Collaborative work in the cloud: what I learned teaching my daughter how to code

This article was originally published on my Computerworld blog in February, 2016.

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

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.

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 work-space serving static files. I shared the work-space 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 with understanding of 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. This is 2016 and we need to think outside the box.

It just so happens that Cloud9 IDE work-spaces come with Heroku tool chain 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 work-spaces 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.