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Korean coding education proves to be full of bugs

Schools lack computers, instruction hours and experienced teachers

Oct 08,2016
Students learn computer programming at a computer hagwon, or private academy, in Daechi-dong, southern Seoul. [CHOI JEONG-DONG]
A high school student surnamed Yoon, living in Wonju, Gangwon, spends five hours a day on average playing computer games and is an expert at it, but says he doesn’t know much about computers other than this. When the JoongAng Ilbo asked him if he wants to pursue a career in computer game programming, he replied that he never considered computer programming as a career.

“What is coding?” Yoon asked, adding, “We don’t have computer classes at our school and I haven’t seen a computer hagwon (private academy) nearby.” Yoon wants to work in the private sector instead, which he says is a stable job.

But Yoon’s story largely reflects the current state of coding education in Korea. Jeong In-kee, a professor of computer education at Chuncheon National University of Education, carried out a comparative study on coding curricula between Britain and Korea with his team.

Prof. Jeong said that compared to other countries, coding curricula in Korea are far behind in their pace and level of difficulty, “as there is almost no difference between coding curriculum of Korean elementary schools and that of British kindergartens.”

Prof. Jeong and computer education experts in Korea emphasize coding education as crucial, saying that knowledge of coding builds creativity, but that it is also vital because the digital revolution will connect everything via software in the future. Coding, therefore, has been called by some the “language of the digital era.”

Many countries have already introduced or increased their coding education in public schools. The U.S. government earlier this year announced the expansion of its coding budget, which amounts to $2 billion. Britain’s Department for Education implemented its coding curriculum to public elementary, middle and high schools, saying, “It will contribute to the country’s digital revolution.”

Korea’s Education Ministry announced last year its plan to include coding education in public schools starting from 2018, but teachers at software (SW) model schools have expressed concern about limited class hours, poor computer facilities and a lack of teachers for professional coding classes.

Most teachers at SW-model schools agree that class hours for coding are too short to teach anything useful. Coding curricula starting from 2018 allocate roughly 9.5 hours per year for elementary schools and 11 hours for middle schools, which means less than one hour per month.

Compared to other countries, Korean schools fall dramatically short in terms of coding class hours. British schools teach one hour of coding every week, while Chinese middle schools teach 70 hours of compulsory coding per year.

Japan is no exception, allocating 55 annual hours in middle schools and 70 annual hours in high schools solely for computer education.

Teachers complain that an hour of class time per month is not enough for students to learn coding, not to mention computational thinking, which refers to the process of solving problems and expressing the solutions in way that computers can carry them out.

“Korean students learn how to manage basic coding, while students elsewhere learn to think about how to change the world using what they have learned from coding,” said Han Seon-kwan, who heads the Future Talent Institue at Gyeongin National University of Education.

The situation is not much different for other SW-model schools. Outdated computers and a lack of wireless internet, due to schools’ security concerns, prevent schools from delivering effective coding lessons.

“I had to control robots with Bluetooth because the school doesn’t have wireless internet,” a teacher at an elementary school in Gyeonggi said. “They lost interest when the weak connection kept stopping the robots.” Another teacher said, “The whole school shares a single computer room, so for the majority of our class time we replace programming with critical thinking classes, which do not require computers.”

Another problem is that the Education Ministry’s survey last year showed that only 4.7 percent of elementary school teachers have experience in teaching software programming. Teachers without such experience teach coding after some 15 hours of training. “It’s difficult for teachers my age to use computer programs even for documents,” a 50-year-old elementary school teacher said, “and it’s too much that we’re asked to teach coding now.”

There are information and computer teachers in middle schools, but the number is limited to 1,217 teachers in 2,934 middle schools nationwide, which is an average of 0.4 teachers per school. With the difficulties of coding education in public schools, students are now choosing private educational institutes to meet a growing need. The number of students registered in one computer hagwon in Daechi-dong, southern Seoul, has increased five times compared to last year. A hagwon official said inquiries about its programs have increased dramatically after a Go match between AlphaGo and Lee Se-dol.

But while computer hagwons contribute to public awareness in coding, they do so not without creating a severe local gap. Expensive fees and the regional concentration of computer hagwons make them inaccessible to most people.

Although less severe, the regional gap in coding education applies to public schools, as well. The JoonAng Ilbo carried out a study of 3,204 middle schools nationwide, which revealed that 47.5 percent of schools in Gyeonggi and 41.9 percent in Daegu teach computer classes but only 1.6 percent do so in Ulsan, 5.7 percent in Daejeon and 8 percent in Gangwon.

The gender gap is another ongoing issue for computer education in Korea. According to the Korean Educational Development Institute (KEDI), out of all university freshmen in computer-related fields, female students constituted 27.1 percent as of last year. For participants of software education sponsored by Sungkyunkwan University, the male-to-female ratio was eight to two. The women’s employment rate in the computer-related sector was 12.5 percent as of last year, a low turnout compared to that of the U.S. at 22.9 percent and Britain at 19.1 percent.

Despite the difficulties of coding education, computer experts remain hopeful, as they see coding as the key to success in the future. The growing number of jobs in computer-related sectors is one example. According to Code.org, an educational organization in the U.S., computer-related jobs will increase up to 55 percent within a year. But the number of expected computer-major graduates is 400,000.

BY LIM MI-JIN, KIM KYUNG-MI AND LEE CHANG-KYUN [kim.yuna1@joongang.co.kr]


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