Private online classes for my 5 year old
Juni Learning is an online coding school for kids with a powerful proposition. It offers 1-1 online coaching by computer science students anywhere in the world. This is a really great option for families looking for ways to learn code and if I can summarise the benefits they are (a) flexibility of doing it in your home at any time (b) having a human there to help you rather than following a course by yourself online (this is in contrast to joining a local coding school, or taking an online course like Code Kingdoms which relies on pre-recorded instructional videos) and (c) ability to grow with each individual student at their own speed.
The company was founded by two partners in Silicon Valley, Vivian Shen (ex-McKinsey Consultant) and Ruby Lee (formerly with a prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins). Their launch received attention when Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Arielle Zuckerberg invested together with a number of Y Combinator Partners (Y Combinator is one of the most well known start-up accelerators in the world). So the young business has an excellent pedigree.
The team told me they apply a rigorous interview process for their teachers which includes background checks, mock lessons and then only accepting less than 15% of applicants (many from prestigious Universities like Stanford, MIT and Harvard). They work with kids aged 5-18 offering 10+ courses ranging from Scratch to Python then into upper division courses or electives (e.g. Java or Web Development).
My 5 and a half year old Nina took two lessons on consecutive Sundays at the invitation of Juni (this is not a sponsored review). I listened in while she was doing it and helped in places, but generally tried to keep out of her way.
Juni Learning uses zoom which is a simple web meeting tool (like skype or google hangout). We received an email with the link 24 hours before the class, and then a reminder email with a few hours to go. These emails were short with brief instructions, and nothing you didn’t need.
Logging into zoom was a simple as clicking the link a few minutes before class started. On both occasions our teacher was waiting. A very friendly and warm teacher named Jordan who was sitting in California. It was her evening and our morning.
The email had requested that we create a scratch account before class, so we had done that and were ready to go. Jordan asked us to share our screen, which again is a simple click within the zoom interface, and she was then able to see what we could see and also control things where needed.
For audio we were using a wired set of iphone headphones. This worked fine, but it would have been much better using something wireless, or a proper headset designed for internet calls.
Nina has been exposed to various coding elements, but this was the first formal class she has taken. At school, they are still working on the basics of hand eye coordination by playing simple online games and like many kids her age, she is more comfortable with the touch screen interface of an iphone, so she is still improving her mouse ‘point and click’ skills.
With Scratch loaded up, Jordan directed us to a page with the Scratch cat displayed on the right side, and the blank box for coding on the left. She briefly talked about ‘computer science’ and the concept that everything on a computer could be controlled or changed using it. I assumed this had gone right over Nina’s head, but later that week she told me she had told her computer teacher at school about her lessons. When I asked ‘what did you tell him?’, she replied ‘that I learned computer science!’.
The first activity was to learn how to move the cat. Nina moved it to the right 3 steps, then changed it to 10 steps. We then changed the code so that if it hit a wall it would bounce back and keep walking. Then we used a ‘forever’ loop so that it kept walking non-stop. Jordan explained the loop in a nice and simple way, by saying it looked like a crocodile mouth, and that Nina had to put the actions inside the mouth.
We then added the ability to paint lines so that blue lines would appear wherever the cat walked. We changed the colour and weight of the line. All of this involved quite a bit of work for Nina. She had to add blocks, change numbers, change words etc. At about 30 minutes she began to fidget. Jordan was pretty good at picking up on this and she switched to a game of ‘hungry hippos’ which was a pre-existing game within scratch. Nina had to use the keyboard arrows to move the hippo around. But then we played with the code to make things easier by making the hippo larger or faster. This was a good way to reinforce the message that with code you can change things (ie. a game that already exists).
We wrapped up after 45 minutes which I think was a bit too long for younger kids. Jordan commented that her other 5-6 year old students usually run for 30 minutes which makes sense.
Exactly one week later we had our second class. Same time, same day of the week and same teacher. Interestingly, Nina had kind of forgotten the work part and by Saturday she was asking ‘when can I have my next computer class?’.
Jordan started us off with a game on Scratch called ‘Into the Maze’. This required the player to move the Scratch cat to a certain square with simple ‘move right’, ‘move up’ instructions. Nina did this a few times and I was surprised by how quickly she could work it out. We then introduced ‘Loops’ so that she could write the code in less number of moves (ie. a loop with ‘move right’ used twice could be re-used rather than inserting ‘move right’ multiple times). While this is of course a basic part of coding, I didn’t get the sense Nina saw the advantage of the short cut. That is, she didn’t have the ‘ah ha’ moment that this was going to make things easier. This also coincided with the 30 minute mark, and Nina was starting to lose concentration (it probably didn’t help that her sister was playing the background).
Again, Jordan changed the game, this time to a music based one which included a picture of different instruments. Nina had to choose which sound would match which instrument. This extra element of sounds made it fun but she didn’t quite have the motivation to change them all, so we wrapped up the class.
I have done a lot of Mandarin classes using exactly the same setup as Juni so I know how well it can work. Not having to choose a physical school, travel to class, adapt to their hours etc is a huge bonus. It’s exactly the same for kids learning to code. I would also probably prefer they do it at home so I can be involved and see exactly what they are learning.
I can’t really fault our experience with the platform. The instructions were clear, setup easy to use and the teacher was great. Jordan was particularly encouraging and always made sure to say ‘great job’. Any parent considering this should look at taking part in the first session because the people skills of the teacher are really important. While it is completely personalised, there is still a physical distance between teacher and student, so it needs a teacher who can pick up on your child’s reactions and interest level. In Nina’s case, while sitting next to her it was obvious when she was starting to twitch and Jordan was really good at also picking this up. I would want this from any of the teachers, otherwise there is a risk they would push on with a project while the child starts to tune out.
The other important thing I noticed is to try to work out what type of content will help to motivate your child (e.g. moving a cat through a maze or drawing a picture). Nina, for example, did most of the tasks but she wasn’t yet excited by the ability to write more clever code. I think the payoff between the work (putting code together) and the reward (watching the script perform) was not always there. This has nothing to do with Juni. It’s more that Scratch appears quite basic at times and younger kids may not appreciate everything they can do with it. Thus it’s best to spend some time working out a task that will motivate your own child as simply learning to code may not be interesting for all (again, Nina is 5 so this was specific to her).
I would definitely recommend this platform for parents looking at teaching their kids to code. Having a personal teacher means they can 100% customise the class in terms of level, content, speed and communication style. This is hugely beneficial as slower kids aren’t left behind, while the faster ones tackle more advanced content. The price (US$250/w for 1 class a week or US$450/w for 2 classes as week) seems reasonable when I compare it to local coding schools here in Singapore and the pedigree of the teachers also looks great.
Complete flexibility to work where you want, when you want
Tailor learning to the needs of your child
Strong team and excellent teachers
Being based in Asia meant we had less class times to choose from