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Looking to distract the kids while you work from home? Get them programming!

Many of us are working from home at the moment, but our children are at home too. While this can be fun, parents sometimes need a bit of peace and quiet. Leiden computer scientist Felienne Hermans has developed Hedy, a programming language that teaches children how to program. An educational way to keep them busy, which may feel like manna from heaven given the present situation.

Felienne Hermans is an associate professor at the Leiden Institute of Advanced Computer Science (LIACS). She is the brain behind Hedy, a programming language that teaches children and beginners to code one step at a time. ‘Last summer, I went to a presentation about another programming language for children, Dr Scheme,’ she says. ‘That works with different levels: in the beginning there are lots of rules and as you progress you get more freedom. I thought: “That’s a good idea, but it should be the other way around.” Just like when children are learning to write you don’t start by teaching them capital letters, full stops and commas. They begin by writing short sentences with lower-case letters and learn the rules as they go along.’

‘I first checked whether there wasn’t such a thing already.’ There wasn’t, so Hermans decided to get programming. ‘As I had already done research into similarities between programming and learning to write, it seemed like the logical option.’

From apps to artworks

What benefit is programming to children? Hermans explains: ‘You can make all sorts of things if you can program: stories, apps, games, artworks. It’s great if children understand a bit about the process of making something digital so that they can decide whether they like it and want to learn more. Some groups of children – for example, girls or children who don’t have a computer at home – hardly come into contact with that.’ Hermans has therefore made sure that Hedy also works on phones and tablets.

And it was soon clear that there was an appetite for this. ‘Dutch celebrities such as Ionica Smeets and Sheila Sitalsing shared the message about Hedy on Twitter, so we immediately had a fairly big reach,’ Hermans explains. ‘On the first day 1,200 children took part in the lessons and together they developed 2,000 programs. We’ve now already reached 7,000 programs.’ A huge success, almost too big. ‘At one point there were so many at the same time that our database provider began to limit our internet traffic,’ Hermans laughs.

Hedy is available on this site: https://hedy-beta.herokuapp.com/?lang=en&level=1. You begin at level 1, with an explanation in text and video. Each level has a few assignments and once you have completed them you move on to the next level. At the time of publication there are five levels. You can only use a few commands in each level. These commands become more complicated in each level. To begin with you can just type the word print followed by some text:

print Hello everyone! How are you?

Everything after the word print is automatically printed. From level 3 you have to use inverted commas, as is standard in most programming languages:

print ‘Hello everyone! How are you?’

The commands gradually become more difficult, so children learn as they go along.

The start screen for Hedy level 1. There commands are ready for children to try them out.

Strange situation

Hedy has been released at an opportune moment, with children at home because of the corona crisis. That wasn’t the plan at all, says Hermans. ‘I should have been at a conference in Norway this week to give a presentation on Hedy. That was going to be recorded and put online; then we would have had a nice video to share along with the news that Hedy had been released. But instead of giving the presentation in Norway, I made a video in my sitting room with my webcam, and we launched Hedy straight away.’

They are still working hard behind the scenes. ‘We are trying to post new levels online as quickly as possible. As Hedy is open source, other people are helping out too. That’s great, but it sometimes creates new problems. A lovely volunteer translated all the menu buttons into Spanish, for instance, so that Spanish children can use it. Fantastic, but we then had to quickly change Hedy’s code because we didn’t support accents, which there are a lot of in Spanish. You’d get Spanish children typing sentences such as “ask Cuál es tu color favorito?”’

Not just Hedy

Alongside Hedy, Hermans has plenty to do, particularly after the University decided to cancel face-to-face teaching. ‘I still need to record a few films so that I can teach next week,’ she says. ‘Livestreaming is too risky because of bandwidth, so I’m recording them in advance and will them make them available. Luckily, I’ve created Massive Open Online Courses in the past and have been doing a podcast for years, so I’m somewhat prepared. But although I’m technically savvy, it’s still a strange feeling that I won’t see my students for the rest of the academic year. It might sound a bit sentimental, but I miss them already.’

Text: Ramón van Doorn

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