2018-07-19 02:51:07 Commentary

Chinese parents, so fond of sending their kids to after-school training courses, have a new favorite subject: computer coding.

Like in most countries, Chinese students don’t tend to learn coding unless they are studying a technology-based university degree. But in a nation locked in an ever-closer embrace with artificial intelligence, there’s no better time to get your kid hooked on Java. Last year, China’s State Council launched an AI development project calling for high-tech education initiatives backed by AI. And earlier this year, Qi Yuan, a former researcher at the Chinese Academy of Educational Sciences, asserted that computer literacy should be given equal weight to textual and mathematical literacy, and that interest in programming languages should be cultivated in elementary and secondary schools.

As the Chinese state seeks to integrate AI into everyday life, parents are becoming convinced that traditional extracurricular courses, like math and English, are increasingly unable to give their kids a competitive edge in the future job market. And as interest shifts toward tech-related skills, companies are already emerging to fill the niche.

“A 7- or 8-year-old kid could start coding courses once they have reached a certain level of reading literacy and have a long enough attention span,” says Dong Wei, co-founder of Coder Garden, a Shanghai- and Beijing-based agency providing children’s programming courses. Coder Garden’s website offers free online courses in several major programming languages — including Python, Java, and C++ — as well as paid offline classes. Many classes teach programming through the same mechanisms as computer games, allowing kids to click through a storyline to learn how a coded program functions and, eventually, solve easy programming or coding problems.

In addition, the company seeks to redress the gender imbalance in China’s coding community through the initiative Teach Girls Coding, styled after similar projects in several Western countries. A survey last year estimated that 92 percent of Chinese programmers were men.

A cursory look on the Chinese search engine TianYanCha.com returns more than 80 registered companies offering computer programming classes for kids, including Beijing’s VIPCODE, Hangzhou’s Ultrabear, and Shenzhen’s Codemao. Statistics show that most such companies were founded in or after 2014, and several have attracted vast amounts of financing. Codemao, for example, received an investment of 300 million yuan ($45 million) in May after getting its hands on 120 million yuan last November.

Programming should be a process of exploration and discovery open to all, not a high-stress, fun-free zone.

At present, however, China’s coding classes suffer from a number of teething problems. First, they are overwhelmingly the preserve of middle-class kids whose parents can afford to pay for extracurriculars. A 40-minute offline class at Coder Garden, for example, usually falls somewhere between 130 and 160 yuan.

China’s educational resources are already seriously unbalanced: Vast gaps exist between urban and rural schools. Even within cities themselves, children from underprivileged families are less likely to have access to computers. Any national coding initiative should start by ensuring that every school is equipped with the necessary hardware.

Second, the courses vary considerably in terms of quality. Some courses barely take students beyond a beginner’s level, instead merely drilling them in the easiest forms of programming such as looping and “if-then” statements.

Third, the industry suffers from a lack of qualified teachers. Whereas experienced programmers might earn 30,000 yuan per month in Beijing, most elementary school teachers are lucky to earn a third of that amount. And although most coding teachers do have strong programming backgrounds, they may not be suited to teaching kids: Even in a developed city like Shanghai, only about 20 percent of pre-college IT teachers at public schools hold a teaching certificate from the government.

Although computer programming is a great way to teach children how to logically apply new skills to a problem, it is important for the kids’ coding industry to avoid falling victim to the intense competitiveness we have seen in other subjects, like math. Competitions like the International Mathematical Olympiad are wildly popular among middle-class Chinese parents, who hope that recognition from such an esteemed organization will bolster their children’s chances of success in university admissions.

But these competitions come with additional baggage. First, private companies prepare conveyor-belt style training courses for prospective Math Olympiad competitors, killing the simple joy of learning something new. And second, these courses become tailored to a small minority of highly gifted children. Programming should be a process of exploration and discovery open to all, not a high-stress, fun-free zone.

From a global perspective, it’s a smart move for countries to integrate wide-ranging technological developments into their school curricula. But it is also crucial to anticipate the potential accessibility problems. The rise of computer programming among China’s middle class looks set to take place against waves of automation and probable mass layoffs. Both the state and private companies must work to ensure that people from poorer backgrounds aren’t excluded from the economy on the basis of computer literacy. In doing so, perhaps they can take a leaf out of Coder Garden’s book and provide a certain number of free, open-access programming courses to anyone who wants to learn.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: A student adjusts code for a robot during RoboCup 2015 in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, April 24, 2015. Zhao Yanxiong/VCG)