Theo, an 8-year-old student, was trying to learn how to code and was becoming frustrated with the process. He happens to be visually impaired, and the standard tools intended to encourage kids to code depend mostly on visual elements. However, in the course of the most recent year, he’s been a beta tester for something new: a tool made up of physical blocks designed to help teach coding to kids with visual impairments. Theo learned quickly and now can code in Python.
It is called Code Jumper and uses distinctively formed squares or “pods” that can be connected in various patterns with each pod representing a line of code. Each is also brightly colored for students with visual difficulties but are not completely blind. When the units are connected, and the buttons on the pods are adjusted then the arrangement makes an audible output such as a melody or a joke.
Nicolas Villar, a senior researcher at Microsoft, where the pods were first created, explains. “When we were working with kids with little or no vision, we noticed that the existing tools that are out there for teaching kids how to program just didn’t work. They’re really graphical in nature. Even tools like screen readers don’t do a good job of conveying the complexity of the code. They all use visual metaphors to explain the code.”
Microsoft started a team that worked on this project 4 years ago when it was called Project Torino. At first, Villar says, they intended to make a physical adaptation of a standard coding trainer for kids. As they worked with a group of young beta testers with the paper and clay prototypes, the idea advanced into something that was unique, that can help blind and sighted kids learn coding.
In a January 2019 announcement, Microsoft decided they will give the research and the technology to the nonprofit APH, or American Printing House for the Blind, which intends to get it to market as soon as possible. When it becomes available it will likely be set up in classes for both visually impaired and mainstream students.
Visually Impaired Students Participate
Most visually impaired students in the U.S. are part of local public schools according to Craig Meador, president of the APH. “They may be the only blind student in that district, and definitely within that school,” he says. Currently in the classroom setting, when learning to code, a visually impaired student would have to be paired with another student who would explain what was happening on the screen. In that situation much of what helps the students learn coding is lost. With the implementation of Code Jumper “Both students can participate. It’s going to challenge both students and push them on to higher-level thinking skills.”
Many visually impaired or blind adults are jobless but it’s possible coding can be a new option for a stable career. The best results are when kids can learn coding early and learn the basics which is the intention of the Code Jumper program. “It sets an expectation for any teacher working with students that there’s no excuse,” says Meador. “Students should learn to code, and through this program, they can.”