Coding online: A guide to the different options & the pros and cons of each

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The activity of learning to code is changing - and has been for a while - but the landscape is shifting more rapidly as of late. 

For instance, think about the state of coding for years and years. Mostly an advanced course reserved for university life, right? 

But then came the introduction of coding for kids, as in breaking down complex text-based coding into more consumable means for the young mind. This opened the doors for more and more schools to either offer their own coding courses, or at least host more coding clubs

After that, the floodgates really opened with the need for alternative learning experiences, simply because of the fact that, while coding was gaining traction, many schools still weren’t able to offer courses to interested parties. 

So, this left students and their parents to have to look elsewhere for instruction, and with that, summer coding camps became a valuable option—where kids could blend a week of coding instruction together with summer camp fun. 

Now, and in the midst of these latter stages, you have the ability to learn to code online—which like all things “on the web” opens itself to all corners of the world. To reach these many different families, you have an abundance of online coding offerings, with each putting their own spin on the experience. 

Which is what we are here to discuss today! 

While online coding instruction has been a widely-available and attractive learning source, its importance has been accelerated thanks to the stay-at-home orders we all currently find ourselves under. 

Where to find coding online

For as many similar traits each child might share, they are all so different. 

When it comes to learning, the statement remains true. Some students thrive, and others will fail; or at least fail to engage and really enjoy what they're learning.

This success or failure not only depends on each child’s own unique makeup, but also hinges what else kids have going on in their lives, or their current skill level; or even their mindset when beginning to code. All of these factor in. 

Point is, when it comes to coding online, there is no one best option. Some options are better than others for obvious reasons, but other reasons aren’t so clear. And, some options greatly overlap with other options, or maybe just overlap a little, or not at all.

See the problem? 

Given all of these factors, parents should be ready for a lot of trial and error. You should be ready for failure and frustration, but you should also look forward to light bulbs and “aha” moments. 

Point and click, self-paced coding

What it is: Any online site or portal where a child can sit down at a computer or with a mobile device and more or less immediately begin coding on their own. Students can determine their own pace, and can put in as much or as little time in a given session.

These options are typically gamified, which allow students to build points or status levels as they progress through the learning experience. 

Pros and cons: Gamification is a key piece to engagement, and encourages kids to really buy into the entire process. 

But while getting started with such options is a breeze, it might be more difficult to keep kids engaged when roadblocks are encountered given the absence of a live instructor on the other end. And, while it might be easy to get going, there might not be enough formal structure in place to get kids to really commit to an hour or two of activity time.

One-on-one coding lessons and tutors

What it is: You can think of this as a private coding lesson, or a coding tutor, where your child is sitting down with a live instructor, and learning from them. The general idea isn’t much different than the traditional math tutor or other similar experience. 

That said, coding is different from math in many ways, with one of those being output and end result. Meaning, a child learns their multiplication tables with the end goal of knowing exactly what eight times five equals. If they need assistance, a tutor can help them arrive at that conclusion. 

But with learning to code, what’s the output? What’s the goal? Or going back to step one, what’s the starting point? There are a lot of unknowns which require more upfront structure. It’s not so much “Help, my child is having trouble learning this coding concept” and more “My child is interested in learning to code—can you make it fun for them to do so?”

So, with coding lessons or tutoring, you might be able to select an actual project-based course on which your student can be instructed. For example, like designing a Tetris-style game in Python

Pros and cons: As you might expect, one big advantage here is the availability of a knowledgeable instructor on the other end; someone not only who can roll out curriculum and pace the class, but someone who can answer questions and potentially even personalize curriculum given each specific student's unique skills and experience level.

A potential con or downside is that success might greatly depend on the instructor or tutor, where the right or wrong one can make all of the difference in the world. 

Small group coding class

What it is: Even when school is in session, most don’t offer coding. So, if kids want to experience the benefits that come along with learning alongside other students, they need to look elsewhere. A coding summer camp has long been an option, but now with many summer camps canceled or postponed, that opportunity is moving online. 

And yes, that means with the small group. To compare and contrast with the one-on-one learning session mentioned above, both of these options typically involve live instructors and structured curriculum. The only difference with the small group is that instead of having interaction only take place between student and instructor, kids can now work together - and importantly - socialize with others, too, as is the case with a virtual coding camp

Pros and cons: Potential drawbacks depend on your student and their goals. If they want a personally-dedicated deep dive into learning how to code, then one-on-one might be better. On the other hand, if your child wants a deep dive but also craves or needs social time with other students, the small group option might be best. 

Coding games

What it is: Just as the name suggests, such online coding options are set up to allow kids to learn coding through fun and games versus an actual lesson. Meaning, coding is taught through the game itself, where as your child might be tasked to move a character from point A to point B, but can only do so using specific coding commands. These games can be browser-based, or can even be strictly mobile apps. 

Pros and cons: Games might typically do a better job at keeping kids engaged, and might cover a breadth of topics, but might not offer the depth of other online coding options. So, games could be a great resource for getting kids interested in coding, which is always a challenge, and then teaching them basics and fundamentals. 

A potential downside is of course the focus factor. Speaking more to the device than the content, a mobile device is packed full of apps and notifications that can easily distract. 

No shortage of opportunities

As you can see, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to learning to code online, and you might find your child has success with multiple, or perhaps not any of the options listed above. 

In any case, it’s helpful to remember that while coding is hugely important, it’s not for everyone. And, while every student can learn, they just learn differently. 

A photo of Ryan

Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!