As Part Of: Digital Education Awards 2020 Winners Interview Series
Written by Ravi Ruparel, with Louise Gookey | Published: 8th April 2021
Tynker is the world’s leading K-12 creative coding platform, enabling students of all ages to learn how to code at home, school, and on the go. Its highly successful coding
curriculum has been used by one in three U.S. K-8 schools, 90,000 schools globally, and
over 60 million kids across 150 countries. In 2020, Tynker won Best Children’s Learning
Product of the Year and the Digital Education Awards Gold Award at the inaugural Digital Education Awards.
California-based Srinivas Mandyam is one of Tynker's founders. He helped launch the
platform in 2012 to revolutionize the way we learn. He now serves as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Our chair Ravi Ruparel recently sat down with Srinivas on Zoom to talk about Tynker, the EdTech industry, and life after lockdown.
Can you tell us about yourself and Tynker?
When we started, my co-founders and I had already been involved in several other successful startups. With Tynker, we wanted to build a company that gave back to the community, something that was not only fun for kids but useful. Our goal was to introduce children to technology at an early age because it seems that by the time they get to high school, all the fun has been taken out of learning.
We began with computer science and the idea of teaching children how to code, seeing it as an important skill whether they choose to go into a career in computer science or not. And, of course, these days data science and artificial intelligence are being used everywhere.
At first, we were focused on primary school education, and developed our own block-based language, like Lego blocks. While there are similar languages, like Scratch from MIT, we differentiated ours by making it story-based.
We believe that children can learn better with immersive stories, like a dragon looking for treasure, so that the programmer is motivated to create the necessary code for the dragon to go and find the treasure.
We launched our first course in 2013 in homage to Ada Lovelace, who’s regarded as the first computer programmer. We came up with a character named Codey, a friendly troll who helps Professor Ada battle the evil Dr. Glitch, and you, as the coder, get to steer the action.
Accessibility is important to us. We offer a lot of our courses as free activities that anyone can try on our website and as part of our annual Hour of Code events. Today, our free coding activities have attracted 30 to 40 million users.
Since these activities are free, anyone can try them, and if they like them they can purchase a plan on Tynker, but that’s completely optional. Our mission as a company is to make sure the next generation can learn to build whatever they want with code. We want to make them creators, not just passive consumers of technology for games or exams.
Tynker has a strong diverse community of young coders and a platform for them to submit and share their projects. We also have moderators who reach out to them, so we can celebrate their achievements and feature their work on our website.
“Our aim was to change the way children learn at school because sometimes it seems that by the time children get to high school, all of the fun has been beaten out of the system.”
Has anyone who has taken your courses reached out to say thank you - or asked for an internship yet? They must be about that age?
Yes! Someone who had completed our courses contacted us and became an intern, which was wonderful.
How has Tynker’s vision changed, and how do you see the next few years panning out?
This past year has been difficult for everybody, however, since we’ve always been set up for distance learning, we found out early on that some of the schools in Asia were using Tynker after they were forced to close. So, we decided to make our entire educational suite free, and as a result, we had nearly ten thousand schools benefiting from our software and lessons online.
Our impact report shows us how much it helped, and we learned that collaboration between remote friends as well as between students and teachers was a great area to invest our time in. Last year, we made it so kids could work on a project together or kids could contact their teachers and ask for help. All of our tools have a panel where kids can ask questions and teachers can answer back, which has been used a lot since lockdown.
We do lots of other things, including co-teaching where you can designate another teacher to take over your classroom if you’re not available. We’ve also made it possible to assign kids as helpers who can answer questions and assist other students in using the platform.
Another thing we wanted to do was reduce anxiety for teachers, many of whom may not have any formal training in Computer Science, so we created slide decks for every lesson that they can use to present either remotely or in class. Did you know that our curriculum has over thirty thousand slides?
“When we started we wanted to help a few kids, but we have already helped millions.”
Are there any memorable projects you’ve seen created with Tynker?
There are so many! So far, kids have created over 75 million projects with our platform and that number grows by 10 or 20 percent every year.
Throughout the year we have contests called Code Jams which are based on different coding topics, like augmented reality. We’ve also collaborated with Minecraft on courses and upgraded our music tools so kids can compose their own songs with code. One of our Code Jam winners last year created their own animations and music and then synced it all together in one project.
We’ve also partnered with NASA to collaborate on a number of interesting projects and contests. One of the prizes was to speak with a NASA scientist in their classroom via a video call for an hour and ask any questions they want. Projects like that are always a big hit.
We’ve found that there are a lot of parents who want instructor-led courses for their kids while they’re at home, which is why we’ve added live online coding classes where groups of five or 6 kids can get personalized instruction from our tutors.
We also offer summer coding classes and one-on-one coaching. What separates Tynker from other coding platforms is our vast immersive content. Plus, kids can build a portfolio of projects and share them with a safe and secure community to inspire other coders and get feedback all in one place.
Over the next few years, what technology trends excite you?
I think machine learning and AI are fascinating, even for kids. I also think augmented reality, things like Minecraft where there’s an overlap into the real world, and they can connect with friends. That’s going to be really popular.
“We hope that we can help parents understand the value of coding education, just like it is important for a child to learn how to swim, or ride a bike.”
How do you see the world and children’s learning post Covid?
Last year, we saw a peak in people using Tynker in March and April, which has come down, but it’s still more than before lockdown. We think this trend will continue as more parents realize that Tynker can make their kid’s screen time less passive and more productive.
Schools have had to make sure kids are ready to learn online. For example, our local school requires that every child has a laptop and if they don’t have Wi-Fi at home, they’re provided with Wi-Fi cards. They’ve also made it so that every child has access to the internet for class Zoom calls. Basically, it’s all about online innovation, so my hope is that because of things like this education will only get better and better.
There are concerns about children’s unrestricted use of the internet. How do you view Tynker’s responsibility to ensure children safely integrate with technology?
We’re working on video-based courses dealing with coding etiquette and privacy. And, we have moderators in place to make sure our community is safe and everyone follows the rules. We want projects to be available straight away, so we use AI to identify any problems and alert our team to anything that breaks the rules.
What does ultimate success look like to you and for the company?
When we started we wanted to help kids learn how to code, and we’ve already taught millions. I’m happy with our progress, but we want to make sure it remains accessible to everyone, so we’ll always make part of our content free.
We hope that we can help parents understand the value of a coding education, just like it’s important for a child to learn how to swim or ride a bike. We want to show parents that coding is a valuable life skill for their children and that knowing a few tricks in a coding language will be beneficial to their future.
Are there any specific projects that you would like to highlight?
We recently launched live group classes and one-on-one private coaching that we’re excited about. The classes are very popular and fill up quickly, but the great thing is that you can participate from anywhere in the world. Our hope is that parents will consider our group classes during the summer for their kids. They’re essentially online coding camps covering things like Minecraft modding, game design, Python coding, and web dev with a lot of fun collaboration.
Also, we’ve recently launched two AP® Computer Science courses that are endorsed by the College Board, and it’s really exciting to see high schools starting to use them.