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Interviews Jul-Sep-2018

Importance of Coding

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A Chat with Anand Ramaswami

“Coding is one of the few skills that requires both conditional reasoning and creative thinking.” – Anand Ramaswami, Vice President – Academics at Next Education.

In his crisp blue shirt and dark blue jeans, Anand Ramaswami, Vice President of Academics at Next Education is extremely suave and exudes remarkable confidence- qualities that have served him to reach great heights in his career. Having worked extensively in the education sector, he is passionate about technology altering the way knowledge is delivered and consumed, not just by the students but by the entire academic fraternity. He has spent much of the last few years driving experimental and uncompromising thought leadership in the K-12 segment.

The first time I met him, he struck me as a person with profound intellect and wit, making you wish you could assimilate some of it. Today, he’s with us to talk about why kids should learn coding at an early age.

Me: Can anyone be a coder? I used to have strong opinions about this, and I feel like I’ve lost them along the way.

Anand: You want strong opinions? Anybody can code. You know, kids these days learn how to put simple algorithms together to solve logical puzzles, build mini bots and even perform simple operations such as drawing a square even before they learn to write elaborate essays. Anybody with a normal IQ can manage that. But saying anybody can be a coder is kind of like saying anybody can compose a sonata. As with any creative skill, no two coders can be compared as there can be multiple algorithms to achieve the same functionality.

Me: You seem to think of coding as a creative skill. Most coders would agree, I am sure.

Anand: Coding is a unique interaction in which you can make things happen on a screen or with a robot, and creativity is in finding the unique way in which you can make it happen. Depending on the objective, algorithms can either make the functionality faster, more secure, optimise its use of memory or even accommodate scalability. For example, Facebook has had to continually scale up its server capacity without sacrificing speed to accommodate its growing number of users. Though there are multiple ways in which the coders can tackle this problem, the objective is to find the most optimal solution. Coding is one of the very few skills that requires both conditional reasoning and creative thinking.

Me: At what age should kids start to learn coding?

Anand: It is never too early to get kids interested in coding. There are several toys and games to teach early coding skills to pre-readers. Most coding toys work by using a companion app to teach kids how to combine commands to make the toys generate sounds, lights and movement. Some of the best coding toys in the market today are Osmo Coding Jam kit, and Bee-Bot. LEGO Boost Robotics Creative Toolbox is another popular toy among kids between the age of five and nine years.

Scratch, developed by a team in MIT is also a great place to start. This visual programming language is a great way to introduce kids to coding. To code in Scratch, one simply has to snap blocks together into a stack. These stacks of blocks control the behaviour of different characters in your game or in the story that you are trying to create. After you have created your program, you can share your project with others.

For slightly older kids, Blockly by Google is a good way to improve and share basic digital skills. The Blockly library represents coding concepts as interlocking blocks. With custom blocks, kids can create their own app too.

“It is still crucial that every child shifts from interacting with technology to creating new technologies.”

Me: But why is it important for kids these days to learn coding? I remember my computer lab period was mostly about how to write Word documents.

Anand: We have come a long way from that. Today, I have a computer in my pocket that is  much faster and has more memory than a home PC back then. It is connected to every other computer on the planet and can virtually access anything, almost instantaneously. The pace of change in computing is extraordinary.

Why is it so important to teach our children to code? We are already living in a world dominated by computers. Your smart fridge is connected to software-controlled networks; your television is delivered over the internet; and we are all shopping online. Early exposure to technology has reshaped the way kids communicate, socialise, create and learn. Due to their increased interaction with technology, these digital natives, think and process information differently. Coding is the language of the future.

Will every job in the future involve coding? Probably not. But it is still crucial that every child shifts from interacting with technology to being an active co-creator. This is not primarily about equipping the next generation to work as software engineers, but about promoting computational thinking. Computational thinking combines mathematics, logic and algorithms, and teaches kids newer ways to solve problems. Computational thinking teaches them how to tackle large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems.

The applications of this approach stretch beyond writing code. Fields as diverse as biology, archaeology and music are applying the computational approach. Computational thinking is a skill that every kid should learn. Even if they never become professional software engineers, they will benefit from knowing how to think this way. It will help them understand and master technology of all sorts and solve problems in almost any discipline.

Me: Computational thinking, I understand, is an essentialist concept. What other skills do kids pick up when they learn coding?

