually impaired. Computer coding is a particularly viable career because it’s text-based, so coders with visual impairments can use screen readers to convert the text into speech or braille. But unfortunately, the technology used in schools, particularly before students reach high school, often isn’t accessible using screen readers.

Developing Code Jumper and its curriculum

Cecily Morrison, Ph.D., MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her work in inclusive design), principal researcher at Microsoft Research, has a child who is blind. She recognized a gap between the technology she and her colleagues were designing and what might be accessible for children who are visually impaired. That’s what led to the creation of Code Jumper, which was tested by both teachers and students.

Code Jumper comes with a 19-lesson curriculum for teachers, which was developed by insight2execution(i2e). APH asked Robin Lowell, senior manager of Accessibility for i2e, which has created content for Microsoft trainings and curricula for computer games – who spent 17 years as a teacher of the visually impaired (TVI) focused on math and science – to lead the curriculum development.

“TVIs are fantastic, but there are not many that are focused on STEM, and it can be a scary thing trying to jump into computer coding,” Lowell says. “We wanted to create a curriculum that takes the fear out of coding, not only for students but for teachers. We wanted teachers to have the opportunity to learn alongside their students and broaden their horizons about this area.”

Building skills in TVIs who are new to coding

Shelley Mack, a TVI based in Ohio, didn’t know anything about coding when she bought Code Jumper for one of her students, who attends a traditional school. Originally, she expected to simply use it as an enrichment activity for her student, who was just finishing 6th grade. She watched a couple of the many video tutorials APH offers to guide teachers in using Code Jumper in the classroom, but didn’t have a need to put Code Jumper into use until the following school year – on short notice.

“I learned that the following Monday he was starting technology,” she says. “I spoke with the teacher of the class, who showed me the website they use, which was barely usable with a screen reader. I never even finished the first lesson, and they’re all visually oriented. I asked the teacher if I could substitute the Code Jumper curriculum for the inaccessible one and he said, ‘Absolutely.’”

Mack learned how to instruct her student in Code Jumper in just two days. She says learning it was “quite easy,” and as the semester progressed she stayed a couple of lessons ahead of her student in learning the curriculum and continued watching video tutorials. Code Jumper also offers assessments teachers can use to track their students’ progress.

Lowell says the curriculum was intentionally designed to teach teachers how to teach students to use Code Jumper. It was written so teachers can go through it step by step, task by task – providing all the information they need to explain to students exactly what they’ll be learning. The curriculum also includes clear learning objectives and outcomes for each step.

“We want to set our teachers up for success, so they can set their students up for success,” she explains. “We also made sure teachers know not only what the students are learning, but if they’re learning it, so we included questions to check for understanding and the standards they’ll learn.”

Creating universal design that gets everyone involved

According to Mack, her student actually exceeded the expected outcomes. “The vocabulary words and other elements of the curriculum for Code Jumper outpaced that of the other kids,” she says.

She adds that it’s a good thing they didn’t get through all the lessons, as it was the final quarter of the school year, because her student will still need Code Jumper in 8th grade. In the meantime, though, Mack’s student realized he’d already been using coding  concepts on his tablet. He can also connect Code Jumper to his Microsoft laptop using the Code Jumper App for Windows. In addition, it connects with Android and Chromebook devices using the Code Jumper Android App. (An iOS version is coming soon.)

Even though he’s using a different tool than his classmates, Mack’s student is still learning at the same pace, which is always the goal for students who are visually impaired.

As Lowell says, it’s “universal design for learning” that can be used by students of all abilities – not to mention their teachers and parents.

“Teachers and parents are very skilled in problem-solving and finding a role with their children learning to code,” adds Morrison. “It’s not just about learning to code, but also about pushing students in creative problem-solving, so even if the adults don’t code they can still feel they have a lot to offer.”

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