Learning Content in the Enterprise: Codecademy

This is the latest installment of our series delving into some of the coolest ways to learn online. You can view earlier installments here:

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This time around we’re going to be looking at a site called Codecademy. Codecademy (not to be confused with, or pronounced like, Code Academy) is one of the most popular ways for beginners to jump into programming. Millions of people have used Codecademy to learn web development (I’m one among their number), and it gets great reviews. Let’s dig in to see why!

What can I learn there

Codecademy is, as the name suggests, all about learning to code, mainly web development. The content is definitely designed for beginners, and it is great at what it does. Head over to Codecademy to get your start on anything from HTML/CSS/Javascript and jQuery, to Ruby, Python and PHP. Curious what these things called APIs are all about? Codecademy’s got you covered.
 

What makes it different?

Codecademy is incredibly interactive, totally free, and it gets you started writing your first lines of code almost immediately, giving you a sense of accomplishment and possibility right off the bat.

The approach that Codecademy takes is particularly interesting in contrast to the last learning website we profiled, Treehouse. There are no videos to be had at Codecademy - instead it uses text-based instructions to guide the learner progressively through each new concept. The only way to move on is to demonstrate that you understood these new concepts by coding your answers. It’s all coding, all the time, and it’s excellent.

Unlike Treehouse, you’ll find no Mike the Frog here, no action-adventure video series to reward you for completing the latest exercise. While there is a badge-based reward system, the UI is otherwise very clean and minimalist. All distractions are removed so you can get down to business.

Despite how different the branding and learning experiences are between these two sites, one is not necessarily better than the other. They both execute very well on their respective approaches, and may appeal more or less to a given learner based on her preferred learning style.

What’s the learning experience like?

The best part about Codecademy is they get you coding immediately. But you’re rarely faced with an entirely new or confounding challenge, because their “bite-sized learning” approach makes it feel like you’ve already encountered the latest concept. Instead of 5-10 minute videos, Codecademy delivers their learning delights in 15-second nanotasks that progressively skill you up.

Take one of their newer courses called “Learn the Command Line”. One of the first tasks here is to simply type “ls” into the terminal (which is conveniently provided to you right in your web browser). Hit enter, and you’re done. Your results appear on the screen, and you’ve learned a new concept! It's incredibly easy, and that’s how they want everything to feel. Regardless of how complex a given coding task may be in the abstract, Codecademy endeavors to walk you progressively through each and every prerequisite concept so that each new task feels no more difficult or foreign than the one that came before it.

Contrast this with Treehouse, which - though I tend to enjoy it immensely - can sometimes feel like it skips certain critical concepts that make the learning process more challenging than I would prefer, such that I have to go somewhere else to fill in the missing pieces before I can return to my lesson.

Pricing

Did I mention it’s free? That might be why one of their HTML courses, for example, has 4.5 million learners at the time of this writing. How do they plan to make money? I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s something that’s crossed their minds, and with so many users, they probably have options. In the meantime, let's just reap the fruits of their labor.

What is Codecademy similar to?

Later on in this series we’ll be profiling a couple other sites that have strong similarities to Codecademy, including Datacamp (a fellow Techstars alum), Codeschool, and aspects of Udacity. But Codecademy has, from what I’ve seen, the greatest breadth and depth when it comes to interactive coding. If you’re looking for a way to get started with programming but aren’t sure where to start, you will not go wrong by starting with Codecademy.

What I dug

I wrote my first lines of code on Codecademy - I dug it then and have dug it ever since.  To summarize, there are a couple main reasons for this:

  • It does a good job of stripping away as many barriers between me and my progress as possible, including the need to switch back and forth between the source of my learning (the text-based tutorial) and the place where I practice my newly-acquired knowledge (my code editor), which is placed right alongside the text tutorial.

  • The learning is delivered in such small bits that concepts which might otherwise be overwhelming or intimidating are rendered more comprehensible and manageable.

  • It makes effective use of tried and true game mechanics, including badges and progress indicators. I remember feeling quite accomplished in my early days due to accumulating my three dozen digital badges. 

What I could dig more

As a slight counterpoint to my praise of the excellent minimalist UX they’ve created, it can at times get a bit dry, and that’s where sites with a bit more flash like Treehouse or Code School shine. This, however, is typically remedied by setting it aside and coming back with fresh eyes. My only other qualm is that the content seems aimed fairly exclusively at a beginner to early-intermediate audience. One could argue, however, that this focus is why they have been able to execute well, and there are still many languages that they’ve yet to broach, even at a beginner level.

Usage in the enterprise

Since it's totally free, enterprises must be all over Codecademy, right?  Well, data is limited on this, but based on conversations we’ve had with L&D professionals, Codecademy rarely comes up. As with Treehouse, this could be due to its focus on beginners. Also, it’s unlikely that a learner who has completed every Codecademy course would be ready to contribute in a terribly meaningful way based solely upon what they’ve learned.

That said, it’s no secret that there’s a giant shortage of technical know-how in the labor force, so one could argue that companies can’t afford to overlook resources like Codecademy in the library of content they provide their workforce. Learning is a long-term investment, and I suspect it’s the forward-thinking companies willing to invest in long-term skill development that are going to be best positioned to succeed in the future.  And in the case of Codecademy, that investment happens to be $0. Seems like a pretty low-risk bet to me.

However, because Codecademy cannot be accessed through an LMS, companies lack an easy way of getting employees to specific courses within Codecademy, tracking what they’ve learned once there, and facilitating conversations between employees about the content. This is a challenge companies tend to face across all informal content, though there are solutions to be had.

Final thoughts

Have you used Codecademy before? What did you think of it? Is it in use at your organization on a company-wide level, or do any of your colleagues make use of it? Let us know in the comments!

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