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Hour of Code: Six Years On
Author: Learn More | Published: 13 June 2019
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This article was originally published here.

There is no shortage of apologists praising Hour of Code’s participation rates, but there is even more to celebrate than just those big numbers. Here, we take a closer look at the wildly successful phenomenon.

The Lowdown

Hour of Code initiative is the simple idea that students from all around the world are taught an hour of computer programming, usually during Computer Science Education Week. For some pupils, it remains only an hour. For those who want more, there are extension courses, community events and an almost endless bank of free resources with which to train.

It is the brainchild of Iranian-American brothers Hadi and Ali Partovi, who launched the project under their new NGO, code.org, six years ago. Their motivation was what technology companies had been complaining of for a long time: that there was a dearth of software-savvy talent, and that demand for computer scientists was ever-expanding. Plus, coding stimulates creative and logical skills which a healthy workforce desires.

At its 2013 launch, the tech behemoths threw their enthusiasm and money behind it. Google, Microsoft and Amazon helped code.org break IndieGogo’s crowdfunding record. Mark Zuckerburg and Bill Gates have implored youngsters to get stuck into computer science. Stars from Hollywood, music and sport ensured global appeal. Barack Obama sat in front of computers and bumped fists with inner-city kids as they took their first steps in this shiny new world of code.

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Participation

The oft-cited participation rates are indeed impressive. 20 million students took part in the first two weeks alone. 600 million lines of codes were written. Code.org claim that over 100 million students from over 180 countries have engaged in Hour of Code with 600 million hours logged. An average of 6 hours of participation per student appears reasonable, given that the original target was only one hour per year. Perhaps most strikingly, 50% of participants are female, overshooting the gender ratio of Computer Science graduates in every country on the planet. Across the OECD, seven men complete an information and communication technology degree for every one woman.

The offshoot school and community events, where coding courses and competitions are held with students of all ages, are also alive and well — numerically speaking. Italy, Learn More’s home, has taken Hour of Code to heart more than other countries. It held over 40,000 events in 2018, up from 2017 and beaten only by the US. Globally, these events are becoming more and more popular year on year.

Measured Impact

It is tempting to judge the program on whether it has proven impact on school learning outcomes, but this is to miss the point of its purpose. Self-efficacy is actually the target. The goal is to motivate students to study Computer Science, or to at very least to have more understanding and appreciation for those who do.

Code.org themselves found an improvement in self-efficacy ratings in their 2017 review, and encouragingly it was in girls they found the biggest boost in confidence. They were more likely than their non-Hour of Code peers to declare that Computer Science was “interesting”, that they “liked it” and that they were comparatively strong within their school at the subject.

A small sample of 11-year-olds in Cyprus used code.org’s resources and the researchers found a statistically significant improvement in self-efficacy ratings and another study concluded that the collaborative, playful element of Hour of Code improved student self-efficacy.

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Computer Science Enrolment

Computer Science university enrolment is on the rise in the US, and at a faster rate than the increase in overall university enrolment. This upward trend did not coincide with coding hour’s proliferation of course — nor would we expect it to, given that such programs will take a long time to come to fruition. Many students who take part in the activities are in primary education, meaning that most participants have still not graduated high school. Still, these are encouraging times in the United States for those who wish to see more highly trained computer scientists. In fact, the main current concern is that there is a lack of faculty staff to teach the burgeoning student population.

It’s a similar story in the UK. Computer Science is the only STEM subject rising in popularity in terms of university applications.

Pleasingly, in the US there are some signs of the gender gap slowly closing as female students take up computer science in record numbers.

Shaky Criticism

Hour of Code has been extraordinarily successful in maintaining, and even growing, its popularity. To still see rising participation rates 6 years on is impressive, given its fast start and the long history of education novelties burning bright and fading quickly. Hour of Code looks here to stay for a long time to come.

There is, inevitably, criticism of the project to be found. Some of it is justified: many of the resources were not created by educators, an unfortunately common complaint in education. Other criticism is on shakier ground: some children being left bored by their coding experienceis overwhelmed by the evidence that it motivates the majority. And there are some complaints which are reasonable in theory, though it’s a little harsh to blame coding hour alone: perhaps it is “a ploy to sell computers to schools” but then we could level that accusation against anyone who creates or necessitates school resources. Coding Hour is a movement which “supported legislation that could give companies enormous sway in public schools, starting with kindergarten, with little public awareness”, but those companies were hardly lacking a foot in the educational door already.

In short, Hour of Code is that rare educational initiative: a project which has had the traction and the impact to go beyond its initial glamorous marketing. It is proven to boost student confidence in computer science to the point that the subject is enjoying record popularity.

Mike Fisher

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