Hong Kong children learn to code after school

By Juliana Liu
Hong Kong correspondent, BBC News

Media caption,
Michelle Sun is teaching young children in Hong Kong how to code for mobile technology

On a lazy Friday afternoon, a small group of primary school students open their laptops and, laughing and chatting, plunge straight into the world of computer programming.

The children, starting as young as six years old, come each week to this out-of-school private learning centre in Hong Kong.

They are getting lessons in computer coding not always available within Hong Kong's state schools, with parents paying extra for skills that they hope will keep up with a fast-moving digital industry.

Over the next hour-and-a-half, they are taught how to create characters for a simple mobile game, using "drag and drop" software.

Image caption,
A private learning centre in Hong Kong offers computer programming classes for children

"It's a form of coding," says Michelle Sun, the 28-year-old founder of this coding school, called First Code Academy.

"This way, the kids don't have to type as much. It's much more intuitive for them to learn the concepts and build a foundation."

Later they will begin to learn JavaScript, a programming language that underpins many internet applications.

More stories from the BBC's Knowledge economy series looking at education from a global perspective and how to get in touch

She sometimes struggles to catch the attention of her young students, some of whom are glued to their screens.

The atmosphere in class is noisy, boisterous and interactive. But she has an easy rapport with the children.

Information age

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ms Sun attended an elite girls' school, succeeding in the city's notoriously regimented, competitive education system.

She was then exposed to western influences, studying at the University of Chicago and then working in California, before returning home to start a coding school.

Image caption,
The Hong Kong government wants coding to become part of the school syllabus

"When I was growing up, it was about taking in new knowledge and making sure we understand it in tests. But in the information age we are in now, the role of education is different," she says.

Her own experience in Silicon Valley convinced her that there were booming opportunities available to those with programming skills, especially for mobile software.

According to estimates from Juniper Research, the global market for mobile applications will more than double from $47.7bn (£30.8bn) in 2014 to $99bn (£64bn) in 2019.

Asia, bolstered by strong growth in China, is expected to account for more than half of that market.

New economy

Hong Kong is already one of the world's most wired cities. According to government figures, 85% of homes have access to broadband, and people own, on average, at least two mobile phones.

But the education system - while world class according to global tests - has not been keeping pace with the speed of change in the digital age.

Computer literacy is commonly taught, but computer programming receives far less attention in classrooms, according to teachers.

A syllabus from the Education Bureau that sets out requirements for junior secondary school students in computer literacy was last updated in 1999.

Image caption,
Michelle Sun (right) set up a coding academy in Hong Kong after returning from Silicon Valley

It exposes students to educational programming which is now considered by many to be outdated.

The students at First Code come from families that can afford fees of between $775 to $1,300 per 12-week term, depending on the age of the child.

That is out of the reach of many people here, as the median monthly household income last year was about $3,000.

To bridge the digital divide, the Hong Kong government aims to make computer programming a required subject for students as young as 11 years old.

"What we want to do is to incorporate coding as a mandatory part of early secondary education so as to equip students for the future digital world," said Joey Lam, Hong Kong's deputy government chief information officer.

She declined to give a specific starting date, but said it would happen within a few years.

Global trend?

Other countries in the Asia Pacific region, including Australia and Singapore, are also working out when and how to start compulsory education in computer programming.

Image caption,
It can be difficult for the teacher to tear the students away from their computer screens

Last September, a new national curriculum was introduced in England, requiring students age five onwards to be taught the basics of programming.

Estonia had started the trend a few years earlier by introducing programming in primary schools.

In Hong Kong, private schools and study centres like First Code are filling in the gap.

As for the children who meet on Fridays, they may only be working on basic mobile games now, but they may in he long run be getting one step ahead of the game.

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