James Whelton

Ashoka Fellow
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Ireland
Fellow Since 2012
This description of James Whelton's work was prepared when James Whelton was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012 .

Introduction

James Whelton, a natural builder, teacher, avid entrepreneur, and tenacious tech expert, is creating a youth movement of citizen coders to spread a mindset shift in young people based on mentorship, inclusivity, and community-driven action.

L'idée nouvelle

James is building a citizen movement of young technology experts with the necessary skills to keep up with the rapidly evolving field of technology. He has crafted a global network of free coding clubs built on action-based learning, collaboration, and open source principles. Not only is James equipping boys and girls with the skills to actively contribute to technology, a key influence in their lives today, but he is also empowering them to combat the growing restrictions and barriers of technology. The openness of the Internet used to be its greatest strength, but it is growing more restricted as it develops.

James’ work addresses the reality that while citizens are active users of the Internet, most do not possess the technical knowledge to understand its reach into their privacy and are ill equipped to contribute new innovation. James’ movement is seeding a whole generation of tech experts and a skilled workforce, and is bringing in excluded populations such as girls and rural residents. Beyond that, through its collaborative, open source approach, CoderDojo is creating a generation of citizen coders—young people and mentors developing into empathetic collaborators while actively contributing to the technological forces that increasingly shape their world.

Le problème

Technical literacy, as taught in secondary schools in Europe and Ireland, tends to extend no further than an education in basic computer skills, such as word processing and spreadsheet competence. It is based around the European Computer Driving License, an archaic and expensive qualification that does not allow young people to engage with technology in a proactive way or contribute to the growth of new ideas. Additionally, the rate of change and innovation in technology is so fast that schools and universities are incapable of keeping pace. Computer science curriculum can change very little per year due to cumbersome and slow university policies, which drastically limit the ability to keep up with the tech field that surfaces new innovations and updates weekly if not daily. Faced with no systemic educational tools to learn how technology works and how to create it themselves, young people are forced to pursue ad hoc training or other interests. In addition, women are dramatically underrepresented in the tech field.

There is huge demand for people who can navigate effectively in the tech world, an ecosystem in which everything is either a threat or an opportunity based on one’s ability. While the tech world used to be completely open, today it is rife with restrictions and barriers, challenging creativity. On the one hand, governments are trying to police and regulate the web, with bills such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), while tech powerhouses are making privacy rights and data access more cryptic to the everyday user.

The inability to competently and actively break down the walls in tech as quickly as they are built up carries with it a great deal of lost economic opportunity. In a country with unemployment hovering at 14 percent, and youth unemployment at 39 percent, the tech sector in Ireland has 10,000 unfilled jobs. There is a great gap in tech talent in Ireland, despite a concentration of the top tech firms in the world located in Dublin, including Google European Headquarters, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Zynga. While these major companies are located in Ireland, they find themselves forced to import the majority of skilled labor from elsewhere in Europe.

La stratégie

At CoderDojo, young people become part of a global youth movement driving future talent in the fast-moving tech world. Designed to spread virally, CoderDojo allows champions, once vetted, to set up their own branches that are connected to a global network online. Young people attending a CoderDojo learn how to code, develop websites, apps, programs, games, and more. James has woven the principles and structure of martial arts into the clubs, developing a belt system whereby students receive badges and belts for progressing through levels of expertise. Badges are awarded for achievements as disparate as building an iPhone app, attending a certain number of sessions, mastering HTML, developing a game, or helping an elderly person learn computing. In order to advance to the next belt level, each student must have mastered designated coding skills as well as acquired a set number of badges. There is a substantial “Social Good” focus woven into the belt system, encouraging participants to use their new skills to contribute to their communities or provide services to citizen organizations. James is developing a replication criterion into the highest belt level, meaning that in order to receive a black belt, one would have to start his/her own CoderDojo. Leadership, co-teaching, and teamwork are placed at a higher priority than simple technical acumen. Coderdojo is designed so that the young people who rise within the organization are not merely the tech geniuses, but rather those who teach others and collaborate.

CoderDojo succeeds at making development and learning to code—once a ‘bedroom and basement’ activity—a fun, sociable experience. In addition to learning to code, members meet like-minded people, show off their projects, and troubleshoot problems. Participants collaborate, compete, and share their creations, both in person and online. CoderDojo puts a strong emphasis on open source and free software, encouraging participants to share and grow the knowledge database online within its strong network of members and volunteers globally. The global online network allows new innovations created by members to be uploaded and used as examples and curriculum in Dojos worldwide—immediate knowledge sharing that inspires young people to create their own curriculum and spread it around the world.

Keeping costs low, CoderDojos are set up, managed and taught by volunteers. The volunteers are technical experts who emphasize the real world applications of coding while also promoting the collaborative, knowledge-share environment of each Dojo. The organization provides tools on loan—from laptops to hard drives—to participants who lack the financial resources to purchase their own. James has built his organization on the principles of open source collectivism—he has designed extensive online systems to crowd-source answers to challenges, solve technical problems, and answer the thousands of email queries he receives.

