Blackbird – A review

I’m always interested in websites that teach coding. I like the idea of learning new skills and testing oneself. Blackbird is one of those sites. The goal here is to teach people JavaScript which is pretty cool because JavaScript runs in browser making a bit easier for people to play around in it.

This website is geared for middle school students and up and unlike block programming (like the super popular Scratch) this has students working with actual code, but it does it with a lot of hand holding which I like. Just to be clear I am no programmer. I have dabbled here and there with mostly Python but with this review I was learning right along everyone else. Let’s see if it is worth using.

Signing up

Pretty standard stuff here. You can sign up with an email account, your Google account or a Clever account. What’s nice though is that you can sign up as a Teacher, Individual (which is what I did) or as a Parent. If you chose Parent, you can create logins for your children.

I really like this. It is one of the family friendly services that is offered out there and one thing I do know about programming is that having people to bounce ideas off of is pretty important.

Using it

This is nice. This is very nice.

The interface is broken up into three parts. On the far left is a menu that lets you toggle between these different features:

  • Home – Takes you home (of course)
  • Lessons – Takes you to guided lessons broken up by chapters
  • Workshop – Guided projects that take you above the basics
  • Show me – It will show you the correct line of code needed
  • Docs – Documentation for Blackbird
  • Images – Images to use in your projects
  • Restart -Restarts the lesson
  • Work on – Let’s you take your current code from a lesson/workshop and lets you play around with it freely

Then there is the middle section. Here you will find the content of the lessons or workshops. In other words, here is where the instruction takes place.

I like the way that Blackbird introduces the instruction. It is just enough hand holding to make you feel comfortable to make those leaps while coding, but not too much. The instruction is written very concisely and to the point. It doesn’t try to over explain anything. Do you notice that Deep dive button? When you hit that here is what you get.

It’s a detailed breakdown of the text. Other times it can be detailed explanation of how an image will translate from code to the canvas. It’s nice and again it is just enough. They don’t beat you over the head with the same explanation over and over again. Instead, it references back to where you can find previous explanations.

I imagine programming is a lot of looking up references and techniques. Getting a person familiar with that practice is a pretty good idea.

Then the actual coding area or the integrated development environment (IDE for short). This where the magic happens. Here there are commented out instructions on what to do one what lines (this becomes less and less as you progress through the lessons).

After you type your code you hit the Check code button to see if you’ve done it correctly or not. Then it is off to the next lesson which often builds off the code you just wrote. I like this – it feels more like a project than just stand alone skills that seemingly have no connection to anything. Also, once it is checked it does not let you go back and change that line (or lines) of code. At first this may seem counter intuitive but as you progress and the code gets more and more complex it makes sense.

Depending on what you’re doing going back and making small changes can sometimes lead to big problems down the road. Here the lesson is simple. If it works, leave it alone and move on.

When you mess up (and you will eventually mess up) it gives you helpful hints to not only where the issue is, but why it is wrong.

Quality of lessons

Like I mentioned before, I am no programmer. I do feel though that lessons are good and high quality. For lessons they offer two units and some are behind a paywall (more on that later).

This may not look like a bunch of content, but each Stage expands to show at fives lessons. Again, these lessons start of simple but then grow in complexity.

The lessons grow complexity and will also harken back to previous lessons. Students will need to study hard to know their stuff or be be willing to look back for previous examples or lessons to be able to know what to do and what the current lesson is asking of them.

The point is, it may be simple and easy at first but as they need to know more syntax and commands the more Blackbird will demand of students.

Then there are the workshops. Here are projects that allow students to use their skills from previous lessons to flex their muscles a bit. Think of it as the application of what was being taught. There is some hand holding but a whole lot less of it.

Notice on the right hand side, you can make out instructions of what type of code should be written, but unlike in the lessons, where the instructions are on the left hand side, you get examples of what the output of the code will look like. See, less hand holding.

I imagine a creative teacher could also require students to find new and other creative uses of these type of code to further push their limits.

More to Workshop

In the workshop you will have “guided” projects but there is a lot more.

There are four options in this section and they are all pretty cool:

  • Guided – We talked abou this
  • Nest – Already created projects that students can mess around with and then
  • Mine – Your individual projects
  • Friends – You can have friends and share projects with. The person must already have a Blackbird account though I did not try this out

I love that there is a place where you can just play around with different, already created programs. I find that experimenting (especially in a safe environment) really allows great opportunities to make real connections between different types of code. Bravo

Pricing

As expected with something as feature rich as Blackbird Code it’s not entirely free. You definitely get a really good chance to try it out to see if it is something that may or may not appeal to you. For an individual the price is . . .

$10 per month. That seems pricey but then again if you look at codeacademy.com . . .
Holy price point Batman!

Damn! OK – I guess $10/month is not terribly unreasonable. There is pricing for schools that they offer. You do need to reach out to them and ask for and I imagine, the more students you sign up, the lower the price per student. I asked for pricing for a single class which is quite competitive. I won’t say what it was because different size districts would most likely get different quotes, but I will say that they quoted for one year for one class and the price was very reasonable.

The school version also offers a bit more than what you’ve seen here. It has its own learning management system (LMS). This means that a teacher can invite students, assign work, give feedback and grades as well as badges and maybe some other little goodies as well. Give how polished and well throughout Blackbird is I would expect this to be no different. Since I am evaluating the individual account I have not seen nor had any experience with this part of Blackbird.

Conclusion

This thing is nice. Blackbird does a nice job of introducing students to real programming while at the same time challenging and building their skills. Scratch is great but the blocks can get a little crazy, especially when you’re building something pretty complex. A lot of other learn to code websites are just too stand alone or they have their own stripped down version of a language.

I recommend this site for people to consider. There is certainly no shortage of learn to code sites out there and if you jump into YouTube looking for tutorials you’ll find an ocean of information. Though for those looking

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