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Multitasking students find obsolete the task of grinding away at learning the „ce” and „ci” and „ghe” and „ghi” of the Romanian language. Nowadays, the ABCs of Romanian digital natives include other kinds of letter groups, part of a vocabulary that opens new horizons. Please spell these out: html, head, title, and body!
You can’t teach old dogs new tricks. When the coding courses frenzy started (see Codeacadamy and co), I tried to resume what I still remembered from a highschool course of C++. Back then, floppy disks ruled; today, the cloud is our king. I gave up because I realized I had forever fallen behind. Nowadays, kids learn coding from even younger ages, to have it forever ingrained in the DNA of the new generation of natural born digitals.
If web programming is included in school curricula in Estonia, Romanian middle schools still have cliques for those who know their digital ABCs and those who have no e-knowledge. Outside school hours, those who want to become the next Zuckerberg sit alone at home and write simple code, dreaming of Silicon Valley. Or they dilligently go to a private coding class. Bobby Voicu, a Romanian entrepreneur, is one of the first Romanians to organize such classes in Bucharest. The concept is called Coder Dojo, it has Irish roots, and its purpose is to teach lessons that beat by a mile the biblical parables in Romanian religion textbooks. In most cases, from primary school to highschool, Romanian students take one religion class each week, where they learn about the Bible.
You wouldn’t expect to see too many children gathered in a glass building in Băneasa, a commercial borough located close to the outskirts of Bucharest, chirpy (though sleepy), especially on a Saturday morning. Despite this, 41 kids, both boys and girls, came accompanied by parents or grandparents to take last weekend’s coding class. It’s free, it’s three hours long, and only parents who know their way around the internet know about it. Many have lended their kids their work laptop – you figure it out when you notice an excel file called „holiday request”. Others, fewer, have pink covers and Hannah Montana stickers.
Homework assigned by e-mail
„I initially didn’t like that it was so early on a Saturday, but in the end I came anyway”, says the owner of a Dell laptop with a tag that says „Ilinca” on her t-shirt. She’s just 9 years old and also went to the first class, unlike some who are completely new. Her and the 25 other students here last time also received homework – to play with code fragments to put a photo on the web. Ilinca did it right away, „while I was watching TV”. The „textbook” is a YouTube video that Bobby Voicu and his team send parents at the end of each class.
„These children will never be the victims of cyber bullying because they are already part of a network.” – Bill Liao, Coder Dojo
Everything seems as methodic as things in a state school classrom, but Bill Liao, co-founder of Coder Dojo Irland, inspires the children in the room by talking to them differently: „It’s not school, it’s freedom! In Irland, after three months, one of the students became the youngest iPhone app developer”. But until we’ll be able to see for ourselves these Romanian geniuses, one thing is certain for those who enroll in this kind of class, continues Bill: „These children will never be the victims of cyber bullying because they are already part of a network. In addition, if you look at the FBI profiles of cyber criminals around the world, you notice that many were victims of social exclusion during their adolescence.”
A certain type of rigor must exist nonetheless: after Liao finised the Coder Dojo presentation, parents left the room and the children were promised three hours in which they’ll make the first steps into becoming wizards similar to Harry Potter. Because, after all, „coding is magical”. And those who don’t get it will forever be muggles.
Form master Google
Rules are still explained after the parents went out for coffee and chatting. „Ask each other. Then ask Google. Then ask the assistants wearing tags”, says Bobby Voicu while explaining the hierarchy of knowledge. Until after lunch, with help from a bunch of team mates with Basic and Pascal background, Bobby projects pieces of code on a wall. „I only touched a computer in high-school”, says Ana, one of the assistents, with the same kind of regret I also feel.
It’s not easy to ask children ages 8 to 14 to be patient and to persevere. Although Bobby already opened a code language editor, the children, placed at round tables of 5-6 seats, are already burned out from so much multitasking. A Shakira YouTube video, a short Facebook check, a short Counter Strike mission. Nonetheless, some have written on their notebooks, out of reflex, the title „Computer lesson”. And when Bobby starts teaching them what html is, their pens start taking notes. Others are too absorbed with the smartphones around their necks, hanging much like apartment keys about two decades ago.
Why u no coding?
One hour into the wall-projected lesson, they get to the most exciting part: placing a photo on a webpage solely through code commands. The girls start searching for cats and pinguins, the boys go huning online for photos of cars and spiders, and Why u no? memes. Some are more advanced than others and hurriedly put up their hands to ask additional questions: „How do I make the photo bigger?”; „How do I change the background color of the page?”; „What’s better: Chrome or Mozilla?”. Horia is simply happy because he found a photo of himself to upload in the browser. „I’m on the internet! I’m on the internet”, he tells everyone around.
„I’m on the internet! I’m on the internet” – Horia
There’s no more time for more coding; it’s already 1:00 PM. Bobby hands out evaluation forms, „meaning feedback”, hurries to say one of the boys. They are blank pieces of paper where students can write or draw what they liked best today. Some speak with limitless candor: „My favorite boy was Bobby!!!! Because he was the only one who knew about Apple laptops”; „It was magical!”; „Even if I know C++, I liked doing html with you”. Afterwards, with all the parents present and everyone cheering, they children were handed out diplomas.
„We had about 70 people enlisted, but the room can only host about 40 kids”, says Bobby Voicu. „In Irland, these kinds of meetings happen weekly, and that’s where we want to get as well. For now, we can’t make them happen more often than once every three weeks. Romtelecom helped us get this meeting together, and there are more, with help from Adobe”.
But until then:
*Romanian kids used to wear keys around their necks. Not for fun or for fashion, but because parents left for work early and came home late. You needed a way to open the door when you got back from school. Kids were just as independent back then with house keys as they are now with smartphones.
Editor’s note: a big thank you goes to Iulia Carabaș who managed to translate our not quite easy to translate romanian piece of reporting.