One of the many industries that has been particularly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic is education, and not just in terms of schools. For extracurricular education providers such as Cypher, the coronavirus has had a profound impact, forcing companies to make radical shifts to keep their businesses operating.

In normal times, Cypher runs coding camps across London, which, in the school breaks, provide children with fun, creative coding lessons that are designed to make them “future ready”. But with the lockdown enacted shortly before the Easter holiday, Cypher made the decision to launch Live Online Camps as a replacement.

“Initially, our thoughts were with the children,” Elizabeth Tweedale, CEO of Cypher, tells Verdict.

“As schools were closing for lockdown, we were unable to run our usual in-person camps over the Easter holiday. We realised they would be disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to get to a camp, and they wouldn’t be able to see their friends.”

Making such a shift would be a challenge in any circumstance, although it was made easier by the fact that Cypher had already been in the early stages of launching its online camps.

“We accelerated our plans to take our popular coding camps online. We kept the creative themes for our camps and adapted the coding projects and activities,” she says.

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“Our aim is to keep children learning, engaged and developing their computational thinking skills during quarantine while also providing support to parents and carers.”

Getting Cypher’s Live Online Camps off the ground amid the coronavirus

As Cypher had already been in the planning stages of launching its Live Online Camps before the coronavirus hit, the decision to launch them early was welcomed by the company’s employees.

“The decision to accelerate the process was met with great enthusiasm and excitement from our team,” says Tweedale.

“With exceptional teaching and computing skills, our team was able to get these up and running quickly.”

The camps require every participating child to have access to a laptop or desktop computer with speakers, a microphone and a webcam, as well as an internet connection of at least 3MB/s. Both Windows and Mac operating systems are supported, and key resources are sent to parents to download in advance.

Cypher also provides support to parents to help get everything set up, and the classes themselves are small, with only four to six children.

This is all designed to make the courses accessible and maximise learning and engagement, but it still required a very rapid effort to make them a reality.

“The challenges were all about the speed of the operation. Efficient communication between the team, all working remotely of course, was essential,” she explains.

“Every team member put in 110% to launch the Camps smoothly and rapidly. Where parents had problems getting online, or needed any other help, our team was always there to help them (and the teachers) run sessions and even called parents individually if they needed more guidance.

“During Camps, we also set up drop in sessions for parents and carers to ask questions, and sessions at the end of each day for students to come back and chat to their teachers, get hints and tips and check their understanding.”

Inside Cypher’s online coding camps

Available for children of a wide range of ages, starting as young as six, the camps are designed to make the learning experience “fun and immersive” while providing valuable skills.

“Students learn to code through Scratch or Processing, and also practice Tynker or Touch Typing towards the end of the session,” explains Tweedale.

“At the start of each week, we ensure students are familiar with their chosen programming language.”

While the online camps have enabled Cypher to keep providing coding opportunities to children, there are – of course – differences between their in-person equivalents.

“The main differences from our in-person camps are that students don’t get the opportunity to do the hands-on making projects, but there’s lots of hands-on coding practice. We provide a lot of in-class help and materials for those at our in-person camps so that is a challenge at the moment,” she says.

“The other obvious difference is that our teachers are not there in person – so we have designed the sessions to feel as much like everyone is in the room together as possible. With live, online technology (we use Zoom with secure passwords), two-way video and small class sizes, each child has a sense of being together and getting the attention they need.”

Core to Cypher’s approach is creativity, which Tweedale argues is vital to making coding accessible to children with varying interests. And this is achieved in part through themes.

“Our Live Online Camps are creatively themed on topics such as Animal Planet and conservation, Big Blue Adventure exploring our under-sea worlds and Virtual World Travel, to make computational learning fun and immersive for children,” she says.

“With our Live Online Camps taking place in May, the theme will be magic. There’ll be a range of imaginative, creative coding projects to teach children coding skills including: designing a mythical creature, making an amazing animation, mixing potions and creating optical illusions with digital art.”

Increasing access to coding

The camps aren’t the only service that Cypher has moved online, however. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Cypher also ran after-school clubs at a number of schools, which it has also evolved into an online offering.

“We have put on a programme of even more after-school clubs than before lockdown,” says Tweedale.

“Clubs were only available through a child’s own school, but now they are far more widely accessible. Friends and school-mates can still sign up to clubs together.”

One of the benefits of making camps and clubs an online affair is that Cypher is no longer restricted by distance, a move that Tweedale says has enabled the company to reach a great diversity of children amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Normally, our camps and clubs operate in London, but going Live Online has dispensed with geographical limitations. Even within London, dropping off at a specific location can be difficult, so this has really opened up our offer to so many more people,” she says.

“We’ve been so happy to welcome students from further afield, with one very happy coder in Ireland. We are also offering camps in the US – which is great for our expansion plans.

“Our Live Online Camps and Clubs are ideal for people who may have difficulties in accessing physical camps, so we can welcome a greater diversity.”

Benefits for children and parents

The benefits reach well beyond widening access, however. With so many children cooped up at home with only their parents to keep them engaged, Tweedale says the camps have been a welcome diversion.

“For children, our Live Online Camps and Clubs are helping them to keep entertained, motivated and learning while at home,” she says.

“But more than that, they are giving children the opportunity to develop the kinds of skills they will need in the future – developing computational thinking helps with problem solving, flexibility and logic. Our camps also nurture creativity and collaboration.

“Camps and Clubs are also a time for taking part in fun, interactive activities and engaging with their teacher online, another adult to talk to beyond their parents or carer. Unlike some other online courses, a teacher is present throughout. What’s more, childrens’ friends can join in and they receive a Certificate of Achievement at the end.”

The service has also been welcomed by parents, who are often searching for ways to keep their little ones occupied so they can work without interruption.

“So far, we’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from parents who find that the Live Online Camps and Clubs are keeping their children occupied, continuing with their education and having fun,” she says.

“While parents do have to be around and have to help students set up, they do get an hour or so when the pressure is off them to keep their children busy.”

That positive feedback has translated initial strong success for Cypher, with the company planning to continue its Live Online Camps even after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

“We certainly plan on continuing our online camps and courses alongside the in-person sessions when we can,” says Tweedale.

“Our online offering has been in popular demand over the past few weeks. Within 48 hours of launching the Live Online Camps, all initial listings were sold out. Meanwhile, our Live Online clubs are near capacity.

“We have certainly seen a great demand to help and support families during this time but also giving kids the opportunity to learn valuable life skills that may not otherwise have realised.”

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