I took an online coding course, and now I really appreciate what programmers do all day

Before learning basic coding with Khan Academy, I had no idea what the programmers at Business Insider were doing all day. Daniel Bonman

As a tech lifestyle reporter at Business Insider, I often write about programmer culture, telling stories of awesome office perks, parties, and late-night hackathons.

But ultimately, my liberal arts degree gives me little ability to understand the hard work that programmers spend all their time doing.

I had heard about Khan Academy, the nonprofit online learning platform backed by major investors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, and how effective and fun its programs are.

When Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, launched the site in 2006, it was just a series of YouTube videos he had made while away from work as a hedge fund analyst.

Eight years later, Khan Academy largely follows the same video format, but on a much larger scale. In February 2014, the site had 10 million monthly visitors, a huge jump from 144,000 in early 2010.

Even Bill Gates himself endorsed the platform, telling TIME, “I’ve used Khan Academy with my kids, and I’m amazed at the breadth of Sal’s expertise and ability to make complicated subjects… He started by publishing a math course. lesson, but its impact on education could truly be incalculable.

I decided to give him a chance.

How it works

Khan Academy offers a wide selection of courses in subjects ranging from biology and organic chemistry to world history and macroeconomics. In the computer programming section, they offer introductory JavaScript courses, games, and natural visualizations and simulations.

Since I had never taken a computer course before, I chose the simplest course, “Intro to JS: Drawing & Animation”. A menu showed all the tasks I was going to complete in the course – 101 in total.

Like other Khan Academy courses, the JavaScript course is structured around a series of video presentations. The student is then given challenges and projects to test each skill.

Khan academy coding

First, I learned to code some basic shapes. During a five-minute video, Sophia, one of Khan Academy’s instructors, drew rectangles in different places on the screen.

Khan academy coding

It seems simple enough. In my first challenge, I used the commands I had just learned to make an “H” out of rectangles. It only took three lines of code.

After a few tweaks to the numbers, the computer determined that I understood correctly and gave me some bonus points. These points would later be used to earn badges and improve my profile.

On the left you can see the code I wrote, with the results on the right. A funny character congratulated me.

Khan academy coding

Things get harder

The course quickly became more difficult and in the second section I learned how to color shapes. It wasn’t too difficult on its own, but the end of the section brought the first of the projects, which I would dread later.

Projects are when the program gives the student a set of goals to achieve in their code. Since each involves a healthy dose of creativity, other Khan Academy students or coaches are invited to review the projects to ensure that they have achieved each goal.

In the first project, I was asked to use the shape commands I had learned to make something that looked like a dinner party. I decided to use my drawing and coloring skills to make a pizza.

It took me a while to figure it out – I’m new to programming after all – and I was happy with it for the most part. Another user gave me a passing grade on my pizza.

Khan academy coding

An interesting aspect of Khan Academy projects is that once you have completed a creation, you can save it in the system as a “spin-off”, and anyone else in the programming course can develop it.

When I finished my pizza drawing, I scrolled down to see what other Khan Academy coders had come up with for this particular project. The system displayed the designs that received the most votes from other users. These were much more impressive than mine.

Khan academy coding

I tried not to be too discouraged by the comparison, even though some of my drawings took me quite a while.

As you can see in the judging criteria for my next project, the program asked me to draw an animal with at least five shape commands and variables for width and height.

It was pretty cute, although I probably made the coloring too light.

Khan academy coding

Again, some people were able to do amazing things from a relatively simple mission. Here are some of the most awesome spinoffs from the “Draw an Animal” project for which I drew the penguin.

Khan academy coding

It got even more fun – and complicated – when I learned how to animate my drawings. I could do things like run a train across the screen, or make a sun grow until it exploded.

Khan academy coding
Khan academy coding

Sure, it was child’s play compared to what experienced programmers could do, but I was thrilled with how much I was learning in such a short time.

And as I learned more and more skills – text, strings, functions, loops, arrays, and object-oriented design – I was able to incorporate them into increasingly complicated code.

It was tough, but I started really enjoying the results.

Khan academy coding

What I thought

As I progressed through the course, it seemed to become more difficult to be assessed. I don’t know if it was because there weren’t enough people who had progressed through the course to have the skills to assess my work, but sometimes I had to wait a few days for someone to give me a passing grade that would allow me to pass.

I found it a bit boring since I was trying to complete the course after working hours, but someone with more free time might not.

All in all, realizing how hard coding is has given me a whole new appreciation for the apps and programs I use every day. Small things like an extra semicolon or incorrect placement of a line of code can trigger an entire program.

The skills I learned were elementary compared to the work that professional programmers do on a regular basis. It was quite revealing.

Although I found programming difficult, I thought Khan Academy was a fun and accessible platform to learn it on. I could tell the course was geared towards younger kids, with lots of cute characters with their own names and personalities. When I made a mistake, I didn’t get a glaring “ERROR” message but an adorable little creature that said “Oh no!” Things like that helped when the going got tough.

Khan academy coding

I don’t think I have a future in programming, but I’m happy to have a fresh perspective on the industry I cover. Also, knowing that I was using a non-profit organization that seeks to help anyone access free education was an added bonus.

Bill Gates would certainly approve.

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