University News

Murphy ’17 co-develops new app to teach programming

Education app Py accepted into Facebook Start, gains popularity on Product Hunt

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Will Murphy ’17 and Yale student Derek Lo co-founded Py, an educational mobile app that offers courses on various coding languages, as well as subjects in the sciences and humanities. The app is geared to retain learners through its game-like platform and has received raving reviews so far.

Massive Open Online Courses, frequently called MOOCs, overwhelmingly fail to retain the vast majority of people who enroll in them, said Will Murphy ’17, who co-founded a new educational app called Py along with Yale student Derek Lo, who is also set to graduate in May.

Py began as an app designed to teach programming. Murphy and Lo were inspired to start the app because peers who had tried to learn how to code online found the resources available “boring” or unhelpful. The two set out to create a mobile platform for coding that would retain people’s interest, and in four days they had finished creating their first unit for the app: a course that would teach Python.

Murphy and Lo have been programming together since high school, where they co-taught a course in coding and built an intelligent polling app.

Since last May when the first course was complete, Murphy and Lo have been tweaking the app. They have added courses in seven other programming languages, including Java and SQL, as well as seven courses in other subjects, including the humanities, mathematics and sciences. They will soon have created an additional eight courses.

“Py is completely different from a book or video lecture in which you then go and complete an assignment,” Murphy said. “It asks you questions, and if you get them wrong, it changes the content based on how well you’re doing.”

On Sept. 28, the pair posted the most recent version of the app on Product Hunt, a site on which startups and established companies post new apps for review and feedback. Py was the second-most popular app of the day, Murphy said. According to Lo, the average product on Product Hunt typically receives 80 to 100 up-votes if it’s doing well, while Py has received over 1,100.

“It’s definitely a strong signal for us that people want what we’re making and already like the initial product that we’re putting out,” Lo said about the app’s initial success on Product Hunt.

“We’ve probably spent almost 1,000 hours (on it) over the past few months. Will and I talk constantly over message and we talk over the phone every couple of days to catch up on things. It’s almost as if this is a real company and we’re working on it full-time, but obviously we still have the constraints of school,” Lo said.

The feedback received from Product Hunt has been extremely useful, Lo added, as the team is planning on making several key changes to Py in the next month. They want to add a social component, such as sharing results with friends on Facebook, but most importantly want to continue making the app more similar to a game.

“People really like to use something that encourages them, and so we want to make it more like a game because then people feel like they’re accomplishing something and want to keep learning,” Murphy said.

Though Murphy and Lo are the co-founders and have been the main architects of the app, they have not done it alone. Classmates and professors of theirs from Brown and Yale have helped out with content and programming, they said, and the two also reached out to experts in their fields for help in creating the content of their courses. For example, a research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA assisted Murphy and Lo in writing a course on astrophysics.

Murphy and Lo found out Sunday that they were accepted into Facebook Start, an organization run by Facebook “designed to help early-stage mobile startups build and grow their apps,” according to its website. It helps startups by offering up to $80,000 worth of free or discounted services from a number of partner companies, including Dropbox and Adobe. Facebook Start also connects startups to sessions and conferences with Facebook product managers and engineers, Lo said.

“People really do complete courses in Py. We seem to have cracked that nut, at least in one respect,” Murphy said.

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