A group of seven kids gather a round a table covered with a few laptops and loose cords. They look excited and are playing with the computer parts.

Code Mobile helps bridge Canada’s digital divide

How fun, no-fee mobile teaching units are bringing coding education to underserved communities

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… a van? Yes, it’s the Code Mobile, sharing its technological superpowers with students across Canada.

This fleet of mobile teaching units covered in superhero graphics is the brainchild of Canada Learning Code (CLC), a national nonprofit that runs a range of educational programs aimed at boosting Canadians’ digital know-how, including Ladies Learning Code and Kids Learning Code.

A red van is parked in a lot. It has several comic book-style decals including a white lightning bolt and

The idea took shape a few years back when CEO Melissa Sariffodeen set out on a road trip across Canada. Why not, she thought, take what CLC did so well in downtown Toronto—teaching Canadians how to be creators and good citizens in an increasingly digital world—and bring that to everyone, right where they live?

The 2016 maiden voyage was a cross-country odyssey, done in a funky, cartoon-inspired blue van packed with laptops, equipment and instructors. Underwritten by Microsoft, it was an unqualified smash hit, reaching more than 10,000 learners.

The success spurred CLC to find a permanent, sustainable way to expand the program. And in 2017, they got their wish: a generous grant from CanCode, the federal government’s technology education initiative. With it, Code Mobile became a rolling network of 14 vans that could reach across the country, focusing on communities that normally couldn’t access or afford extracurricular learning opportunities.

A kid wearing glassess smiles and shakes his hand at the camera. He and a friend are sitting in front of a laptop in a classroom.

“What makes the Code Mobile so special is that it’s a direct delivery model,” says Yara Farran, the program’s senior communications lead and a workshop facilitator with one of the GTA Code Mobile vans. “We don’t ask people to come to us; we go to them, wherever that may be.”

Community organizations, such as schools and libraries, can request a workshop online, and one of the vans will arrive ready to offer classes in everything from game design and robotic programming to HTML and CSS web-design skills. The cost to the communities and the participants: Zilch. Zero. Nada.

Two young girls sit at a a laptop computer with a grownup man and woman standing on either side of them

Before a Code Mobile team visits a community, they speak with local organizers. “We have a varied curriculum so teachers, librarians and community groups can pick what fits best for their communities,” says Vanessa Doucet-Roche, Code Mobile program delivery manager. Classes are generally tailored to six- to 12-year-olds, but can be expanded and adapted for learners in their teens. A typical visit takes place in a school gym or library, and two facilitators can offer three or four sessions per day to up to 160 people (40 max per session).

Lessons include both online and offline activities. “We have a lot of unplugged activities, which are super important,” says Doucet-Roche. “While coding on the computer is critical, understanding computational thinking doesn’t actually require a laptop.” Students can try their hand at paper programming with their friends and learn how to give clear instructions to a computer.

Two tween girls play with a tablet in a gymnasium

And it’s not just kids learning what an “href attribute” is, or how to sequence computer commands—teachers attend the sessions, too. That way, once the Code Mobile has taken off for its next destination, they can serve as advocates and incorporate digital skill-building into their regular lessons.

Each van is community-based and covers a 200-kilometre radius, and certain hubs serve rural and remote areas. The Kelowna, B.C., van, for example, covers part of the Yukon, and the Calgary team visits sections of the Northwest Territories. The program is now operating in nearly every province and territory in Canada, with five units in Ontario alone (including the GTA). On the organizers’ bucket list: finding a way to deliver programs in Nunavut, where the vans can’t go. Code Mobile skiplane, anyone?

Code Mobile’s mission is “to allow Canadians to see technology as a tool for empowerment and personal growth,” says Doucet-Roche. “We want them to be able to truly understand how the world works around them versus seeing technology as something intimidating.”

Two young boys lean over a laptop smiling

Social justice is an important principle for the team as well. “There is a digital divide in Canada,” says Doucet-Roche. “We want to support communities that don’t have access, whether it’s to education or hardware or Wifi. We want to do our part to level the playing field.” While anyone is welcome to request a Code Mobile visit, priority is given to underserved communities, so it’s not strictly first-come, first-served. And demand is booming: some high-priority areas are already booking dates in September 2019.

What makes the Code Mobile team so passionate about sharing their coding skills countrywide? “There’s always a moment in a lesson when a kid’s eyes light up, and there’s a gasp. They may have discovered how their code works or learned how to change a colour digitally,” says Doucet-Roche. “It’s just a beautiful moment.”

Farran agrees. “[It’s satisfying] getting the chance to be in a space with young people who are exploring technology and innovating alongside their friends and peers. They feel like they’re creators of technology,” she says. “We want them to feel like they’re agents of change.”

Get Involved
• Visit codemobile.ca to learn more or request a workshop in your community.
• Follow @thecodemobile on Instagram to see where the vans pop up, and post your own photos with the hashtag #thecodemobile.
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