Hong Kong is falling behind in teaching vital coding skills

If the next age is the age of computers, we must speak their language to rule them. Hong Kong is in terrible position to train future generations to code our own future.

(Photo credit: Esri China (Hong Kong) Limited))


Hong Kong is coming to the realisation that future skills are going to mean not only must we retool the workers of the future, but we will have to retool the teachers of today. In a world dominated by computers, the masters of the future will be the masters of the language to control the computers: coding.

Like any language, it must be well taught by able teachers to students with ample opportunity to study. In this, Hong Kong is woefully underserved on all fronts. Others are doing much better. Hong Kong should look to their example.

Wee and free – to code

Learning computer programming and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have become a new trend in global education. Estonia, a small country with a population of one million, gained its freedom from the Communist Soviet Union in the 90s, and became famous for innovation and technology. Examples are the establishment of the online communication application Skype in 2003, and a remittance service Transferwise in 2011 well-known for its low handling fee. The country’s education, especially in science and mathematics, has also achieved top international ranking in recent years.

Estonia was very poor after gaining independence but its people broadly bought into the idea that by aggressively pursuing technological advances, it could enrich the people of the nation. Even 20 years ago, all the schools had already installed an internet network. The former president nicknamed the country as “e-Stonia”. Widespread teaching of coding was encouraged and Estonia started coding education in 2012 in 20 schools as a trial. Coding courses in school started from age 7, making it the pioneer in coding education in Europe.

The tip of the spear

The European Union published a report at the end of 2014 which carefully analysed the progress and plans of the 20 member countries in coding training.

The report identified 12 member countries, such as Estonia, United Kingdom and Italy that had included coding in their regular curriculum for primary and secondary education. The other countries planning to follow were Finland, France and Spain, which started to implement new curriculum in 2015 and 2016. They hold to the idea that coding training promotes logical thinking and problem solving skills; when you start breaking down what’s happening now, you can start predicting what’s going to happen next. They also hope that more students would be encouraged to study computer science in the long term, and this would help the development of information technology industry.

Though there are many experienced STEM teachers, teachers in the brand-new topic of coding are in short supply. A study of computer education in the UK pointed out that, due to a lack of professionally trained teachers and no provision for ongoing teacher training, students could only learn basic computer skills like word processing – barely ‘skills’ at all. In Australia, also eager to catch up with the world trend, 60% of IT teachers in secondary schools have never studied the relevant subject in post-secondary education.

At the beginning of last year, Finland had included coding in its primary and secondary school curriculums. The country also faced the same shortage of code-capable teachers.

However, it moved to correct the situation. It began programmes to facilitate cooperation with universities to train teachers and develop teaching resources. Furthermore, the Ministry of Education and Culture cooperated with private companies to provide free computer programming courses for students.

Hong Kong challenges

In Hong Kong, we are facing a number of obstacles if we are to catch up on coding education.

According to Mr John Huen, the founder of Koding Kingdom and Chairman of Talent Cultivation Committee of Smart City Consortium, many in school management want to promote coding education but the insufficient supply of teachers with appropriate professional training in coding is one of the major issues stopping them.

Meanwhile, the mindset of parents is another obstacle. Parents generally don’t have enough of an understanding of the importance of coding and seldom make it a top priority. IT subjects are not in the mainstream curriculum and are relegated to the same status a ‘nice to have’ topics like art and physical education. Most parents encourage their children to study medicine, accounting, engineering and law, but rarely information technology. Accordingly, parents do not allocate resources for their children to IT study as they do for traditional topics like Chinese, English or music.

At an institutional level, schools  are on their own, exploring potential curriculum independently. Each school is responsible for designing their own curriculum without solid research and theoretical support from the Education Bureau. In many cases, those struggling to introduce coursework know little about the topic themselves – the blind leading the blind.

I hope that we can learn from overseas experiences, like that of Estonia, in which parents, teachers, industry, government and the whole community work together to promote coding education, so that our students can catch up with the global trend as soon as possible.

 

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Contributing Authors

Dr Winnie Tang, Honorary Professor, Department of Computer Science, The University of Hong Kong

Dr Winnie Tang JP is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Hong Kong. She is one of the locally-bred IT entrepreneurs of Hong Kong. In the 1990s, Dr Tang founded Esri China (Hong Kong) Limited to develop and promote Geographic Information System (GIS) software and solutions. Over the years, she has been actively advocating the use of technology and sharing her views regarding the ICT industry, eHealth, education, environmental conservation, entrepreneurship and smart city concepts through her services in government and non-government organizations in Hong Kong.