Thursday 26 April 2018

Review: Fun online programs for young coders

Code Combat
Code Combat

Karen Lin

As coding skills become more and more in demand, students are learning to code at younger ages. Here we review some of the programs that aim to introduce novice coders to computer science through fun and games.


Lightbot starts off with an adorable robot that receives commands, and its task is to light up every tile marked in blue. The premise is simple, but the logic required to complete some of the levels is no joke. Without using code, Lightbot introduces important programming concepts such as higher order functions, control flow, procedures, and even recursion. Users won't be tapping away at their keyboards, but they will be thinking hard about how to solve the problems.

The game presents basic concepts in a clean, simple environment with a clickable interface. It teaches you to be efficient, often forcing you to complete a task in a certain number of commands and in the simplest way possible. Programmers also face the dilemma of completing complex tasks in the simplest way possible. Because the robot completes its tasks immediately, users can receive immediate feedback and debug easily. Don't underestimate Lightbot.

Price: Demo puzzles are free, but the game is available for download on multiple platforms for $5.

Rating: 5/5  


Tynker allows users to build games using basic programs and commands. The free version also includes a puzzle that introduces you to the basic flow of the program. Tynker uses a drag and drop interface, meaning kids can put together code blocks like LEGO instead of agonizing over code. The program is simplistic, but works on core concepts of control flow and basic problem-solving.  

The platform encourages users to creatively build their own game or program. The code runs at the touch of a button to allow for quick debugging, but the interface is rather clunky and can be frustrating. Tynker membership also introduces users to a community group where anyone can post their projects and share them with other people. Tynker will soon release a feature that allows users to see real Javascript code next to their code blocks.

Price: Puzzles are limited in the free version, but can still create games. Courses are $50 each.

Rating: 3/5

Scratch is more sophisticated than Tynker, but employs similar methods. Using drag and drop blocks, users can manipulate sprites on a stage and employ different methods to make games and animations. The interface is friendly, and there are tutorials that help you with every step of the learning process.

Scratch was developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but the University of California, Berkeley has extended Scratch's capabilities in its own program called Snap! In Snap!, you can change languages, add Javascript custom code blocks, and import libraries. The Scratch interface is easier on the eyes, but Snap! has more versatility when it comes to coding with blocks. Both programs are used in many educational situations, so there is a whole online community available to provide feedback on projects. While Tynker is better suited for younger children, Scratch and Snap! are also suitable for older students through high school and college.

Price: Free

Rating: 4/5

Code Combat

Code Combat would please video gamers who love dressing up characters with accessories and earning diamonds for accomplishments. In order to beat each level, users must write code to make characters move in certain directions or attack other characters. The premise is solid, but the execution makes the game confusing. The levels are addictive and easy at the beginning, but they become repetitive and often jump right into new concepts without much explanation.

The game does show immediate visual consequences of failed code when characters die or run into spikes. It introduces a real coding environment in the form of a standard text editor instead of a drag and drop interface. It uses real programming languages that vary in popularity: Python, Javascript, Coffeescript, Clojure, Lua, and IO. However, the interface is clunky, especially when switching between languages. Code Combat is recommended for people who already understand code and are learning new languages. Otherwise, straightforward online schools like Codecademy might be a better alternative.

Price: Free account will give you 100 levels, but for more support and features, the game is $9.99 a month

Rating: 2.5/5


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