Collaborative work in the cloud: What I learned teaching my 9-year-old how to code

The power of the cloud lies in collaborative work. Sharing amplifies both productivity and learning.

school kids rasing hands
Credit: Thinkstock

A couple of weeks ago my third grader daughter expressed renewed interest in learning how to program. She had already experimented with MIT Scratch over the past couple of years, so I tried to teach her Python using the Python for Kids book. Somehow, Python did not click -- she didn't see the point.

So I decided to move on to JavaScript. In my last post I pointed out the importance of JavaScript as the language of the cloud. Everybody has a Web browser on their computer, phone or tablet. All commonly used Web browsers support JavaScript. Anybody can run apps in JavaScript without having to install anything. Anybody can write apps in JavaScript without having to install anything other than a text editor.

A little background: My daughter uses a Chromebook that I got her a year ago. She has a Google account through her school. The Chrome OS has amazing parental controls. The device itself is cheap, has incredible battery life, and I have no concerns about my kids using it. Given the fact that I paid $120 for it, abuse from a kid is the risk I am willing to take.

I ordered her a copy of JavaScript for Kids and set out to look for JavaScript development tools that she can use on her Chromebook. After trying out a dozen tools, I ended up settling on Cloud9 IDE -- and it was at that point when I realized the true power of the cloud.

With Cloud9 IDE I was able to setup a basic Node workspace serving static files. I shared the workspace with my daughter and showed her how to use the editor and how to preview her work in the browser. She then set out on her own to build herself a website. That process, in and of itself, was easier and more productive than using the text editors the book recommended. Auto-completion and auto indentation helped her to understand JavaScript, HTML and CSS. Instant highlighting of errors and warnings nudged her in the right direction.

An evening later, she was ready to publish her website. She wanted her own domain name and she wanted to share her website with her friends. I set out to do some homework. If this was 1996, I would have recommended a hosting account with SFTP access. But this is 2016 and we need to think outside the box.

It just so happens that Cloud9 IDE workspaces come with Heroku toolchain and Git. It took less than five minutes to set my daughter up with her own Heroku account. Cloud9 workspaces come with an Ubuntu Docker container with the workspace. The challenge for me was to explain Linux command line to a 3rd grader. It is a good thing that a nine-year-old has no pre-conceived biases towards any particular user interfaces. Within minutes, her website was up and running. She now knows how to make changes and push them to the cloud on her own.

The most important motivator for my daughter is the ability to share her work with her friends at school. This type of sharing works when her friends do not have to install anything, much less any command line tools. MIT Scratch lets her do that. Cloud9 IDE does as well. She is able to not just publish and share her website, but she can create and share workspaces with her friends. By working together with her peers, she can learn faster and she can share her knowledge. This greatly amplifies the educational value of the tool.

Whether my third grader becomes a software engineer when she grows up remains to be seen. The ability to customize and extend the behavior of a computer is a skill that is going to remain with her for the lifetime. If she wants to be an educator she can make educational apps. If she becomes a business person or a scientist she will be able to use computers to her advantage. This is what being a citizen developer is all about.

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