Jonas leans forward in his revolving chair and watches his computer screen on which is a little red and green cartoon boy merrily stomping down a road. Whenever the cartoon character encounters a boulder or a log of wood on the road, Jonas laughs aloud. He knows that to help the boy leap over the hurdle, he has to click his mouse on a red block on the screen and drag and drop the block onto a palette that is open at the bottom of his computer screen.
‘I’ve done it,’ he tells his teacher Fariha Khan with a smile, when the cartoon character leaps over the hurdle. Then holding on to the table he hops down from his chair and takes a sip from his smart black water bottle.
Jonas is just four years old, and his feet barely reach the floor when he is seated. But that has not diminished his enthusiasm to learn computers and coding. The youngest student at The Coding Circle, an educational start up set up two years ago in Downtown Dubai, the little boy is one of around 20 enthusiastic kids busy learning the basics of coding.
For those who came in late, coding, at its most basic state, is a set of instructions that tells a computer what it needs to do. It makes it possible to create apps and websites, among other things.
Every time you send a text message, play a video game, or book a movie ticket using an app, you are you are able to do so because someone wrote the code that commanded the computer or your phone to do the task.
But why is coding and computer science becoming so popular that countries from Singapore to Cyprus, England to Estonia are including it as part of the public school curriculum?
‘Because,’ says Bruno Scheepers, director of operations at The Coding Circle and a teacher of coding, ‘technology is integral to every aspect of our lives today. It empowers you to do many things including creating your own websites and apps, taking up a career in coding, or even starting a tech business in the future.’
But kids as young as four?
‘See, we live in a digital world where software and computers are part of our everyday life. From the phone you use that is loaded with apps to the virtual games you play to shopping and gathering information online, everything uses computers. Knowing the language of computers is going to be crucial in the future… something as important as learning history, sciences or languages,’ he says.
Bruno is not the only one in favour of coding.
Some 20 years ago, Steve Jobs had said: ‘Everyone should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think.’
Earlier this year, Facebook’s Mark Zukerberg said ‘in 15 years, [students will be taught] programming just like reading and writing … and [we’ll be] wondering why we didn’t do it sooner.’
Susan Wojcicki, CEO of Youtube, too logged in in favour of coding. ‘From phones to cars to medicine, technology touches every part of our lives. If you can create technology you can change the world,’ she said.
Still not convinced?
Two years ago, the European Commission in a report urged people to learn coding warning that a lack of basic coding skills could result in Europe facing a shortage of up to 900,000 ICT professionals by 2020 - that’s just three years away. The Commission bemoaned the fact that although more than 90 per cent of professional occupations require some information and communications technology (ICT) competence, the number of graduates in computer science is not keeping pace with this demand for skills.
Closer to home, Mohammad Mourad, regional director for Google Mena, can’t underscore the importance of coding enough. ‘Coding skills and computer science are… a gateway to innovation in numerous fields from architecture to zoology, medicine to the music industry,’ he says. ‘Computer programming has become a realm for creativity and innovative ideas.’
The statistics are startling enough to make you sign up for a course in HTML or C++ asap. According to a 2016 World Economic Forum report, 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that do not exist as yet; which means students need to be prepared for it.
A massive 71 per cent of all new jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are in computing.
That’s not all. Two years ago, there were 500,000, yes, that number is right, new computing jobs available in the US alone, but only 40,000 qualified graduates to fill them.
It was perhaps with that in mind that Accenture, a digital media and technology company, teamed up with the Australian School in Abu Dhabi in December and set up a coding session for grade 10 students. The event, in collaboration with Code.org, a non-profit whose mission is to expand access to computer science and increase participation by women, was organised to support Hour of Code, a global movement reaching tens of millions of students in over 180 countries across the world.
Apart from Accenture, several major tech companies including Apple punched in their support for the initiative in the UAE. Apple stores in the country celebrated the Hour of Code with free workshops introducing coding to kids and people of all ages. Accenture is not alone. Tech giants such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google, not to mention more than 400 other technology and educational organizations, all encourage their employees and computer engineers to volunteer at schools in their communities to help students learn the basics of coding.
Hadi Partovi, CEO of Code.org, could not have been happier. Thanks to his initiative, since 2013, over 100 million students have benefitted from at least one hour of coding.
‘Learning computer science is just as foundational as learning biology or chemistry,’ Hadi said. ‘Learning what an algorithm is and how data is encrypted on the internet is just as important as learning how photosynthesis works.’
Omar Boulos agrees.
‘Coding has touched every aspect of today’s world,’ says Omar, Accenture’s regional managing director for the Middle East and North Africa.
‘During our school visit in Abu Dhabi, we met some very passionate students who were eager to learn code.’ He hoped other schools too would adopt ‘such innovative ideas that inspire creative learning and elicit interest in computer science.’
For the students at the Australian School, though, the coding event was an opportunity to put their tech skills to the test.
Anthony Wethereld, principal of the school and a former computer engineer who himself dabbled in programming, is convinced that the study and practice of coding results in ‘tangible positive outcomes, and enhances the way students think and persevere through a task to reach a successful conclusion’.
