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Unboxing & Review

Little Hackers: Learning to Code for Early Readers

A fun, interactive experience that uses a workbook and augmented reality to teach coding without a computer.
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My name is Brandon Tory and I’m the lead creator of Little Hackers. At my core I’m an artist, and like all artists, I live to create. I’m also a Staff Software Engineer at Google A.I. Little Hackers is the perfect intersection of my passion as an artist with my affinity for technology. In creating Little Hackers, my team set out to develop a unique learning experience for early readers that not only engages them, but also inspires them to use technology while solving problems they encounter in their daily lives.

 

Growing up I found it difficult to identify with tech culture while being my most authentic self. I didn’t think technology was cool and kept my passion for computers a secret. I was deeply inspired by movies like The Matrix, Hackers, and Good Will Hunting, ultimately spending thousands of hours learning about computers through “reverse engineering” – the idea that reading code, and deconstructing things can teach you just as much as writing it. Little Hackers is inspired by both my own childhood and the ideas of innovation and perseverance that I hope to pass on to my own kids.

Little Hackers began as a co-write with my six-year-old son Bruce. Bruce was interested in learning about computers, and I wanted to find a way to teach him that was low screen time, fun, relatable, and accessible enough that he could continue to make progress on his own.

A collection of page designs from the prototype workbook showing the story narrative, coding exercises, and scannable QR codes

Little Hackers is an interactive experience that uses a workbook and augmented reality (AR) to introduce young readers aged 6+ to the foundational concepts of computer programming.

While coding is fun and a valuable tool that can offer kids access to opportunities, simply learning to code is not the goal. Technical leadership has less to do with writing code and much more to do with understanding. Leaders self-identify goals, work backward to understand the technology requirements, and are able to translate requirements across groups of people to accomplish a vision. This is a fundamental principle of Little Hackers, you don’t need a computer to read, understand, and experiment with code. You only need to think.

The Little Hackers methodology was developed using my years of engineering experience working on large-scale systems. I’m currently a technical lead on the Natural Language Accelerated team at Google AI, was a technical lead on the First Party iOS Apps team at Apple, and was an engineer in the Defense & Aerospace division at Teradyne. Throughout my career, I’ve recognized key themes that are reflected in the Little Hackers’ approach to teaching coding. Specifically, understanding fundamentals is more important than coding language specifics, and developing the ability to think abstractly can cultivate the agency required to lead.

Learning to read code is different from learning to write it and enables students to gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental concepts. We’re meeting young students where they are by not requiring a computer and teaching code through readability. This helps lower the barriers for kids to enter the world of STEM. 

An example exercise where students instruct a robot to jump by hand writing code.

Little Hackers is a form of nutritional content that introduces kids to the world of STEM, and gives them access to a world where they can identify themselves with technology culture, regardless of their background. This can have a transformative impact that reaches far beyond the ability to code. 

Little Hackers allows kids as young as six to begin learning coding with 7x less screen time. By time gating the AR experiences we estimate around 19 minutes (or 15%) of screen time per two-hour book. That compares with two hours (or 100%) screen time per two hours using a completely digital platform.

A student completing an exercise in the Little hackers workbook.

Little Hackers makes coding fun and cool by introducing Augmented Reality (AR). AR is a way to experience 3D content by pointing a mobile device at pages in the Little Hackers book. By hovering the camera of the device over the QR codes in the book, kids can interact with animations, characters, and information that appear in the physical environment.  

A student hovers the camera of their device over a QR code in the workbook, and views Kai of the Little Hackers crew doing a dance.

The biggest takeaway from our early product testing was how much kids loved interacting with the AR experiences at the end of each exercise. In fact, kids in our focus groups responded with “is this me?” when using the AR.

TRY OUT AUGMENTED REALITY: If you’re viewing this page on a computer or tablet you can open the camera on your phone, and hover it over the QR code to view the AR. This is an example of the experience that a student would have when they scan the QR code in the workbook.

Little Hackers was designed for kids as young as six years old. This compares to resources such as Scratch, Tynker, and other coding books that offer pathways into STEM for kids ages eight and up. Since we emphasize reading code structure rather than composing visual blocks or working on a computer, we have lowered the barrier for kids to enter the world of STEM. An entire phase of development was dedicated to ensuring that the little hackers met the requirements for having a second-grade reading level. 

Students having fun while reading and doing the exercises in the Little Hackers workbook.

The expected level of parental oversight is minimal. We designed Little Hackers so that parents can help kids get set up initially, and then trust that the book guides students through to the end on their own. The book takes roughly two hours to complete, and we recommend that kids spend 20 minutes per interval – ultimately completing it over the course of several weeks. Parents should expect to answer clarifying questions associated with any early reading experience. No prior coding or technical experience is required.

Sample exercises where students read code, and answer questions by writing in the workbook.

The Little Hackers are a self-named group of characters from a fictional place called Giga Bay, located in Yokio City. The year is 2037 and the characters in Little Hackers are full of curiosity about the world around them, and use code to create fun solutions to everyday challenges. They often meet up at a high-tech treehouse in Mia’s backyard called “The Hackout”.

