Changes to the computingcurriculum in England, which arrived last September requiring schools to teachbona fide programming skills to kids as young as five, are shaking out intoincreased opportunities for edtech startups in the U.K.
Making learning to codeaccessible, fun and engaging is the jumping off point of London-based startupCode Kingdoms, which has today launched out of beta, after trialling its gamefor the past year with around 25,000 kids and 700 schools.
“Code Kingdom is a game thatteaches kids how to code but in a way that is really fun for kids,” saysco-founder and CEO Ross Targett. The premise being, he adds, that if you’retrying to entice kids digitally, your game has to be fun enough to wrestletheir attention away from Minecraft — since you’re inevitably competing in thatsame “entertainment space”.
Using a game and game mechanicsas a wrapper for teachingcoding also brings native stickiness to the learning experience, saysTargett, explaining that the team began by building a learn to code tool that“wasn’t really a game” and finding usage dropping off after what looked likegood initial engagement.
“Those core things that gameshave — so these basic loops that mean you want to come back daily to collectyour rewards, earning a currency or working towards a goal… we didn’t havethose — so what we were having is really good engagement for a few hours andthen no one coming back because it didn’t really have the mechanism to do so.So we went back to the drawing board and made sure the game was actually verypowerful. But the original coding tool we built to get kids coding is still afundamental part of it.”
The idea for building CodeKingdoms followed on from Targett and his co-founder spending time volunteeringin schools teaching kids programming, as part of corporate socialresponsibility programs when they worked for Intel and ARM. In schools theywere using the MIT graphical programming language Scratch, but spotted whatthey saw as an opportunity to update Scratch’s approach — and teach a realprograming language, rather than a pseudo-language.
“Most things out there aredesigned for teachers, or for how adults perceive kids to be learning —nothing’s really designed to make it really fun for kids, so we wanted to makeit super fun for kids so they get excited about learning to code computerscience, and then hopefully go on because they’re excited to actually exploreit as a career, or look at it in other subjects,” says Targett.
He argues that Scratch is nolonger up to scratch for England’s schools as it does not teach a realprogramming language — which is a requirement of the new curriculum. He alsoreckons it’s pretty dated now, having being built for an earlier, desktopcomputing world, rather than the modern mobile-focused space.
Other relatively new entrants inthe ‘teach kids coding’ space include U.K. startup Kano, which involves bothDIY hardware and learn to code software, and similarly offers a graphicalinterface to simplify programming. But Targett argues Kano is a platform onwhich the Code Kingdoms product could happily sit. So doesn’t seem them aslike-for-like competition.
He says Code Kingdoms is alsoworking with various other learn to code outreach organisations, such as CodeClub and Teach First, to get its product into kids’ hands. “We find wecomplement more people than compete with them, and Kano’s a really good exampleof that,” he adds.
Of course it is also possible tolearn Java coding via making Minecraft mods, but Targett reckons that’s “quitea step up” in terms of ability required. “We want to bridge that gap, enableanyone to get excited, learn the skill without that massive aptitude you needto really get started,” he adds. “And Minecraft was never designed to teachkids to code.”
While Targett and the team areundoubtedly evangelical about teaching kids coding, they are also entrepreneurswith dreams of building a big, profitable business so Code Kingdoms is not anot-for-profit. There is very much a business plan here.
So, while it’s giving itssoftware to schools for free, it’s aiming to monetize via the play-at-home gameversion of the product — using schools as its low-cost distribution mechanismto get in front of lots of kids’ eyeballs. In future it plans to sell premiumcontent for the non-schools version of its software to kids’ parents, saysTargett.
“We see schools as a channel toacquire users,” he notes. “The kids will discover the product in their classand then they’ll go home and play… We thought this was a really good way toacquire users very cheaply that are very engaged. And use schools as apromotional channel. Because it’s free we get more schools, more teachersengaged. We get a lot of goodwill from our teacher community.”
It’s also a pretty delicatebalancing act when free educational software at school morphs into amoney-hungry parent pesterer at home. But that’s the balance Code Kingdoms isaiming to strike. “We plan to have premium content in the app which isnon-educational, it’s more entertainment focused, so a kid that doesn’t want tospend money can still learn,” adds Targett.
The startup has raised around$410,000 to date, including from U.S.-based seed fund SparkLabs GlobalVentures, which Targett dubs pre-seed funding — given the large amountsrequired to fuel a gaming startup. He says it will be looking to raise a largerround in June.
Its short term focus is squarelyon the U.K. market, with educational content tailored to the U.K. curriculum,but the aim is to expand the product to the U.S., South Korea and thenelsewhere in Europe down the line.