Get­ting with the Pro­gram Cod­ing for Kids:

China’s cod­ing education sec­tor is heat­ing up as par­ents eye an op­por­tu­nity to help their kids stand out from the crowd. But qual­i­fied teach­ers are hard to find

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Fu Yao

Chen Bin has been cod­ing since 1996, when he was just 14 years old. At that time, com­put­ers were new to China and Chen found no proper text­book to use. He even­tu­ally taught him­self by trans­lat­ing soft­ware user man­u­als. De­spite his strong in­ter­est in cod­ing, his fa­ther did not agree to buy him a com­puter un­til Chen had pleaded for a whole year. The com­puter cost his fa­ther half a year's salary, and made his fam­ily one of the few in China to own one.

Things are ut­terly dif­fer­ent to­day, of course. Chen's 10-year-old son has stud­ied cod­ing for more than a year, us­ing Chen's self-com­piled ma­te­ri­als. Chen founded an on­line cod­ing school two years ago and en­rolled chil­dren through­out the coun­try, the youngest aged six. Chen said some par­ents con­sulted him about cod­ing when their child was only two years old.

Ac­cord­ing to Chen, his on­line course was ini­ti­ated when for­mer US pres­i­dent Barack Obama's con­cept of STEM (Sci­ence, Tech­nol­ogy, En­gi­neer­ing, Math) education was spread­ing to China. As com­put­ers, iphones and ipads have be­come ne­ces­si­ties for chil­dren from mid­dle-class fam­i­lies and as AI is rapidly ad­vanc­ing across the globe, Chi­nese par­ents, es­pe­cially elites, are in­creas­ingly em­brac­ing the idea that cod­ing knowl­edge will be an im­por­tant tool in the fu­ture in­for­ma­tion era.

In this con­text, chil­dren's cod­ing train­ing quickly emerged and has been ex­pand­ing in the Chi­nese mar­ket since 2014. While crit­ics still doubt the ne­ces­sity for a child to learn to pro­gram be­fore school age, a group of pi­o­neer­ing par­ents are em­brac­ing it as a new way for their chil­dren to stand out in the en­trance ex­ams for top schools.

To Chen Bin's peers who were born in the 1980s, cod­ing was sym­bol­ized by a mov­ing tur­tle. Back then, school com­puter classes taught stu­dents to make a tur­tle move with LOGO, a pro­gram­ming lan­guage in­vented by South African-born Amer­i­can com­put­ing sci­en­tist Sey­mour Papert in 1967.

It was the world's first pro­gram­ming lan­guage for mi­nors and re­mained an im­por­tant chap­ter in Chi­nese cod­ing text­books through to the 1990s. How­ever, at that time, com­put­ing or cod­ing was pushed

aside, and when paint­ing, mu­sic, pi­ano and math­e­mat­ics were fill­ing up chil­dren's spare time, it grad­u­ally faded from view.

Only in 2014 did cod­ing come back into Chi­nese par­ents' sight, with the Amer­i­can STEM con­cept go­ing vi­ral and ex­ert­ing a big in­flu­ence on elite par­ents who were con­vinced by Steve Jobs' re­mark that “Ev­ery­body in this coun­try [The US] should learn to pro­gram a com­puter, be­cause it teaches you how to think.”

Af­ter that, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment be­gan to at­tach im­por­tance to cod­ing education. In 2014, Zhe­jiang be­came the first prov­ince to add in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy (in­clud­ing cod­ing) to the op­tional sub­jects for the gaokao, China's na­tional col­lege en­trance exam. In 2016, China's Min­istry of Education (MOE) is­sued its first scheme on the “education of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy,” putting it into the ap­praisal sys­tem for schools.

The fol­low­ing year, China's State Coun­cil pub­lished a de­vel­op­ment pro­gram for new-gen­er­a­tion AI, de­mand­ing that el­e­men­tary and mid­dle schools open Ai-re­lated cour­ses and pro­mote cod­ing education. The doc­u­ment also en­cour­aged in­di­vid­u­als and non-gov­ern­ment or­gans to de­velop cod­ing-re­lated learn­ing soft­ware and games. Echo­ing the State Coun­cil, China's MOE is­sued a re­vised scheme on the “education of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy” in April, plan­ning to in­clude in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy in mid­dle school grad­u­a­tion ex­ams.

The poli­cies acted as a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive, guid­ing more and more par­ents to delve into the cod­ing train­ing mar­ket. Data from China's big­gest search en­gine, Baidu, shows the in­dex for “chil­dren's cod­ing” has risen 30 times over past two years. In 2015 the same in­dex was close to zero.

