Google CS First Reaches the Classrooms of Hong Kong Local Schools

A Revolution in Digital Literacy

At first glance, there’s nothing peculiar about Hong Kong local school children crowded around a computer in a classroom, watching a ball bounce on the screen. But if you factor in the fact that Hong Kong local schools are notorious for their rigid standardized testing and all too often equate scholastic achievement with their grades in traditional subjects like math and sciences, then your attitude will likely shift. In this microcosm of the classroom, there is a revolution in the making. Specifically, a revolution in digital literacy.

Homegrown in the U.S., the CS First program was co-designed by Google and MIT as a free program designed to teach 4th to 8th graders the basic principles of software coding, opening them up to career options in engineering and computer science. But while digital literacy has taken off in the U.S., it has lagged behind in Asia.

Becky Mak, an account manager at Google, decided to scale CS First in Hong Kong as her 20% project. When she started, only international schools in Hong Kong were using CS First, and she wanted to help more local schools understand they had a free resource with CS First. Like her parents, Mak also places a premium on education. When she started working at Google, she knew she wanted to leverage Google’s brand name with a CSR project focused on bridging the education gap.

In January, Mak hosted the education ceremony at Google HQ, during which toothy-grinning students held up tangible certificates as testaments of their hard work.

Hardwired for Success

Mak comes from family overachievers that values education. She recounts her parent’s experience growing up in public housing, later jumping through hoops and securing education grants and scholarships, steps which changed the course of their lives. Like her parents,Mak is also an avid believer of education, and knew that she wanted to get into CSR in a way that would also leverage Google’s brand name.

“Though I never went to local school, I’d heard that kids in local schools work very hard [in traditional subjects] but they’re thinking this is it — the goal is not even that attractive and I’m still working so hard for it. This can be discouraging because I know there are changes possible. I think coding is something that can help break kids out of their mold in Hong Kong.”

While conceptually sound, it wasn’t always smooth sailing from the get- go. Mak had to be resourceful and reach out to people and NGO’s in the community with an expertise in coding education and a track record of working with local schools. She then had to test out and iterate on the various models. The first order of business was localizing the course in a way that would be meaningful for Hong Kong students. Part of this was being more attuned to language barriers, as English is not the first language for many Hong Kong youth.

“I reached out to First Code Academy, a edu-startup run by female entrepreneur Michelle Sun.” Mak said.

Mak then liaised with Kids4Kids, an organization focused on education literacy, founded by female philanthropist Michelle Lai. First Code Academy quickly took the reins for training teachers while Kids4Kids spearheaded the planning and coordination with teachers.

Teacher Incentive Structures, Pain Points, and Overcoming Social Stigmas

Throughout the pilot test in March, Mak gained valuable feedback. Out of these three models they tested, the self-serving model of local teachers teaching their own students proved the most successful. Teachers were the most dedicated group, and would also take time to monitor their student’s progress beyond a simple one-off interaction.

“If teachers take time out to teach coding, they get rewarded. They also have an incentive to make their school look better once they got the principal’s buy-ins,” said Mak.

For a system based on the honor system, this also opened up more of an honest foray into teachers’ pain points. Rather than focusing on the ideal end product — completed coding projects — it became more of a conversation revolving around understanding teachers’ intrinsic challenge. Rather than “did you submit the project on time?” questions became “why weren’t you able to complete it, and how can we help you?”

“From this [process], we learned two things. One, we needed to have a certification process [which came in the way of the graduation ceremony] and we also needed to figure out a training program so the teachers would feel equipped and feel incentivized to learn something new.”

For the same reason, the group also had to shorten the training sessions to one 8-hour session within a 6-month period, which they felt was more realistic.

“Another huge pain point was encouraging teachers to invite girls to the program. This mentality is formed at a very young age. “It’s been interesting to hear even the perceptions (pushback) that some teachers have.”

Here, Mak refers me to a study conducted by the Women’s Foundation on STEM in Hong Kong. Compared with other academic subjects like music and theory lessons, coding less emphasized by higher-level education.

Despite cultural attitudes being sticky, there is hope at the end of the tunnel: The Hong Kong government’s pledge to increase digital literacy has quelled some worried parents’ concerns. To further normalize this, Mak also penned official letters underscoring the importance of these programs to some parents. The Google brand name certainty doesn’t hurt.

Early Run-in’s, Visions and Scaling up

By January 2017, the training programs for teachers were up and running and the team had a strong grasp of incentives. But to scale up, they needed to enlist the help of Everbest, a distribution company of the Makeblock for Hong Kong tech companies.

Leading Everbest was another female entrepreneur; Sandra Chan. Chan, who attended both local school and university abroad, began by transforming her family business from distributing technology like routers to distributing Makeblock to local schools.

“Kids 4Kids used to connect us to teachers they already knew. A lot of these were humanities teachers. But what we needed was to reach the IT teachers. What Everbest could do for us was tell us who they already sold robots to, and pitch to those IT teachers” Mak said.

First Code has since phased out, while Everbest, for all intents and purposes, has taken over the education piece. Kids4Kids maintains the coordination of teacher recruitment and training.

When asked about the future plans of expansion, Mak foresees the implementation of a robotics course. In layman terms, this is the application of CS skills to robotics for agile tactile designs. This will also teach students the basics of hardware engineering.

“This year we’re hoping to hit 1000 kids across 100 schools. We’ve already had over 100 teachers sign up, which is 10x more than 2016.” Mak said.

Photos courtesy of James Kwok