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I Am Learning to Code: Week 2, Can You Learn on Codecademy from Zero Previous Experience?

By Henry Kronk
January 30, 2018

The online course I’m currently enrolled in, Codecademy’s “Build Websites from Scratch,” promises the following: “No prior coding experience is needed to enroll.” Codecademy isn’t unique in this regard. Many online courses offer to train total coding noobs. This post is dedicated to that idea, whether I perceive it to be true, lingering concerns I have, and whether you can, in fact, enter into a coding program without any prior knowledge and successfully complete it.

To be clear, the kind of coding discussed here is web development. It accomplishes a different goal from software programming, it’s easier, and it doesn’t really get into more advanced math and logic.

I was pretty new to coding before the first lesson, but did have some knowledge. Like many people my age, I spent most of middle school and on into high school posting actively on my Myspace account. One of my favorite features that Facebook did not preserve was that Myspace allowed you to completely change your profile design. To do this, you’d find a sweet skin on some online forum, copy some code comprised, I believe, entirely of HTML and CSS, and paste it into a section of your profile settings. That was the first moment when I realized that combinations of basic text could translate into something completely different.

Before I began the Codecademy course, I also checked out some of the resources on w3schools.com, which compiles standards of coding established by the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3. W3 broadly acts as an international body that writes standards of practice for the internet. Besides a good deal of reading material, W3 Schools offers free coding exercises in many of the most popular languages. They’re a really good place to start.

Other than that, I had nothing

I think that most people are wary of coding because of how mysterious it can be to certain members of the public. We fear the unknown. Many of us, myself included, struggle to remember our passwords to various online accounts. Computer programming is surely more difficult than navigating our online professions and personas.

learning to codeSo does Codecademy’s promise to teach even those with no prior experience hold up? My belief is, for the most part, yes.

After a short series of introductory methods, the lessons began with HTML—arguably the most basic coding language. Lesson 1, Unit 1 begins by asking “What is HTML?” The answer: “HTML is the language used to create the websites you visit everyday. It provides a logical way to structure content for websites.”

They go through what HTML stands for, what it does in great detail, and then shows you how to write it. From there (so far), all lessons build off of skills previously learned and reference past units. No lesson so far has thrown me. I’ve grown frustrated at times, but I’ve always managed to find the solution on my own.

Had I not been able to do so, there’s also a healthy Slack account dedicated to our class where people post constantly about the issues they’ve had, solutions, and everything else.

I generally enjoy Codecademy’s pedagogy. It doesn’t quite follow a flipped learning model, but it often comes very close. By the end of the first unit, learners are asked to simply recreate a website just by looking at it. This more hands off, let learners make their own mistakes approach suits me well. I also really enjoy the tone of Codecademy lessons. They manage to be inclusive, supportive, and above all else, not boring.

Lingering Concerns About Codecademy’s Approach

One of the main criticisms of Codecademy I have read is explained succinctly by Matthew Hughes of MakeUseOf: they offer too much cake, not enough vegetables. “The reason why Codecademy is successful is because it takes coding, and transforms it into addictive bite-sized pieces that are easy to accomplish, and offer instantaneous feedback,” Hughes writes. “It’s the candy of coding.”

Hughes’ piece was written in 2015, before the advent of their intensive synchronous courses. But I must admit, I worry that his conclusion is true. Maybe the reason why anyone can pick this info up is that it doesn’t take much energy to digest.

learning to codeThat said, one of his other claims, that if you blink while studying on Codecademy, “you’ll miss it,” does not hold up with their newer courses. If it were true, it would cast more worry for me on how a layperson could begin learning without previous experience. Each successive project and lesson has been built on skills learned before. True, I’ve only gotten into Unit 3, but it still feels like I practice information from previous units on current ones.

Another larger issue I worry about was voiced by Basel Farag of TechCrunch in 2016:  “The line between learning to code and getting paid to program as a profession is not an easy line to cross.” True, Farag is taking up programming, not web design, but I believe the logic holds.

With a background in freelance writing, I feel like I’m somewhat prepared to cross this line. But others enrolled in the course will need to also have those skills or live in a community hungry for web developers. If you’re coming from anywhere outside the tech industry, knowledge of a set of coding languages alone won’t necessarily translate into a career change. And Codecademy doesn’t promise to teach us that.