As­tute in­vestors quickly sensed busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties, with cod­ing train­ing in­sti­tu­tions re­ceiv­ing a mas­sive in­jec­tion of in­vest­ment since 2017. Ac­cord­ing to Chi­nese me­dia re­ports, in 2017 at least 20 such in­sti­tu­tions re­ceived in­vest­ment, and the fig­ure has con­tin­ued to grow. “Code­mao,” a Shen­zhen-based on­line education plat­form that teaches cod­ing to chil­dren, re­ceived 300 mil­lion yuan (US$43.7M) in fi­nanc­ing in 2018 fol­low­ing a 120 mil­lion yuan (US$17.5M) round last Novem­ber. On Septem­ber 12, all-dream.com, an­other chil­dren's cod­ing train­ing plat­form head­quar­tered in Shang­hai, an­nounced it had re­ceived 120 mil­lion yuan (US$17.5M) in in­vest­ment from two large foun­da­tions.

“Our fi­nanc­ing plan failed last year, but this year the mar­ket has boomed. We have now talked with more than 20 in­vestors and ac­com­plished our fi­nanc­ing plan within two weeks,” Chen Bin told Newschina, re­veal­ing that his on­line cod­ing school has re­ceived over 10 mil­lion yuan (US$1.5M) in pre­lim­i­nary in­vest­ment.

“Our [cod­ing] stu­dents are ei­ther from in­ter­na­tional schools or from key [pub­lic] schools [in Bei­jing],” Zhang Lu, CEO of a Bei­jing-based teenage and youth train­ing plat­form, told Newschina. “They are all top stu­dents who have both the time and ca­pa­bil­ity to learn qual­ity-ori­ented cour­ses like cod­ing. Their par­ents are gen­er­ally wealthy, tal­ented and pi­o­neer­ing elites who care deeply about their chil­dren's education,” he added.

Log­i­cal Step

Si Pei, who has a doc­tor­ate in math­e­mat­ics and com­put­ing, is one such par­ent. She took her eight-year-old daugh­ter Meng­meng to a cod­ing class dur­ing the sum­mer va­ca­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to Si, Meng­meng is a bit weak in her log­i­cal think­ing – she be­lieves that learn­ing to code will help her im­prove.

“Meng­meng was not so in­ter­ested in the class at the very be­gin­ning, but she was soon at­tracted by the in­ter­est­ing games re­lated to Scratch. Now she is very happy in the class,” Si told Newschina.

A pro­gram­ming tool de­vel­oped for young chil­dren by the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy (MIT), Scratch is the world's most pop­u­lar com­puter lan­guage for chil­dren to learn. It is sim­ple and in­ter­est­ing in its op­er­a­tion. Even kids who do not speak English or know how to use a key­board can learn the lan­guage by play­ing games.

“The main pur­pose [of tak­ing my daugh­ter to the Scratch class] is to train her log­i­cal and in­de­pen­dent think­ing and teach her how to deal with prob­lems step by step... I think this is much more im­por­tant than get­ting a high score in the school ex­ams,” Si said. “Meng­meng has made great progress in cod­ing. She has been able to make some small games with Scratch, and has had the fore­thought to make plans be­fore she acts. She has also grown an in­ter­est in ro­bots,” she con­tin­ued.

“I will not force my daugh­ter to learn [ex­tracur­ric­u­lar] math­e­mat­ics or other cour­ses for en­try to a good mid­dle school, but cod­ing is some­thing I want her to keep learn­ing,” she added.

Cur­rently, cod­ing train­ing for chil­dren takes two forms: one is robot pro­gram­ming, such as Lego ro­bots, which trains a child's hand­son skills by build­ing and pro­gram­ming a robot, and the other is com­puter lan­guage, from the el­e­men­tary graph­ics lan­guage Scratch to ad­vanced ones such as Java, C++ and Python. Many pro­fes­sion­als claim that sim­ply set­ting up ro­bots and us­ing Scratch are rudi­men­tary, and that real cod­ing starts with much more ad­vanced lan­guages.

For this rea­son, Qi Ming (pseu­do­nym), a com­puter pro­fes­sor at a Bei­jing-based uni­ver­sity, de­cided to teach his son to code in per­son. He skipped the Scratch phase, go­ing straight to the uni­ver­sity com­puter text­book for his son. Af­ter two years of study, Qi claims his son is now able to make games with Java.

