Coding boom can mean child's play

City Talk | 12 Dec 2019

Danni Zhu

Wearing a pair of black-rimmed glasses and a red T-shirt, an eight-year-old Chinese boy is logged in for an online coding lesson - as the teacher.

Vita has set up a coding tutorial channel on Chinese video streaming site Bilibili in August that has so far garnered nearly 60,000 followers and over one million views. He is among a growing number of mainland kids who are learning coding before they enter primary school.

The trend has been fueled by parents' belief that coding skills will be essential for teenagers given Beijing's technological drive.

"Coding's not that easy but also not that difficult - at least not as difficult as you have imagined," says Vita, who lives in Shanghai. The boy uses his channel to patiently take his students - mostly children older than him and young adults - step by step through an Apple-designed coding app called Swift Playgrounds.

Explaining as he goes, he sometimes makes mistakes deliberately to highlight common errors to avoid."When I'm teaching, I'm learning new things at the same time," says Vita.

China has made huge investments in robotics and artificial intelligence. In 2017, authorities issued an AI development plan that suggested programming courses be taught in primary and secondary schools. And China published its first AI textbook last year.

Vita's father, Zhou Ziheng, has been his main support, editing his videos and helping run the channel. Zhou, a translator of scientific and technology books, started to teach his son how to write code when he was five. "I learnt coding when I was young so I believed that Vita learning coding at this age was something normal," Zhou says.

When Vita was four, they started playing coding-related games together, using icons to replace code. Seeing Vita play well, Zhou decided to help him work on real code. And this summer, Vita surprised his father by successfully rewriting the code in an app that didn't work in an updated system. "I suggested he record how he rewrote the code," said Zhou, and the idea for online classes was born.

Parents who lack the skills to help can send their children to coding agencies, which are booming thanks to demand from China's middle-class families.

The value of China's programming education market for children is set to exceed to 37.7 billion yuan (HK$41.9 billion) by next year, according to internet firm Analysys. It was 7.5 billion yuan in 2017.

"China's programming education in public school starts very late compared to developed countries," says Pan Gongbo, general manager of Beijing-based Tongcheng Tongmei, a coding education center. "So our after-school tutorial agency makes up for this shortage." The center's youngest student is three years old.

For children under six, the agency offers a special program that includes activities like Lego building, which also uses coding knowledge and skills.

According to Pan, children are fully capable of learning coding in cognitive development at six or seven. "Don't underestimate the learning speed of children," he says. "In some courses they learn faster than our adults."

Ten-year-old Ji Yingzhe has been studying the coding language Python for half a year at the agency. Before that, he took a semester-long course on fundamental robot building, which he felt was too simple. "The code has already been written for you, and all you have to do is to organize these blocks in order," he explains.

Ji's father sent him to learn programming because he spent much time playing video games. There is now a new rule: Ji can only play games he creates. Ji has almost finished writing a simple version of the popular game Plants vs Zombies.

As for Vita, in November he competed in a coding competition for primary students held by the Shanghai Computer Industry Association. He spent two months learning the coding language C++ for the competition and went all the way to the final despite being among the youngest participants.

In terms of what the future holds, Zhou says it will depend on Vita's interest and ability. But he wants to keep his son down to earth. "I told him: 'You haven't done anything remarkable,'" says Zhou.


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