A start-up in Jordan helps schoolchildren master coding in a gamified way

The Hello World Kids start-up in Amman, Jordan, has created its own programming language to boost children’s learning capacity. (Supplied photo)
Updated 07 June 2019

A start-up in Jordan helps schoolchildren master coding in a gamified way

  • More than 100 schools teach SmoothY, which is tailored for children's learning capacity
  • Even for students who will not grow up to work in IT, coding skills have many benefits

DUBAI: A start-up in Jordan has created its own programming language tailored for children’s learning capacity. Using Hello World Kids’ SmoothY, pupils master coding in a fun, gamified way by unlocking levels and solving problems to earn points and awards.

Such skills will be vital in tomorrow’s jobs market, with consultants McKinsey & Company warning that automation and artificial intelligence (AI) could eliminate up to 800 million jobs worldwide by 2030. Conversely, there is a dire shortage of trained programmers, with as many as one million coding jobs going unfilled in the US alone.

Even for children who don’t end up working in information technology (IT), learning code has myriad other benefits.

“Coding teaches children problem-solving, analytical skills, computational thinking and critical thinking skills,” said Hanan Khader, a mother of four who founded Hello World Kids in Amman. “We don’t teach coding as an isolated skill, but as a skill to solve real-world problems.”

An estimated 82 public schools and 50 private schools in Jordan now teach her company’s coding program, and 35,000 pupils have completed its courses. Jordan’s education ministry has agreed to incorporate the courses into the school core curriculum, and these will be introduced to all elementary schools over the next five years.

Students learn via HelloCode, an interactive online platform that uses storytelling, cartoons, songs and games to teach SmoothY, which uses simplified programming syntax and conventions.

It is easy to understand and yet uses the same logic and precepts of common programming languages, preparing children to later code in the likes of Python and Java. Through SmoothY, children can make their own applications and computer games. Those aged 5-7 first complete HelloCode Juniors, a three-part course that makes them computer literate, followed by HelloCode Fundamentals, designed for students aged 8-12.

“After completing Fundamentals, children will be ready to learn whatever trending technologies there are worldwide — they know the concepts and semantics of programming languages; they understand how to build technology, so are now free to do whatever they want,” Khader said.

Khader, who is a computer programmer, first had the idea for her company in 2013 when her 10-year-old daughter complained about how boring information and communications technology (ICT) lessons were. “When I explained to her the concept of a variable, she loved it and wanted to learn more so she could write code,” she said.

That prompted her to start simplifying coding concepts for children to understand. She then developed this into a coding course that could be integrated into the school timetable. “There were a lot of challenges in trying to disrupt a long-established system. First, I had to prove that there really was a simplified way to teach coding to kids,” Khader said.

She said she taught herself about educational practices and how to build a curriculum prior to approaching schools. Her main aim was to demonstrate that coding was different to teaching ICT.

“ICT teaches you how to use a program. I wanted to teach how to create a program,” Khader said.

In 2014, she held more than 700 meetings with schools and parent groups to explain the benefits of teaching school children how to code. Only one school invited her to stage a pilot course.

“Once the principal said yes, so 350 kids learned coding,” Khader said. Khader launched her start-up as a not-for-profit company. “I wanted to create social impact but with a profitable strategy,” she said.

“I gradually built awareness by creating case studies showing the impact of our courses and publicizing these through social media. There was skepticism as to whether schoolchildren were capable of learning coding.”

Today, the venture employs 15 full-time staff and offers its courses, available in English and Arabic, worldwide.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.

A poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim in Europe

Updated 17 June 2019

A poetic reflection on what it means to be Muslim in Europe

  • Rahmani is an Algerian-born writer, art-historian and academic
  • Her first novel in the series, “France,” was about her father — a Harki, an Algerian soldier in the Algerian War who fought for the French

CHICAGO: From France comes the second book in Zahia Rahmani’s trilogy, “Muslim: A Novel” Delving deep into identity loss, displacement, misrepresentation and monolithic labels, Rahmani’s book moves between Algeria and France and the political and societal pressures of being both Muslim and European. The circumstances of her birth and the past have always been dictated by conditions beyond her reach and have forced upon her the loss of language and her own history.  

In unadulterated lyrical prose, Rahmani grapples with the circumstances of her life. She writes, “I was forced to lose myself in the century of errors that came before me,” disclosing that her life has never been her own. She was “born in 1962 in a society between times.” After moving to France at the age of five, Rahmani realized her life had changed once she began to lose her language Tamazight, a Berber language spoken by the people of Kabylie in the Aures Mountains, one that was never written down.

Remembering Quranic stories, her mother’s folktales and her own memories, Rahmani draws parallels with her own life to try and understand her fate. She has spent most of her time imprisoned and mislabeled as an Arab, or French, or an immigrant — even though she identifies as none of these.

Rahmani’s language flows freely like water, despite the weight of her words and their inferences. Her writing is impactful and profound as she attempts to close the gaps in herself, trying to understand her own identity or, rather, one that has been forced upon her.

Rahmani is an Algerian-born writer, art-historian and academic. Her first novel in the series, “France,” was about her father — a Harki, an Algerian soldier in the Algerian War who fought for the French. After being exiled from their home, the family sought refuge in France but faced severe discrimination.

“Muslim: A Novel” was originally published in 2005 then translated by Matt Reeck, a poet and translator, from French into English and published by Deep Vellum in 2019.