“The fu­ture will be fully in­for­ma­tion­ized and in­tel­li­gent, with hu­mans sur­rounded by all sorts of in­tel­li­gent equip­ment which they op­er­ate based on cod­ing. So I be­lieve it is nec­es­sary to help chil­dren adapt to the fu­ture as early as pos­si­ble,” Qi told Newschina.

Yet dis­sent­ing voices per­sist. Ouyang Ri­hui, deputy di­rec­tor of the China Cen­ter for In­ter­net Econ­omy Re­search, Cen­tral Uni­ver­sity of Fi­nance and Eco­nom­ics, once told the Peo­ple’s Daily that he be­lieved the train­ing groups were “play­ing a psy­cho­log­i­cal game” by mar­ket­ing cod­ing for chil­dren at an early age. “It is a mar­ket­ing strat­egy for com­mer­cial train­ing com­pa­nies to em­pha­size de­vel­op­ing chil­dren's abil­i­ties for the fu­ture and learn­ing to pro­gramme from scratch. To a big ex­tent, it con­forms to the idea ‘do not let kids fall at the first hur­dle' and caters to par­ents' wor­ries [about their chil­dren's fu­ture.] How­ever, this does not mean that learn­ing to code at an early age will do chil­dren any good,” he said.

His wor­ries are shared by some par­ents who are re­luc­tant to take their chil­dren to a cod­ing class. “It is to advocate learn­ing to code at such an early age... If kids learn to pro­gram when they are too young to know what their in­ter­ests truly are, most of them will end up be­ing a foil of the very few who climb to the top,” one par­ent told the Peo­ple’s Daily.

“Learn­ing to pro­gram re­quires some ba­sic math­e­mat­i­cal knowl­edge. Don't you think it is a bit like urg­ing chil­dren to learn to write be­fore they can speak? Learn­ing to paint is also help­ful to train think­ing and cre­ativ­ity. I worry that lit­tle kids might just be in­ter­ested in play­ing games in [cod­ing] classes,” one par­ent who de­clined to re­veal his name told Newschina out­side a cod­ing train­ing com­pany in Bei­jing.

Qi Ming dis­agrees. “What learn­ing to pro­gram teaches is not cre­ativ­ity but an­a­lyt­i­cal and crit­i­cal think­ing skills. The think­ing a coder learns fits an en­gi­neer more than a sci­en­tist, but this skill is needed in all in­dus­tries,” he ar­gued.

Ac­cord­ing to Chen Bin, no­body can defini­tively say a child is too young or too old to learn to code – since chil­dren are dif­fer­ent from each other. A per­fect cod­ing education sys­tem val­ues logic rather than math, and is ac­tu­ally a process of train­ing in log­i­cal think­ing. “If chil­dren learn about cod­ing at an early age, they could use it in the fu­ture ear­lier [than oth­ers.] They might be able to make sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tions as teenagers,” he said.

Com­pul­sory or Not?

Con­tro­ver­sies around cod­ing education are also seen in de­vel­oped coun­tries. How­ever, de­spite these con­tro­ver­sies, many have poured fund­ing into cod­ing cour­ses. The UK, for ex­am­ple, added cod­ing to the com­pul­sory cur­ricu­lum for el­e­men­tary and mid­dle school stu­dents in 2014. Sin­ga­pore launched a “funny cod­ing” scheme in 2015, aim­ing to teach high-per­form­ing pupils and mid­dle school stu­dents

cod­ing in in­ter­est­ing ways. In 2016, the US gov­ern­ment an­nounced US$ four bil­lion in fund­ing to pro­mote cod­ing education. The same year, Aus­tralia listed cod­ing as a com­pul­sory course, de­mand­ing ev­ery stu­dent learn it from the age of 10.

Seen from this per­spec­tive, China is lag­ging be­hind. Ac­cord­ing to Jing­data, a data col­lec­tion and anal­y­sis com­pany based in Bei­jing, only one per­cent of Chi­nese stu­dents around the coun­try are learn­ing to code. Sup­pos­ing each stu­dent spends around 6,000 yuan (US$874.6) per year to learn to pro­gram, the mar­ket amounts to 10 bil­lion yuan (US$1.5B). Given de­mand for tal­ent in com­puter tech­nol­ogy is bound to grow in the in­for­ma­tion era, Jing­data es­ti­mates that the mar­ket will ex­pand in value to 50 bil­lion yuan (US$7.3B) within five years.

