Saudi students are building the future, one block at a time
Excitement for programming education is growing in big leaps, thanks to an initiative of the nation’s Education Ministry, in association with Microsoft and Code.org.
For six weeks in early 2021, students across Saudi Arabia tested their creativity by making stories and games — and envisioning what could be done to help build the kingdom’s future. In collaboration with Microsoft, the Ministry of Education of Saudi Arabia attracted a record 3.5 million students to a coding challenge known as “My School is Programming” or “Madrasati Codes,” sending the message that learning to code does not have to be difficult, and it can be really fun for students.
More than half of the students enrolled in the kingdom’s 24,000 primary and secondary schools participated in the competition, joining the Hour of Code global movement. Girls represented 61% of the participants. It was a unique learning opportunity that enabled them to approach computer science creatively.
Roudaina Al-Dawway, a 5th grade student from Primary School 24 in Unaizah, north of Riyadh, was excited by the possibilities she discovered thanks to the Hour of Code. “Coding allows you to create computer programs from games to websites and applications, and I’m looking forward to learning more about it,” she said.
Maram Shafeeq Asiri, a student from Rejal Almaa, a historical village in the southwest of the country, has set her eyes on the future after participating in the challenge, which she described as an “amazing experience” for her and her classmates. She is now determined to learn the Python programming language.
The competition was not limited to students: 360,000 teachers and 800,000 participants from the general public also participated. Why? The contest, which took place between March 21 and April 29, 2021, is part of a larger national strategy known as Vision 2030, focused on transforming infrastructure and human capital in the kingdom for an increasingly digital future.
For Hamza Malik Al-Braidi, a teacher at Al-Siddiq Secondary School in Rijal Almaa, it’s key to start teaching computer science “in the early stages of education.” Hour of Code will contribute to the digital creativity of students, he said.
Indeed, student Sarah Mohammed said it offered her the opportunity to create new programs as well as learn other ones that serve the community, while student Fatima Adnan was captivated by the possibilities of accessing information at any time and from anywhere.
In search of digital literacy
The digital literacy these students are acquiring is considered a key component of the nation’s rapid transformation and modernization. The challenge invited students of all levels to practice coding using four Hour of Code Minecraft tutorials created by Code.org and Minecraft, as well as two Hour of Code activities available in “Minecraft: Education Edition.”
The results of the 2021 challenge surpassed expectations. Use of the Minecraft tutorials during just one month was 14 times higher than during all of 2020 in Saudi Arabia. The numbers reveal a huge appetite for programming and computer science lessons in the nation of 34 million people.
“The way the ministry promoted this campaign, as well as the incentives for teachers and students, definitely helped,” observed Nour al-Khouja, Microsoft’s spokesperson in Saudi Arabia. “We had students that participated on their own accord, not just through in-classroom activities.”
The goals of the challenge, as identified by the Ministry of Education, included “changing the negative stereotypes” associated with programming, turning the experience into a fun activity, and prompting the discovery of digital talent among students and teachers, which could guide strategic investments through multiple resources, such as digital incubators.
Thamer al-Harbi, president of Microsoft Arabia, stressed the importance of the competition from a professional point of view, noting that 50 percent of current job opportunities require a level of technological expertise –a figure that is expected to rise to 77 percent during the next decade.
“This goes hand in hand with Vision 2030,” said Ghadah Nasser I. al-Kaud, an official at the Education Ministry and one of the supervisors of the challenge. “I have a 10-year-old boy myself, and I can see how his education is and how many different opportunities he has compared to what my daughter learned 12 years ago,” she said. “They do not see any limit.”
Currently, schools in Saudi Arabia offer technology lessons once a week in the 4th through 7th grades and twice a week in grades 7 through 12. Starting in 8th grade, students take classes in web development and coding languages.
The 2021 challenge was divided into three categories: teachers, schools, and education directorates (departments that oversee school districts). The government provided some incentives to promote participation in the challenge. For example, in the teacher’s category, the top 40 (those who effectively implemented the challenge among their students) received tablets and certificates, while the top 30 schools got a recognition plaque.
“We have highly dedicated and creative teachers that are willing to go above and beyond to expose students to things they might not be able to on their own,” al-Kaud explained. “We realized how far teachers would go to make their students compete and participate in this campaign.” That, she said, “was very inspiring.”
City of the Future
The Minecraft: Education Edition platform, which includes hundreds of free lessons, was a key component of the initiative. “It’s an element that excites students because they feel like they’re playing a game,” Microsoft’s al-Khouja said. The platform gives teachers the flexibility to design their own learning activities, using simple commands with an attractive, interactive, user-friendly drag-and-drop graphic interface.
The execution of the challenge has not been without occasional hassles, including the lack of good internet speeds and access to necessary devices. In cases where the Minecraft option was usable only on supported devices that were unavailable, participants didn’t have a shortage of courses within the browser-based Code.org platform. “There were options for everybody to participate, and that helped for the challenge to be accessible to everyone,” al-Khouja said.
For Dr. Manal Mohammed A. al-Othman, of the Education Ministry, one of the benefits of the challenge was that it opened more fluid communication among the 47 directorates and the ministry, thanks to a chat group and an open channel via email. “Teachers were able to ask any questions they had,” she said. In collaboration with Microsoft, they also developed 10 webinars about the competition for students and parents.
What comes next may be even more exciting for students and teachers: Phase two of the challenge involves applying their expertise toward building an imagined “City of the Future.”
“Through Minecraft, they will be building the city of the future,” an Education Ministry official commented. “In some years, there is a chance they would be doing the same in real life.”
—Leonardo Ortiz Villacorta, Code.org