A couple of years ago, as an 8-year-old trying to learn to code, a student named Theo was frustrated. Theo happens to be blind, and the standard tools designed to teach children to code rely heavily on visuals. But over the last year, he’s been a beta tester for something new: a set of physical blocks designed specifically to teach coding to kids with visual impairments. He’s moved on, and now codes in Python.
Called Code Jumper, the kit uses differently shaped blocks or “pods” that can be attached in patterns; each pod is a line of code. (Each is also brightly colored, for students who are visually impaired but not fully blind.) When the pods are attached together, and buttons on the pods are adjusted, the series creates an audible output, like a song or joke.
“When we were working with kids with little or no vision, we noticed that the existing tools that are out there for teaching kids how to program just didn’t work,” says Nicolas Villar, a senior researcher at Microsoft, where the tool was first developed. “They’re really graphical in nature. Even tools like screen readers don’t do a good job of conveying the complexity of the code. They all use visual metaphors to explain the code.”
A team at Microsoft began working on the project, then called Project Torino, four years ago. At first, Villar says, they planned to try to make a physical version of a typical coding tool for children. But as they worked with a team of student beta testers–and paper and clay prototypes–the design evolved into something unique. It’s something that can also help sighted children learn.
Today, Microsoft announced that it will transfer the research and technology for the project to the nonprofit APH, or American Printing House for the Blind, which plans to bring it to market later this year. When it does, it’s likely to end up both in schools for children who are blind and in mainstream classrooms.
The vast majority of visually impaired children in the U.S. are enrolled in local public schools, says Craig Meador, president of APH. “They may be the only blind student in that district, and definitely within that school,” he says. Right now, in a class learning to code, a blind student might be assigned a buddy to explain what’s happening on a screen, and much of what’s happening will be lost. With Code Jumper, by contrast, “Both students can participate. It’s going to challenge both students, and push them on to higher-level thinking skills.”
Many blind or visually impaired adults are unemployed, but programming can be a good fit for a career; the challenge can be learning the basics and getting started young. The new tool aims to help cover that gap. “It sets an expectation for any teacher working with students that there’s no excuse,” says Meador. “Students should learn to code, and through this program, they can.”