CoderDojo uses an innovative teaching style that shows young people the real world applications of their training in core coding languages like CSS, HTML, and JavaScript to design websites such as Facebook and iPhone apps. It offers a structure that allows participants to collaborate and teach themselves, seeing progress in real-time. A club requires a free location and two to three computer experts who can support young club members in their efforts.

James has made a concerted effort to reach out to girls, dramatically underrepresented in the tech field. James, himself a victim of childhood bullying, is emphatic about building an open and accepting atmosphere for people traditionally excluded from the tech field. CoderDojos across the world boast a gender ratio of 60 percent boys to 40 percent girls—a dramatic shift from the traditional ratio of 90/10.

James also does substantial outreach to rural areas, where Internet can be a lifeline of opportunity for isolated populations. Internet-based computer programs and training can be ideal for far-flung locales with few resources, and a source of potential work for the unemployed. James is also partnering with large tech firms such as Google, with many other potential partnerships in progress. James sees Ireland as ripe for becoming a tech powerhouse globally, driven by a highly skilled local workforce in a hub of global tech firms.

James is building CoderDojo into a viral organization that maintains a high level of quality while allowing easy implementation worldwide. His goal is to reach saturation across Ireland over the coming year, and join local groups with a flourishing international network, with Ireland as the center and key driver. Currently, the demand far surpasses the supply, with waitlists of 70+ common at some sessions. James would like to expand his current offerings to meet capacity and allow cities, towns, and villages nationwide to access the resources they need to implement their own CoderDojos.

Less than a year old, James’ organization has thousands of members, with groups located in cities around Ireland, the U.K., South Africa, Uganda, Russia, and many states and cities in the U.S., particularly in Silicon Valley. Additionally, CoderDojo has spawned other Dojos, clubs that use the same model to teach different skills. For example, there are Dojos that meet in Dublin before CoderDojo meetings that focus on learning Chinese and other languages. With the unprecedented demand for further expansion, James’ goal is to build a global organization that can be completely sustained by volunteers and that becomes as common and accessible as the Scouts worldwide. He is offering an alternative for those students ill-suited to traditional athletics leagues or arts programs. His dream is not only to create an organization, but a mindset.

In order to keep CoderDojo free and sustainable, James is developing the Hello World Foundation, as an umbrella organization to CoderDojo. He will use the foundation to fund the extra costs required for Dojo events and operations as well as a small team who will continue to manage and shape the organization. CoderDojo is just one piece of a larger vision to create a global movement enabling youth to engage in tech in a positive way. James plans to raise €1 million (US$1.35 million) in the next year and is designing strategies for revenue generation under the auspices of the foundation. Mirroring the model of the Mozilla Foundation, The Hello World Foundation will allow James to expand his vision far beyond CoderDojo to true global impact.

La personne

James is a lifetime entrepreneur and technical wizard. Always attracted to computers, he found few official resources, inside and outside of school, to learn more about them. As a young child, he figured out how to make computer animation and spent his days taking apart electronics to see how they worked. At age nine, he saved his pocket money for a month to buy a book on HTML, teaching himself how to code so that he could make a website for his animations. Creative and curious by nature, James made various gadgets throughout his childhood such as a toaster wired to a computer and a proximity kettle that boiled more or less based on your distance to it.

Gripped by a passion for technology, James left school a month early at age twelve to take a university level technology course, his first entry into the intimate community of tech professionals. At age thirteen, James began doing freelance web design. That same year, he sought to start a computer club at school for those interested in learning together, but his school refused, so he began to hold meetings outside of the premises. By fifteen, he found himself checking emails from clients at school and spending his evenings working.

When James was sixteen, a good friend of his family needed a large amount of CAT scans sent to the U.S. for a medical second opinion. The files were too large to send by email, but they were under pressure to get the opinion as soon as possible. James took it upon himself to build a website especially for the scans, making them easily accessible to the doctors in the U.S. and thus facilitating the second opinion for the family.

During his final years of secondary school, he gained international renown as the first person to successfully hack an iPod Nano. His growing expertise in tech led other students to ask his advice, and he finally succeeded in founding a school club for coding, which fielded forty students at the first session and met twice weekly.

At seventeen, James found a ticket for sale online for $700 to one of the largest technology summits in the field, which had been sold out for months. He managed to get the ticket for free by committing to build a website for the seller. James spent a memorable couple of days with some of the largest names in tech, such as the founder of Twitter, and went home energized and inspired. The following year, James was featured as a speaker at the same event, an affirmation of how much he had accomplished in just one year.

Before he had finished secondary school James was tapped as a consultant for tech firms. Eschewing university, he founded and ran a digital company, Disruptive Development. Building off his earlier efforts, he founded CoderDojo to open the world of coding to more young people in a simple and viral way. He turned down hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential investment in Disruptive Development to focus on managing Coder Dojo full-time.