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.