In­sid­ers are not that op­ti­mistic. They gen­er­ally say the mar­ket has plenty of dif­fi­cul­ties to over­come be­fore it can reach such a size.

A re­cent re­port on chil­dren's cod­ing education by EO In­tel­li­gence, a pri­vate think-tank spe­cial­iz­ing in AI trends, big data and the mo­bile in­ter­net, claims that cur­rently, chil­dren's cod­ing education has four ba­sic flaws: ir­reg­u­lar teach­ing lev­els be­tween dif­fer­ent train­ing groups, du­pli­cated cour­ses, blind com­pe­ti­tion and un­sta­ble stu­dent pools.

“The num­ber of teach­ers falls in­cred­i­bly short of de­mand. Many train­ing groups only have one or two teach­ers truly skilled at cod­ing. This is the big­gest prob­lem of the in­dus­try,” Zhang Lu told Newschina.

“True pro­fes­sion­als can eas­ily find highly-paid jobs in other in­dus­tries, and most of the teach­ers in the train­ing groups know lit­tle about teach­ing pro­gram­ming be­fore they re­ceive short-term train­ing. Some groups try to fill the gap by recruiting uni­ver­sity stu­dents ma­jor­ing in com­puter tech­nol­ogy, only to find they are nei­ther ex­pe­ri­enced nor a re­li­able co­hort. To tell you the truth, even if cod­ing is de­fined as a main course, pub­lic schools can­not find enough qual­i­fied teach­ers to cover it,” he warned.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhang, the cur­rent pop­u­lar­ity of cod­ing education is partly hyped by in­vestors. The truth is, cod­ing still re­mains an un­fa­mil­iar sub­ject for a ma­jor­ity of par­ents. Ab­sent from the list of main cour­ses, cod­ing will even­tu­ally be pushed out for sub­jects on school ex­ams like Chi­nese, English and math.

Xu Yisong, a for­mer owner of a chil­dren's cod­ing train­ing group, posted an ar­ti­cle on­line in 2017 at­tribut­ing his giv­ing up his busi­ness to “lack of rigid de­mand” and “in­con­ti­nu­ity.” “Chil­dren's cod­ing train­ing gets busy dur­ing the sum­mer and win­ter va­ca­tions, but once a new se­mes­ter starts, the num­ber of stu­dents de­clines sharply as cod­ing has to give way to the school's main cur­ricu­lum” he wrote.

“Worse, when the short el­e­men­tary phases fin­ish, it is hard to ex­tend the cour­ses to ad­vanced cod­ing, where suit­able teach­ers and stu­dents are both lack­ing.”

Chen Bin op­poses the idea that cod­ing has reached the same sta­tus as ex­tracur­ric­u­lar math. “Chil­dren's cod­ing train­ing is more like art and mu­sic cour­ses. Their de­mands con­cen­trate on chil­dren un­der nine years old who are not busy at school,” he said.

Yet, in some par­ents' eyes, it is an ad­van­tage that cod­ing is not as pop­u­lar as ex­tracur­ric­u­lar math­e­mat­ics, since fewer par­tic­i­pants mean less fierce com­pe­ti­tion. Qi Ming has now be­gun to teach his son al­go­rithms us­ing the C++ lan­guage. If his son can win a medal in a high-pro­file cod­ing com­pe­ti­tion, it will give him more chance to get into a top mid­dle school in Bei­jing.

Ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, in 2018, 53 high school stu­dents skilled in cod­ing and an­other 56 skilled in math were en­rolled at Pek­ing and Ts­inghua univer­si­ties with­out tak­ing an en­trance exam. How­ever, there are only around 100,000 stu­dents at­tend­ing such cod­ing com­pe­ti­tions each year, 10 times less than those who at­tend math com­pe­ti­tions. In the eyes of many par­ents it is a clever “short­cut” to a good school.

“The de­mand for chil­dren's cod­ing train­ing will ex­plode once the teach­ers and teach­ing ma­te­ri­als are ready and the education trans­forms into ‘rigid de­mand,'” EO In­tel­li­gence's re­port con­cluded.

Stu­dents at an el­e­men­tary school in Tian­jin take part in a trial graphic cod­ing class dur­ing a sem­i­nar on pro­mot­ing cod­ing education, Septem­ber 19, 2018

Stu­dents at an el­e­men­tary school in Qing­dao, Shan­dong Prov­ince, par­tic­i­pate in a robot pro­gram­ming class, June 7, 2018

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