FEATURE: Is Taiwan Ready for an Automated Future? (Part 2)

FEATURE: Is Taiwan Ready for an Automated Future? (Part 2)
Credit: OrangeApple
Why you need to know

Taiwan's educational landscape is shifting as parents and institutions adapt to a future that mandates coding skills from middle school through to university.

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This is the second of a 2 part series. You can read part 1 here. In part 2, Rosemary Chen goes back to school as Taiwan's kids and their teachers struggle to adapt to demands for a universal coding future.

With thick round glasses and strays of grey hair neatly tied back into a long pony-tail, Wang Xiu-lan (王秀蘭) sits in the seating area patiently waiting for her son to get out of class on a Saturday morning at OrangeApple — Taiwan’s first coding school for kids.

Previously preoccupied by the cross-stitch on her table, she cautiously puts it aside to answer questions. Her child is in fourth grade and has been coming to the academy every weekend since September last year. “I think information technology (IT) education is important and there are few opportunities at school for teacher-student interactions in Taiwan,” she says.

OrangeApple is just one of many extra-curricular activities that her child pursues. He also goes to English and Math cram schools on weekday evenings. “This is his relaxing time,” she says, explaining that she will encourage him to keep learning even when he reaches high school.

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Credit: OrangeApple
Students at OrangeApple's STEM Camp designed for elementary aged children.

“The classes are not lecture-like here, they emphasize teamwork and group discussions, which is a very important skill for kids to learn,” agrees another parent in the waiting area, Michael Huang (黃承漢). As an information security consultant at the accounting firm PwC Taiwan, Huang says it’s clear to him that, “In future, software design abilities will be even more important than English and math.”

He believes “dual expertise” will be the norm and wants to give his daughter a head start.

“A lot of students in Taiwan don’t learn to code until they reach university – but it’s hard to be creative without long-term exposure to information technology – think Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, they all started coding at a young age,” says Kevin Shu (束凱文) CEO of OrangeApple.

Founded in 2013, the Taipei-based company has seen 6,000 students pass through their programs. With a one-to-10 teacher-to-student ratio, their courses focus on “problem-based learning” – allowing students to see the “bigger picture” of the problems at hand and have hands-on practice with technology in attempting to solve them.

“By making a habit of taking things apart and putting them back together — that’s how we spark their creativity,” Shu says. Using “computational thinking,” students learn to divide and conquer each challenge. Computational thinking comprises four parts: decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, and algorithmic thinking. With these four skills, students can specify the solution to a problem, which can then be executed by a computer.

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Credit: OrangeApple
More advanced students learning Scratch and Javascript at OrangeApple.

But the existing education system still operates under the lecture model and students often memorize the answer instead of creating their own ideas, he adds.

With the Ministry of Education’s new IT curriculum set to be implemented next school year, many fear that teachers are not ready to teach what is asked of them.

Taiwan's 'IT Education Blueprint'

In May 2016, the Ministry of Education announced the “Information Technology Education Blueprint” as part of a new 12-year compulsory education strategy – coming into effect in 2019. Computer courses were previously only taught in the first years of middle school and high school but are now required for students from grade seven to 12.

The new strategy requires middle schools and high schools to teach IT and “living technology” as mandatory classes. According to the ministry, the IT classes aim “to provide students with computer science knowledge and cultivate their computational thinking abilities,” and the living tech classes intend “to help students learn the tools and skills for everyday technology and enhance their design abilities.”

The Ministry of Education has a budget of NT$1.68 billion (US$55 million) to spend over the next three years, including classroom renovation and equipment upgrades – adding an additional 1,385 “IT classrooms” and 279 “living technology classrooms” across the nation’s 2,630 elementary and 732 middle schools.

But with only 644 middle school and high school teachers solely specialized in teaching computer classes, some fear that there will not be enough teachers qualified to implement the new curriculum.

“The main problem is that these high school teachers don’t know how to code so they can’t teach the students to code,” Peng Pai-Chien (彭百謙), a part-time computer teacher at Taipei First Girls’ High School, tells TNL. He worries that without further training provided by the government, the teachers will resort to “elementary school level programs” such as Scratch, which would only be “a waste of time” for high school students.

For schools in rural areas with few specialized teachers, they have resorted to asking science and math teachers to teach computer classes, extending the education gap between rural and city schools, reports Storm Media.