Anand: Those amazing success stories that we love to read, are usually the outcome of a person’s ability to see a problem and come up with an effective and functional solution. Coding is just the execution of that creative process. It helps kids develop creative problem-solving skills.

It teaches kids to visualise. The kids, first ‘think’ of a program that they want to create. The ability to think out-of-the-box and visualise how something will work teaches kids to find newer ways to solve problems. To be able to look at a page of text and ‘see’ what it will do is a fantastic skill.

Computers are very linear in their processing, so as a coder, the kid needs to be able to adopt strong analytical and linear thinking skills. There are many different ways to solve a problem, and coding helps kids arrive at multiple solutions to a single problem by honing their logical-thinking process.

Me: How can teachers help in getting kids excited about coding?

Anand: Teaching kids how to code is on many teachers’ minds these days. With all the discussions about bolstering STEM  (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education in the country and with the economy pushing technology companies to the forefront, it’s clear that change is inevitable, and coding must become as integral a part of education as reading, writing, and maths.

Teachers can help spark and sustain a child’s interest in coding both inside and outside the classroom. Most kids like to create things, so coding will also come to them as naturally as painting a picture or building something with Lego blocks. Capture students’ interest by emphasising on creativity, and they’ll naturally learn some core coding concepts along the way. Keep it fun and don’t force it. Just as all kids do not like to paint, all kids may not like to code either.

Remember that coding is a skill that relies on problem solving, so it is fine for kids to work in pairs. This is actually an excellent way to teach teamwork and develop leadership skills in  kids. Collaboration and teamwork are skills that are extremely necessary in today’s professional world.

Allow the kids to engage independently in the learning process. Accept that there will be many errors along the way. Help kids identify and resolve them. Evaluate them on the process, than on just the end-result.

Me: One thing has been playing on my mind since the beginning of this interview. I would really like to know how Next Education is helping the cause.

Anand: Next Education’s initiative, Robotics is a great tool to initiate kids to coding. We aim to promote robotics as a tool for application of concept-based learning in a classroom environment using STEM. The idea is to rediscover and redesign learning by engaging students with a query-based approach and to be creative in solving open-ended challenges.

In Robotics, we provide the students everything that they require. From hardware components to build robots to the various softwares required for programming, it is an easy-to-use hands-on kit which can help kids focus all their energy into simply being creative and developing a practical approach. The kit contains different kinds of sensors that a robot can use to react to its environment and take decisions. With this, students learn that senses such as touch, sound and light can be replicated in a robot.

Our robot programming software, THINK developed in association with IIT, Bombay, offers a graphic drag-and-drop coding interface for amateur coders. This provides self-explanatory, visual programming blocks that enable them to write powerful pieces of code with ease without getting bogged down by complex syntax and constructs of a textual programming language. Real-life problems often do not have an unique solution, but robotics offers students the flexibility to be imaginative and approach the same problems in their own unique way.

In addition to this, we also conduct teacher training programs to help school teachers initiate and execute coding lessons effectively in the classroom. These trainings are conducted by a team of academic consultants, in association with IIT, Bombay. We have conducted over 500 workshops on Scratch and BASIC-256 in the last one-and-a-half years in as many as 30 states and 893 cities across India.

Me: What interests me is the slightly perverse balance between how Next Education is student-centric, and yet, is helping teachers meet the common goal.

Anand: I think the trick is in trying to understand the experience of learning to code from a student’s point of view and doing whatever it takes to aid the process. For the past few months, we have been working on a few exciting new projects. We are working on developing our own platform on which kids can learn to code.

Me: Something on the lines of Code.org?

Anand: Absolutely. But for kids. We are also working on building a new kit for Robotics based on Raspberry-pi 3. A few other exciting new MOOCs for school teachers are also in the offing.

Me: I have a final question for you. There’s a famous quote by Barack Obama in support for adopting computer science in American schools, “Computers are going to be a big part of your future.. and that future is yours to shape.” What are your thoughts on this?

Anand: Computers are here to stay. And coding will certainly become an integral part of the school curriculum. The 3 Rs of ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic’ that were deemed mandatory by all schools would need a fourth R, algorithm to be added to the list. By getting kids started on algorithmic or computational thinking skills early in their lives, we give them the same agency to create a new future that the 3 Rs gave us when we were in school.

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