The main cast of characters includes: 

  • Mia is a six-year-old tech Unicorn and coder who started the club called the “Little Hackers” at her school.  Later, when her friend Kai moved in next door, they she moved the operation to The Hackout. 
  • Kai is a six-year-old sneaker head who loves to solve problems analytically. Kai was introduced to coding by his Mom, but really fell in love with coding when he met Mia. His fast learning ability and sense of adventure together have turned him into a rising star.
  • Santi is a wiz originally from Mexico City that many people consider a walking almanac of math history. His contrasted rockstar spiked hair makes him the least suspected hacker of the group.

The Little Hackers – Mia, Kai, and Santi.

Little Hackers is a creation of the team at FORMLESS and lead by Brandon Tory. We are a passionate, diverse, and creative group that thinks outside the “triangles”. The team combines decades of experience and success spanning big tech, content production, and education. Our vision is to illuminate true human purpose through technology. 

We also believe strongly in giving back to society by undertaking projects that align with our vision and can make a positive social impact. We’re seeing that through with the launch of the Little Hackers education-technology product.

The FORMLESS team (from left) Justin, John, Brandon, Bixia, Rashaad, and Jason.

During the R&D phase, we recognized the importance of receiving feedback from parents, students, and teachers. We conducted hundreds of parent surveys and held focus group testing sessions facilitated by certified early childhood development researchers and educators. To find focus group participants, we targeted communities with a high representation of Black and Brown families. Our participant outreach resulted in more than 50 students testing the early iterations of our product experience. Participating students ranged from 1st to 5th grade and had varying reading levels. The feedback we received from testing was invaluable for influencing how the book is composed and organized. 

Little Hackers workbooks from an early-stage focus group with students in Albany, New York, and conducted in partnership with Head Heart Hands Consulting and The Good Brain Project.

Today less than 5% of leaders in the technology industry are Black. This lack of representation can make it a challenge for many kids to “see themselves in technology”. We want to help address this problem by inspiring a future generation of leaders. Through Little Hackers we aim to help lower the barrier to entry for learning coding fundamentals, and create reflections of authentic and diverse stories in tech.

3D rotating wireframe designs from the Little Hackers creative process.

To complete and deliver the First Edition of Little Hackers, we plan to use the funds raised through Kickstarter in five key areas.

  •  Engineering (3D & AR): Continue to enhance the robustness, support, and feature set for the web/AR experience.
  •  Illustration & Layout: Improve designs and layouts, format content, create enhanced illustrations, and integrate with copy.
  •  Editing: Continue to collaborate with experts to improve the narrative, readability, and effectiveness for early readers. 
  •  Product Testing: Continue to conduct and scale focus group efforts to ensure that Little Hackers is exceeding user expectations and educational standards.
  •  Production: Conduct quality assurance reviews, and print and bind workbooks.  

The team expects to commence work at the end of the campaign. We’ll continue our product testing immediately, and in parallel make improvements to the workbook and the A/R visuals and technology.  Then, we’ll refine the product with final edits, and move into a production phase where we’ll make sure the quality of the product is delivery ready. Within 6 months we’ll begin delivering the primary product, The First Edition of Little Hackers. 

The near-term Product Roadmap is geared towards completing and delivering the First Edition of Little Hackers within 6 months from the end of the campaign.

 

We’re committed to creating a Little Hackers experience for kids that gives them access to a world where they can identify themselves with technology culture, regardless of their background. This can have a transformative impact that reaches far beyond the ability to code. 

After the production of our first 1000 units, the next milestone is to make Little Hackers available for purchase directly on our website and through online retailers. Longer-term we’d like to partner with a publisher and see Little Hackers become a part of the curriculum in schools. 

As a sponsor, you’re supporting not only the production of our first book, but the vision of the team and our ability to create additional educational experiences, such as the expansion of the Little Hackers curriculum, creating Little Hackers merchandise, and more. 

Show your support by purchasing an “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image for $5. All reward packages include this shareable digital item.

The Workbook Early Supporter Special includes one Little Hackers workbook (First Edition hardcopy), one “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image, and exclusive project updates.

The Workbook Standard includes one Little Hackers workbook (First Edition hardcopy), one “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image, and exclusive project updates.

The Workbook Two Pack includes two Little Hackers workbooks (First Edition hardcopy), one “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image, and exclusive project updates.

The Workbook Three Pack includes three Little Hackers workbooks (First Edition hardcopy), one “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image, and exclusive project updates.

The exclusive FORMLESS adult hoodie commemorates your contribution to the Little Hackers campaign by using a QR code located on the lower right of the hoodie that points to a unique online certification. With your purchase, you’ll also receive one “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image, and exclusive project updates.

The Classroom Hero includes twenty-five Little Hackers workbooks (First Edition hardcopy), one “I Backed Little Hackers” animated image, and exclusive project updates.

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