The importance of coding was not lost on the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), either; it launched an initiative called Computer Science First in November 2015. The mission: to teach around 250,000 school students in the capital the basics of computer coding in collaboration with Google over the course of two years.
Dr Najla Al Naqbi, innovation and e-Learning programme manager at Adec, was all praise for the programme. Teaching coding to children at a young age can help change their attitudes, she told Gulf News at the launch of the initiative.
‘Children can improve their reasoning skills. They can determine the consequences of their actions and their possible outcomes... Coding has improved the students’ ability to solve problems and work in teams,’ she said.
Students were taught programming using ‘Scratch’, a student-friendly programming language that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed.
Scratch appears to be the go-to programme for getting kids interested in coding.
‘It is popular to teach kids the basics,’ says Fariha of The Coding Circle.
‘Until the age of 7, we teach kids the very basic concepts of computers - how to power it on and turn it off, set a password… essentially be responsible for their machines.’
The basic games and lessons don’t use letters or words because these kids are pre-readers, only just learning to read and write.
‘The 7-10 year-olds are introduced to Scratch which does not involve writing code but instead uses blocks of code,’ she says.
Each piece of code is a block that needs to be dragged and dropped in a particular sequence to create a programme. ‘You need to choose the blocks carefully and arrange them in a particular sequence for the computer to read and act on it,’ says the software teacher.
A course in coding teaches children how to think sequentially and logically, and make games, apps and web pages but clearly there is a lot more at play here.
Echoing the views of Adec’s Dr Najla, Omar Farooqui, managing partner of The Coding Circle, says ‘computational thinking, which is actually a combination of algorithms, maths and logic, teaches children to view the world in a new way, a logical way. Our approach to teaching coding is recognised internationally by our affiliate partners Google, Cisco, Facebook and Uber.’
To raise awareness about the benefits of coding The Coding Circle plans to organise a series of public lectures beginning in Ramadan. ‘We also plan to distribute tablets to children to encourage them to learn coding,’ says Omar.
Experts say computational thinking teaches children – and adults – how to approach a problem by breaking it down into smaller, more easily manageable issues, thinking them through logically before arriving at a solution that solves the smaller problems and thereby the larger problem.
These skills can be used in not just the fields of science but also in the world of business, where markets often follow rules that can be better understood using computational analysis, says Omar.
Fariha believes coding goes a step further. She views it as a language that can also get children to work as team and push the boundaries of technology and imagination.
‘I’ve seen it happen,’ she says. ‘Last year, our team participated in a hackathon in Dubai. The mission was to create apps with the theme ‘Smart city for women’.’
The Coding Circle team, made up of three girls aged 8, 9 and 10 and Fariha, who was the team coach, came up with an idea to solve a problem mothers sometimes faced during the school run – getting caught up with a chore and unable to pick up or drop their kid to school.
‘We created a kind of carpooling app for moms,’ says Fariha. ‘A mother who signs up to the app can see other mums in her locality who have a child that’s going to the same school her child is attending. The app has a calendar where mums can feed in the dates and timings when they were available for pick ups and drops. This way all the mums who are signed up know who is going to be picking up the kids on a particular day.’
The judges at the hackathon, says Fariha, were impressed by the app which they felt was useful for the environment - fewer cars on the road - and good for the community: more mums were stress-free.
‘For the girls, building the app was a lesson in not just putting their coding skills to use, but also about working as a team, honing leadership and presentation skills and sticking to deadlines,’ she says
That said, reliable research that proves computing can help you become more creative or increase your ability to problem-solve is pretty thin. In an interview with the New York Times, Mark Guzdial, a professor in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Tech who studies computing in education, said it won’t make you better at something unless that something is explicitly taught.
In decades of research no one has found that skills automatically transfer. However, for the same reasons you learn chemistry or physics, ‘it makes a lot of sense to understand computing in our lives’, he said.
However, Dubai-based Fifi Leine, for one, would vouch for the confidence coding has given her children.
Her elder son Elias, 8, started to learn coding as a school co-curricular activity. ‘He was very interested in the subject and when he said he wanted to do coding, I decided to enrol him for a course,’ says Fifi.
The young boy, who is proficient in HTML, has already done about 300 lines of coding. ‘He feels empowered, a lot more responsible… I think coding is great for their multiskills development,’ she says.
Jonas got interested in computers and coding after seeing his elder brother Elias working on the machines. ‘I used to bring Jonas along when I was dropping off his brother for his classes and Jonas used to be quite keen to hang around here. So when I learnt they were offering a short course for 4-6 year olds I enrolled him. He’s already learnt so much for his age – he can click and drag and drop and knows how to power up and switch off the machine… He truly enjoys being here and playing around on the computers learning the basics of coding.’
Marwan Shehab, another parent, is pleased with the way his son Remi, 8, is progressing.
‘Remi is quite academic and reads and writes quite well. He’s strong in maths at school so for us this was just another activity to get him interested in.’
Remi enrolled for the first course and seeing how much he enjoyed it decided to continue. ‘We did not force him into this,’ says Marwan. ‘We offered him the opportunity to check it out and he loved it so he’s continuing it.’
Marwan is convinced that coding is the future. ‘I’m sure, Remi will be able to use this skill in his life and in his future studies.’