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Teaching China’s next generation to express themselves in code

For 22 years, Xu Xinyan has taught computer skills and computer science to young Chinese students.

Now she is on the front lines of China’s national push to educate the next generation in coding skills essential to excel in the new economy.

With a Microsoft China Education partner, she is going to bring KODU innovative curriculum to more than 150 schools and 200 IT instructors, reaching 30,000 students through forums, training sessions, and video recordings.

China sees artificial intelligence and robotics as future engines of the Chinese economy, and crucial areas of industrial growth. Authorities are investing heavily to build China’s domestic capabilities in computer science.

The cultivation of “high-end talent (is) of the utmost importance in the development of AI,” declared a State Council plan released in July 2017.

It’s a visionary plan that aims to make China the world leader in AI by 2030, building a homegrown industry worth nearly $150 billion.

The plan calls for China to “improve the AI education system, strengthen the construction of a talent pool and echelons, (and) especially accelerate the introduction of the world’s top talent and young talent, forming China’s AI top talent base.”

Committed educators like Xu are crucial to this vision.

Xu got her exposure to computers while young. As the daughter of an instructor in ship modeling at Beijing’s Museum of Science and Technology, Xu was selected to join a pilot program to test children’s interest and aptitude.

“I started to play. Though I wasn’t very proficient, I became very interested.”

Xu graduated from college with a degree in Chinese language and literature, but returned to university when she discovered that what local schools needed were computer science teachers.

For twenty years, she refined her teaching as students progressed from lacking home computers to having tablets and smartphones in the classroom.

Creating a course that suited all backgrounds wasn’t easy: out of a class of 40 students, she recalls, less than five could complete the more technically demanding tasks she asked of them in QBasic, a text-based programming language.

Xu explaining the use of Kodu with her students

“It is too difficult and uninteresting for children. If a statement had an error in one place, the whole statement was wrong, and it would produce error messages and frustration,” she says.

In 2016, she had a breakthrough: she began using Kodu — a 3D, visual programming language designed to introduce children to coding concepts in an intuitive manner. Without needing to type text, users can experiment with computational ideas such as loops, subroutines, and branching.

Suddenly, students previously uninterested in computer science started to produce their own programs with ease.

“There were some girls, they weren’t interested in coding, but they used Kodu to do 3D animation,” said Xu. “They made a little animated video to tell the story of a mermaid.”

“I see programing as a means for children to express themselves, like writing, singing, dancing, and painting —it’s a window to their inner feelings.”

“For younger grades, the rich colors and 3D graphics are appealing, and the coding language is closely connected to natural language. This is very important for determining whether children can accept it easily and continue to love it.”

“Almost every school in our school district has downloaded KODU, so I am planning to organize a competition this semester, during this year’s ‘Hour of Code’ week. We also have a 10-class STEM training, in which I am planning to conduct a half day training session for more than 110 Information Technology teachers on how to use KODU in combination with computational thinking.”

In addition, at a November forum that will be attended by education researchers and teachers from all school districts in Beijing, Xu will give a KODU Scene Experience Lesson.

Combining her dual background in humanities and sciences, she advocates a cross-disciplinary approach to computer science education that brings in content from varied fields: geography, art, mathematics, and history.

Youth can gain coding, computer science and computational thinking education through KODU, and Xu believes that such skills can fundamentally broaden and transform students’ thought patterns. In fact, she argues that computational thinking should not just be offered in computer science class, but that teachers of other subjects should also master it and incorporate it in their subject teaching.

“For example, music teachers can explore how to ‘program’ music with students, then the art teacher can turn the music to drawings with students. That’s what we are trying to do next.”

It’s a philosophy she says is summed up not simply in the acronym STEM – education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – but rather, STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

To her, programming is not just a technical discipline — it’s an extension of the personality.

“My big view of programming education is it shouldn’t be limited to operating software. Human elements should also permeate the coldness of program design, and serious programs must also release some warmth and light,” she says.

“Even if they aren’t able to make perfect programs, they can show off their individual unique character.”

Such an approach is not only inclusive, she says, noting that it makes coding more accessible to girls, but also necessary. In the long run, building an AI-ready workforce in China will require reaching a broader swathe of society, and working to combat algorithmic bias — that is, biased views concealed in code, that can have far-reaching impacts as AI is used to make more financial and legal decisions.

Above all, the goal in her classes is not to make technology seem difficult and inaccessible, Xu says, but to “have fun, and make every programming student in my class feel happy.”

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To read more about Microsoft Philanthropies’ work to build future ready generations in Asia, click here.