By Sunny Um WIRED Korea
To help children become tech-savvy in this hyper-wired country, children are now required to learn programming at school through desktops, smartphones or tablets, and use it for a variety of purposes.
All fifth and sixth graders start to learn how to write basic software at school under a new educational policy adopted last year.
It is not just schools that provide programming classes. Private institutes are opening extracurricular coding classes, in which many parents enroll their children, as they want to give them a head start.
Riding on the bandwagon are companies developing textbooks and study aids for programming. Among them is SK Telecom, the No. 1 mobile network carrier in Korea.
But SKT set itself apart from other developers when it came up with an education program using textbooks and Albert, a robot programmed to help handicapped children learn basic concepts of coding. This program was motivated by the company’s corporate social responsibility rather than its pursuit of profit.
Those teaching coding, at either schools or private institutes, use video and audio study aids in their classes, many of which are of little help to students with visual impairment or hearing difficulty. Sending handicapped children to such classes is an agony for their parents.
Here, Albert comes in to help them. This baseball-sized robot assists an educational program called “Haengbok Coding School (Happy Coding School)” which is tailored to meet the needs of students with handicaps.
There are three different activities in the program: physical coding, unplugged coding and block coding.
During physical coding, the first activity of the program, students try touching or blocking the robot to see how it reacts. They observe if the robot detours around physical obstacles presented before them or avoids being touched. This activity teaches basic concepts of commands and their outputs, which are necessary to understand coding.
Unplugged coding, which requires nothing but Albert, is a more advanced level of coding than physical coding. Students first design a route that Albert can follow. Then they put command cards on the floor one by one – cards saying go forward, go backward, make a turn and more – in front of Albert. The robot scans them and moves as it is ordered. Students learn how to place their commands in certain orders and put in directions they want.
Block coding is usually done with an app installed on smartphones or tablets, and focuses on transmitting commands from the devices to Albert. As they did for unplugged coding, students first draw a certain route that they want Albert to follow. Next, they choose command blocks on the device from a list of basic commands set on the app. Students drag and drop the blocks with their fingers in a certain order from the list to the command window on the screen. If they transmit the commands to Albert by pressing a button, the robot follows those commands. This activity introduces the concept of commands as how programmers do when they code.
Students with mental impairment have more physical coding and unplugged coding activities than block coding, which has proven to be challenging to them. On the other hand, physically disabled students have more activities that don’t require much physical actions, like block coding.
Visually impaired students are rarely given visual aids that are used for physical coding and block coding. They still do unplugged coding with the command cards written in Braille.
Instead of doing block coding, the students install a coding program Python on their personal computers for the actual coding with texts. Albert doesn’t play a big role here.
On Python, students learn how to say hello to the program using the “print” command. If students type in “Hello” between two parentheses of the command, Python returns a text saying “Hello”. Students also can design a calculator using more advanced commands, such as input, integer and sum, or make rabbit or turtle characters with functional formulas imported from Python’s command list.
Lee Hyun-ju, an expert advisor at SW Korea who participated in developing this educational program, believes Albert is of great help to handicapped children in learning coding.
“Kids found the robot friendly,” she says. “It had no problem in assisting three activities of the coding education.”
The team leader of social value group at SKT, Kang Se-won believes the program is highly valuable to handicapped children as it helps them learn coding with greater ease at schools.
Until now, the program using Albert has been distributed to 40 primary schools. SKT plans to increase the number to 100 by year-end.
By Sunny Um WIRED Korea