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The Source Code

A Blog on Learning Coding and STEM skills

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Everyone is using Zoom for work and school, aren't they? Overnight, Zoom has become the defacto standard for meetings since social isolation became popular or required. Like Kleenex and Rollerblade, Zoom has defined the product category and is no longer just a brand. Why isn't My Coding Place hosting virtual classes and camps for kids on Zoom?

I wrote an earlier blog post with takeaways for software companies trying to appeal to small business. In this evaluation, I did not talk to salespeople like I did during my prior purchasing process, which required a bigger monthly investment and was not a decision that would have been easy to change. Most of these tips are regarding product marketing, product design, and trial design.

We spent many hours and multiple days evaluating options. Because we were testing, we were not ready to subscribe, which ruled out options like Zoom. The Zoom free version is limited to 40 minutes but our classes are one hour long. We started our virtual coding classes for kids using the platforms WebEx and Uberconference. The biggest reason for not going with Zoom was the limitations on the free trial. We simply were not going to invest in a product before evaluating it.

We ended up going with Whereby but evaluated two others with students. WebEx is operated by Cisco which is a well-known networking and cybersecurity company. We used it for classes where students joined with tablets. Unfortunately, the interface is not clean or modern. On top of that, the login process is clumsy and tedious. It was not a tool people enjoyed using, so we used Uberconference for the classes where we knew students were not using tablets. Uberconference is more Zoom-like with a single click to join, and it is easy to use and looks modern and appealing. Unfortunately, Uberconference was not robust and could not run at the same time as Unity software in those classes and lessons, plus if you had another browser window open that you were using at the same time, it could drop you from the meeting. Therefore, neither WebEx or Uberconference were ideal, one because it was not robust and the other because it was not user-friendly.

Fortunately, we found Whereby after a month of evaluating the tools and not being satisfied with either. We know there are many conferencing tools available and small companies with small budgets, but branding and marketing would be a requirement for prospects who do not have the time to read articles to find out about your product. Finding the perfect solution requires persistence because the tools are often hidden in blogs, videos, reviews, and articles. We tested tools like Intercall, Adobe, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams. Adobe called us during our trial, which was a nice touch that set them apart, but their product was too complicated for kids.

The clock was ticking to subscribe to a platform because we had organized virtual workshops for Scratch and Python coding for a Dell employee resource group, with 10 students in a session and six sessions total. We accommodated 20 students last year in our studio but felt that 10 was a reasonable size in a virtual setting. We were going to subscribe to Uberconference if we had to choose one of the two tools, but we were nervous about reliability. Luckily, we came across Whereby 1-2 weeks before we had to make a decision. We randomly found Whereby in a random article on best conferencing tools. Other unknown tools on our list were collaba, and

Here are the reasons the instructors and students enjoy using Whereby:

  1. easy to join: once students make sure they are running Chrome, joining is as easy as one click. They simply knock and wait to be allowed entry.

  2. fun to use: the emojis that are available are fun to use and easy to throw up on anyone's screen. The emojis are a great way to measure progress and let the students participate quickly and easily without everyone having to talk or type at the same time.

  3. multiple screenshares: this is a highlight and key differentiator. We love that students can share their screens at the same time as each other and the instructor. Even Zoom does not allow this. This innovative feature is what convinced us. The ability to see what other students are working on while looking at the instructor's screen and everyone's faces at the same time is authentic and motivating.

Unfortunately, we needed a different tool for live streaming. Broadcasting and recording is possible in Zoom but since we weren't using Zoom for classes, we didn't default to it for our Facebook Live sessions. As a first-time live streamer, we were happy to find Streamyard after evaluating many tools like BeLive, Vimeo, OBS, Wirecast, and Lightstream. You can do Facebook Lives without streaming software, but we wanted to appear professional to the audience with banners and branding, and we needed a meeting platform like Whereby to broadcast two people and screenshares. With Streamyard, we were able to look polished and seamlessly offer different views of us and our screenshare. Also, Streamyard's trial allowed us to use our own branding which made the experience authentic and one that we wanted to continue.

Live streams from coding schools? Where would we start? At the end of April with no experience streaming, we started a new short-term initiative running Facebook Lives with #myCPlive to show people cool projects they can build with code. On a side note, if you are interested, you can catch the recordings on our Facebook Videos page. The 30 minute sessions were cropped to be more useable to viewers trying to learn these topics.

  • April 21 - Data Visualization featuring Javascript

  • April 28 - 3D Games featuring Unity

  • May 5 - Animation featuring Processing

Finding the right streaming software for a beginner was extremely important for this effort. Like finding Whereby, the process required watching videos and reading blog recommendations, as well as testing the application. One provider's tool was just too intimidating and complicated for a newbie, even though we kept getting emails from their support team. If we can't figure something out during the evaluation process, our users will likely have similar issues so it's a bad sign.

