Based in Pasadena, codeSpark wants to make computer science education accessible to kids everywhere by turning programming into play.
By Ka-Yun Lau
Grant Hosford, CEO and co-founder of codeSpark, discusses the company’s origin story and the future of educational technology (EdTech).
Grant, can you share a little bit about yourself and your background in technology?
I was born and raised in Tacoma, WA. I first moved to California to go to Claremont McKenna College. I come from a family of educators; my mom was a high school teacher and my dad and brother are high school principals. I’ve lived on four continents — North and South Americas, Europe, and Africa — and those experiences have given me a global perspective on business and problem solving. We have more in common with people in other countries than most realize.
I began working in the tech sector in 1999, during the first internet boom. I helped start up an interactive agency that built websites for big companies like Converse, Microsoft, and Starbucks. My first role at the agency was COO/CFO but after two years, I hired my replacement and took on a head of sales and strategy role. The company grew quickly to over $12M in revenue and 120 people. We sold it to the advertising agency, WPP, and then I worked in e-commerce for a year before landing at eHarmony.
At eHarmony, I was the “guy who started new stuff” and helped create new businesses around wedding planning, parenting, targeted advertising on the site, and a new dating brand for younger customers. After eHarmony, I was at a dating start-up for a year and then met Bill Gross, founder of Idealab.
I started working with Bill a month later and immersed myself in Idealab’s entrepreneurial culture. Bill became codeSpark’s first investor about 10 months after we started working together.
Can you share more about the story behind codeSpark?
I was working with Bill Gross as an ‘idea killer.’ Bill would give me an idea for a new company every day and it was my job to figure out which ideas had the most potential. One of his ideas was an app that would let middle school and high school kids create their own apps. Right after working on this idea, my two young daughters asked me how computers work.
Inspired by their curiosity, I tried to find an ‘ABC’s of Computer Science’ for them and was surprised to learn nothing existed. It made sense to me that computer science should be taught like English and math, with a clear progression from kindergarten through high school.
I became obsessed with the idea that ALL kids should understand how computers work.
I also thought learning about computer science should be fun and focused on creation. So, after a hard search, I found an incredible co-founder, game designer, and father of three, Joe Shochet, who shared this vision and we launched codeSpark in March of 2014.
This year, codeSpark worked with Girl Scouts in introducing more STEM-focused programs and also won two grants. What does this mean for codeSpark?
codeSpark designed nine new merit badges for Girl Scouts; three for the Daisies, three for the Brownies, and three for the Juniors. The badges have been launched nationally and cover computer science fundamentals, video game design, and designing apps to have a positive social impact.
We won two grants from the Department of Education that provided total funding of $2.3M ($1.2M for codeSpark). For one, we partnered with UCLA’s CRESST group to create national assessment standards for computational thinking. This is an important step toward becoming “gold standard” for K-5 computer science education.
For the other grant, we partnered with research powerhouse RAND Corporation to develop tools and materials that will allow K-5 teachers to combine storytelling and coding. This is HUGE for K-5 because they can add coding to an already crowded curriculum without taking time away from other subjects.
Congratulations! One thing stood out to me from codeSpark is the no-word approach. As someone whose first language isn’t English, this is appealing. What was your thought process in that direction? Did you have an issue on how to translate coding into a visual concept?
I wanted our platform to be as accessible as possible and that meant making it work for pre-readers. Also, I know from research that most people are visual learners, with images being both absorbed faster and remembered longer than text. So, I looked at partially visual coding tools like Scratch for inspiration and tested my way into a new visual coding language.
And not only does the no-words approach work for speakers of other languages and pre-readers, it also work for kids with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and other attention and reading-related challenges.
Looking back to when you founded this, what is one thing you wish you knew?
I wish I’d known how much teachers and kids would love our platform! I tend to be cautiously optimistic when predicting the future. Our first two years, we moved slowly and deliberately. In retrospect, maybe we could have grown even faster!
Five years from now, what do you see or hope will have happened in edtech world?
I think we’ll be talking about several things, ranging from AI to school design.
For AI in education, we will be looking at using AI to augment what teachers do. And we have to teach kids how to recognize and work with or even create AI.
School design needs to be modernized. The current classroom design hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years, while what the workforce needs has changed dramatically. We need physical spaces that better support creativity, project-based learning, and collaborations.
The beginning of teachers being valued properly will start with the emergence of online superhero teachers who can reach millions of kids via online and mobile channels. Several AI-powered online personas will probably emerge as “celebrities.”
Lastly, coding will officially be seen as having equal value to language, math, and writing/communication.
This will lead to a huge generation of problem solvers who can take on issues of the day like protecting democracy, managing a growing global population, and deploying sustainable sources of energy.
> This article is published in cooperation with Innovate Pasadena. It was edited for space and clarity. Read the full article here.
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