The ministry’s solution is a teacher training program. The program is divided into two categories: “skill enhancement classes” and “second specialization classes.” The former is designed for teachers already familiar with teaching IT and the latter is for their non-specialized counterparts looking to add an extra string to their bow.

According to the ministry, the training program will be held on weekends, and during winter and summer breaks starting this year — and "will subsidize transportation and living cost for teachers coming from more rural areas.”

“Our school has great computer classrooms, brand new computers, and tablets, but we are short of teachers,” says Lo Yue-hua (羅月華), Director of Academic Affairs at The Affiliated Experimental Elementary School of National Tsing Hua University in Hsinchu. He believes that the new curriculum will provide directions for teachers but says their educational philosophy needs to adapt and their teaching abilities need to be advanced.

After-school coding programs becoming the norm

This summer, a Taiwan-based start-up company, Skyrock Projects, opened its “creative space” to teach school aged children and young adults how to code, design 3D models, and construct robots.

Skyrock Projects is strategically located in Tianmu, north Taipei, to cater to the neighborhood’s large expatriate population. It is also home to the Taipei European School, where the startup's co-founders, Tony Cornes and Simon Thomas, previously taught math and science. Founded in February 2017, the pair wanted to create something that “no school can do.”

Given its newly renovated space and equipment costing approximately NT$3 million to NT$5 million (US$103,000 to US$171,000) – mainly sourced from angel funding – few schools can match their resources.

The main reason that they chose to create a maker-space outside of the school system is that as teachers, they did not have time to develop new curriculums.

It took Jonathan Sherman, the content and technical director originally from America, almost half a year to develop their summer programs. “A 12-hour lesson takes about 120 hours to design,” says Thomas, which includes both lesson plans and project prototypes. “Teachers are really busy, they don’t have time for that,” he adds, speaking from experience.

Skyrock Projects launched their first official program in September 2017 and intend to collaborate with both international and local schools. “The Tianmu location is our prototype. If it works out, we plan to open creative spaces all over Taiwan,” Sherman says.

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Credit: Skyrock Projects
Skyrock+ (11-13 years) students teaching the Skyrock minis (8-10 years) how to build a circuit using basic equipment, science and some handy skills.
Making computer programming universal at universities

“The type of talent that the new era requires are people with both expertise and technical ability to solve real-world problems,” says Professor Kang Shih-Chung (康仕仲), the Deputy Vice President of Academic Affairs at NTU.

A year ago, he and a few other professors collaborated to launch Computer Science Plus (CS+), a coding course targeted at non-computer-science students.

Taught by teachers with computer science training in combination with other fields or real-world problem-solving experience, he hopes that courses like these will help students learn the “know-how” of computer language so they can reapply it within their own specialist fields as master problem-solvers.

His CS+ course saw a total of 800 students enroll last year with a relatively even distribution from different departments.

“Our world is very complex, but if we can simplify complicated things into zero-one models, then it will make things a lot easier,” he adds, referring to the common integer programming models used in computer science.

But when trying to make these courses mandatory for all students at NTU, Kang faced a backlash from colleagues, primarily those in liberal arts departments. Some questioned the purpose of universities, asking "Are we just a job training site?", expressing the fear that humanities such as philosophy and literature, and the critical thinking they entail, are in danger of being neglected.

"Whether or not these classes should be mandatory is still being debated," he adds.

The Ministry of Education also has plans to make coding a compulsory subject at all universities, but Lan Man-chi (藍曼琪), Chief of the Technology Education Division at the Ministry of Education says: “Every professor has their own ideas about it and each school is still debating about which model to adopt, so it is not up to the ministry to tell everyone what to do, because there isn’t just one solution, there are so many different fields.”

It seems obvious that different levels of education require completely different curriculums, “Before high school, coding programs are good for training abstract thinking and logic, but in college it should be used as a tool to help the student with their careers,” explains Assistant Professor Kung Ling-Chieh (孔令傑) of NTU Department of Information Management.

Is Taiwan keeping up?

Globally, 25 nations have proposed plans for coding education with the UK the first to implement new curriculums in 2014. Meanwhile, in Singapore, under the country’s Smart Nation initiative, several programs have been implemented to introduce coding and technology to its citizens — all the way from pre-school children to adults.

As Taiwan moves to launch its first nationwide coding curriculum next year, its kids are already late to the global race.

Read Next: Taiwan’s Education System is Failing Its Youth

Editor: David Green

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