In summary, finding the right software for a small business' goals takes great effort, persistence and patience. We spent a lot of time evaluating various tools and did not want to pay for evaluation. That is why Zoom was ruled out at the beginning. Streamyard and Whereby offered trials and we liked them so much, we decided to pay for both, even though at the time the Streamyard trial expired, we only had one Live session remaining. Offering an authentic trial is also important for conversion. This means, don't annoy your trial user with generic branding, like having watermarks all over the screen until they pay.

We are happy to support these software companies and feel very fortunate to have found them just in time for our needs! Innovative software that is fun and easy to use is worth the cost, but finding out about these companies was harder than it should have been! Invest in marketing, get the word out, and make sure you are known by influencers because not all businesses will have time to find your perfect solution! That brings up thoughts on SEO and SEM for another post. Good luck and stay safe!

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Since early March, when the pandemic first introduce safety concerns, MCP has been offering virtual classes. Similarly, schools and activities have moved to a remote environment with tools such as Zoom. It has been a big change, but stay safe and keep coding! Fortunately, the migration to virtual classes was fairly seamless, and we have suggestions to help students succeed online. Below are some tips on how to be successful in a virtual environment.

We have found that the virtual setting brings challenges that we did not face in the studio. An outspoken student asking questions in a face-to-face setting is less disruptive than in a virtual setting, where all participants are required to listen to her/him. Any student questions consume the instructor's attention, and there is no space to ignore a few students that may be chatting with each other. We are keeping the remote classes small with less than 5 students so that kids can have attention and all students will have the opportunity to ask questions. In larger groups, it is easy for students to get frustrated and drop off the call or not engage in the activity.

We also see more distracted students in a virtual setting, though we understand that a large part of that can be attributed to the disruption in children's lives. Their school year ended suddenly, and they were forced to learn from parents and online resources. They are required to stay at home and can only see classmates and friends through a screen. It is a tough time to be a child, but students can adapt and there are qualities we can encourage to help them be successful online.

As a student, thriving in a virtual environment requires the following attributes:

  1. patience: A virtual setting often requires more patience than in-person classes. Patience with technology challenges and patience with other students is helpful.

  2. communication: It is no longer possible for the instructor to see your screen or recognize you are struggling unless you actively communicate it verbally or through facial expression. However, the instructor may be too busy managing the aspects of an online environment such as screenshare and chat to pick up on body language, so speaking up would be best.

  3. focus: Being at home creates more distraction than being at our studio. With small class sizes, we haven't required students to be on mute so that we can encourage communication. It is helpful if the student has privacy and a quiet study area so they can concentrate and other students are not also distracted by noise and movement in the background.

In summary, understanding and adapting to a shift in environment will help students be successful learners. Patience, communication, and focus are helpful attributes. With patience comes flexibility in dealing with other students and a students' own situation, as they will need to make more effort to tolerate differences, overcome technical issues, and communicate questions and frustrations. Good luck to all students as they learn to navigate our new normal!

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

It's been a hard week as a human and a small business owner during this pandemic. We agonized about whether to continue spring break coding camp this week. We wanted to keep ourselves safe but didn't want to let the families down if they needed childcare. We don't issue refunds but do provide credit. Late Thursday almost a week ago, two cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Travis County. Austin Independent School District would close the very next day, the Friday before spring break. Camp was planned to start on Monday Mar 16th with 6 students. I was sure there would be cancellations but didn't hear a word. 2 siblings decided to participate virtually - a challenge for 6 hours a day - and the other 4 students showed up on the first day. We had a good time introducing Scratch and Python and playing old maid, trivia games, and Minecraft.

When one parent came to pick up his child, he had misgivings about safety and asked about my cancellation policy. He would later withdraw over e-mail. Later that evening, the City of Austin closed bars and restaurants, and groups of 10 were prohibited from gathering. The next morning, a parent called to withdraw her child from the camp, and we received e-mail from another concerned parent pulling out her child. They were dropping like flies. Luckily for morale, that day when 3 students left, the 2 remote students came into the studio for camp.

We are more than halfway through the camp and I'm enjoying the coding and the campers, but I will look forward to the camp ending due to the risk and exposure it brings us. We require handwashing throughout the day, send sick kids and staff home, and are disinfecting nightly, but there is still risk to all of us. Sadly, we already had one regular student drop, citing concerns for their family's small business. I feel their pain!

We are fortunate to be able to run our classes remotely, due to the accessible nature of the software we use to code in Scratch, Python, and Javascript. Graphics class also works remotely with the cloud photo editor that we use, but Robotics needs to be retooled due to hardware requirements. The remote option called Virtual Classroom has been popular and is working well for us so far this week.

It's been a sad, scary, uncertain time where I worry about friends, family, staff, and customers. I count my blessings though that we were able to quickly transition to Virtual Classroom without any problems other than poor connections. I look forward to normalcy where we can worry about growth instead of retention. I've been doing more teaching than usual during these strange times, and I really enjoy working with the kids. I watch as I host these remote sessions and manage the camp, and I am so proud of our instructors and what we have built at My Coding Place. This week's camp may be a little terrifying but I will always remember it too because it is the first camp where my almost-7 year olds have been actively coding, and that makes me a proud mama! Stay safe everyone!

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