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Liane Katz has turned her concerns about teaching her children coding into a business which aims to empower kids and change perceptions about what she describes as the new literacy.
Liane spent 16 years in digital media and product development, working latterly for the Guardian first on digital content and then on app development. There she worked with the coding team – scores of “darkly dressed men in a basement”. “It was treated as a different tribe from the more flamboyantly dressed content team,” she says. She attempted to bridge the divide, “like a translator”, and learnt coding for non-coders in her 30s. She fell in love with it and realised how important it was that everyone developed coding literacy.
As a parent of two young children, she was worried that coding, which was introduced in the primary school curriculum in 2014, would be taught in a tickbox fashion. She got together with two other London mums with digital backgrounds – Luci Hindmarsh and Alice Thompson.
They all knew parents who were anxious to gain digital confidence so they could support their children’s learning. They decided to do something about it. Parents, says Liane, act as gatekeepers of their children’s digital literacy. “They don’t want them to be on screens too much and they don’t understand coding so they try to shut it out, but they need to see it as digital Lego and a productive use of screen time rather than as something passive. MAMA.codes was born out of us wanting to make sure our kids did not miss out,” she says. “Parents teach their children early literacy skills through nursery rhymes and coding is just like a language.”
The three mums started using a coding app and ran “mum hacks” in their living rooms where they taught groups of parents to code. They launched their website in April 2016. It provided access to a host of online learn-to-code projects e-learning. In addition to parents, they started working with a handful of schools offering a bespoke curriculum and embedding coding in the curriculum for three to seven year olds.
They start with pre-readers, using icons instead of words and song, rhyme and storytelling and a free kids’ coding app ScratchJr, to get them confident with coding language from an early age. In January 2017 they switched to their current kids’ code club model where they offer local clubs and holiday workshops for kids and “parent hacks” in addition to online resources for parents, pre-schools and schools. “Kids respond better to a classroom setting than to a parent. It was the right model,” says Liane.
Liane is now going it alone and developing mama.codes into a franchise model. She is recruiting local area reps, tutors and teacher assistants to set up code clubs around the country, from London to Edinburgh. Initial trials were held at the end of last year and so far MAMA.codes has nine franchisees, including a woman who survived the Grenfell Tower fire and trained just before Christmas. Franchisees are given training, a handbook, geo-targeted Facebook help, coaching, marketing materials and more for the low-cost franchise. They are encouraged to think creatively to get the word out, including using parent ambassadors.
Liane says mama.codes is very flexible and clubs and workshops can be held at weekends or after school. Franchisees are given advice on what to charge and what they should pay for venues. After three months, they are expected to make a minimum of £225 a week in bookings and can bring in freelance tutors to help teach.
The head office doesn’t have one single base: mama.codes operates out of work spaces in East London. Everyone comes together at the beginning of the week, but works remotely at the end of the week.
Liane says there are certain challenges with scaling up the business and mama.codes is still experimenting with what works best, although it is committed to the friendly neighbourhood rep model. For instance, it is monitoring whether the schools model works best at a time of cutbacks.
Liane’s big concern is over health and safety. MAMA.codes does extensive checks of its teachers and ensures they have all the relevant safeguarding and first aid training. “We are very focused on running clubs that we would be happy with as mums,” she says. Customer service is also vital. “It is very important that we attract the right person who can teach and has business skills. It’s a multi-faceted role. All our reps have to teach at least two classes a week so they understand what we are doing. We don’t want to lose our mums club status and turn into a faceless machine. It is important to us that people have good user experience.”
The model seems to be working. The business has had angel investment and has plans to go nationwide, then international. Moreover, Liane is a finalist for the MPower awards Vision category. It is also developing new e-safety courses for parents on raising digital kids which includes e-safety and how to encourage children to have a healthier relationship with the internet.
“There is a real need for this and a universal desire from parents to raise digital kids. We can support that,” says Liane. Already MAMA.codes has helped 1,400 families. It is also bucking stereotypes. Over 50% of the kids taught by mama.codes are girls. “We are really trying to redefine people’s perception of coding,” says Liane. “There is an assumption that coding is geeky, but our courses are all about adventures, storytelling and role play. It’s guilt-free screen time for parents and it empowers kids to be create and find their digital voice.”