In the final installation of the overseas series on Finnish IT education, we compare coding education in Korea and Finland. While Finland is thought to be a more unconfined environment for learning, a select portion in both Finland and Korea learned coding for vocational purposes. Moreover, while Koreans are thought to be more dependent on the private education industry to master new skills, there was also demand for grassroots coding organizations. What are the realities of coding education in Korea and what can we learn from Finland?
Coding Education at Ewha: Classes and Clubs
There are several opportunities for Ewha students seeking to learn coding at school. A professor teaching coding for non-IT majors and the president of Ewha branch of a nation-wide coding club Like Lion both stressed how coding can be a valuable skill for students of all majors.
Creative Computing Class
At the University of Helsinki (UH), Ewha Voice visited a scientific programming class that was open to students of all majors. There are some similar courses at Ewha, many of which are part of the convergence basic courses, which are mandatory for all students.
“Creative Computing” is included among these courses. However, unlike the UH scientific programming class, in which 30 students were enrolled, the Ewha class is being taken by 80 students and does not have a lab session.
“I do have lab sessions at classes for students who are IT majors,” said Kim Myoung-jun, a professor of the Department of Content Convergence who is teaching the course. “However, as I can’t look after all 80 students during a lab class, I ask students to do coding exercises as homework.”
Kim said that “Creative Computing” is the first class he has taught for non-IT majors, with students joining from many different colleges including social sciences, liberal arts, art and design. Those who were not majoring math and science related fields did not fall behind, with many receiving an A for the course.
Kim added that math and science related majors having some knowledge about humanities and social sciences might not be too important. However, more knowledge of coding can help all students since data handling skills are ever more in demand. Nevertheless, Kim did not think that coding should be mandatory for every major.
“It might be useful to know coding, since that can help to you to work in your field,” Kim said. “It really makes things easier for people you work with, if you know the basics. However, that does not mean that everyone should mandatorily learn coding.”
Like Lion is a nationwide coding club that has branches at various universities. Jung Jae-won, the president of the Like Lion Ewha branch said that she hoped the club would bring coding skills to Ewha students.
Started in 2016, Like Lion Ewha has had about 20 members attending its sessions every year. These members meet on Mondays and Thursdays to hear a short lecture from one of the club’s seniors before doing small exercises based on what they have learned.
Jung explained that more students majoring humanities and social sciences have joined the club this year.
“We recruited 14 new members this year, and only one of them is from a math and sciences related department,” Jung said. “Students come from a variety of colleges including business administration, liberal arts, social sciences and more.”
Jung said that members of the club participated in hackathons where they design platforms with useful services such as a program recommending recipes for single households. This year, they plan to hold sessions with nearby schools such as Yonsei and Sogang universities.
“I wish that Like Lion could be helpful for those who dream of creating a website or program,” Jung said. “We are working hard to help those in need of coding skills.”
Extra-curricular coding classes
Code Eating Hippo
Code Eating Hippo is a meetup that brings people together to code. It is held every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at a place called Nonce located in Gangnam-gu. The meetup requires a particiaption fee of 10,000 won.
Nonce started in 2017 as a YouTube channel named “Blockchainers” run by Moon Young-hoon and Ha Si-eun. After watching their video clips, some people visited them and eventually formed a community, leading Nonce to be built. Nonce not only has an open space for people to code, but also has co-working and co-living spaces. There are even five startups on the second floor, which is the co-working space.
Lim Wan-seob, a co-host of Code Eating Hippo, explained that everyone works on their own computers until 5 p.m., before presenting what they did that day. According to Lim, most people come to code to pursue their passion.
“Most people who come here have jobs related to coding, but they don’t come to work here,” Lim said. “They work on other projects that they are interested in, regardless of their jobs. The mere fact that they come here on Saturdays shows how much they love to code.”
Although college students sometimes join, the sessions are usually attended by people already working as coders. On the day that Ewha Voice visited, there were about 10 people at the session, and the week before that, there were about 30 participants.
“There are hardly any places where people can share what they created through coding,” Lim said. “Code Eating Hippo can provide that opportunity and space.”
Private Education Industry of Coding
Even though Korea’s grassroots coding community is gaining some strength, as shown with Coding Hippo, the privatized industry has a more tangible presence in the coding education field.
Unlike Finnish students who may be satisfied with experiential coding practice in app-making lab sessions at school, Korean students and their parents look for private after-school academies to gain a competitive edge and enhance their school-based learning.
Neologisms such as kopoja, which refers to someone who has given up on coding, have cropped up, as Korean parents and students feel pressure to find the perfect coding class. Academies offer an array of classes ranging from the most introductory-level, such as the MIT-developed children’s coding language Scratch, to advanced courses on big data analytics.
More hagwons (private academies) have cropped up in the education district of Gangnam, with many developing into Seoul or country-wide franchises. Such academies offer the perfect roadmap for students to become “creative geniuses to lead in the Fourth Industrial Revolution era” according to Play Coding Academy, a private coding education company targeting elementary school students. The hagwon has seven branches nationwide, with its headquarters located in Gangnam.
College students are no exception to the coding education wave. Kwak Na-yeon, a sophomore in the Division of International Studies, attends the Gangnam branch of a major coding hagwon franchises called KG IT Bank.
“I attend a weekend Java course for five hours every Saturday and Sunday … their attendance check is quite rigorous and if I am ever absent, administration often sends missed class material to my personal email,” she said.
She explained that even though the course is titled Java programming, it starts with Python, a more approachable programming language for beginners, then moves on to C, which eventually leads to Java.
However, hagwons specializing in coding education is yet to become mainstream, even in the major educational districts of Daechi-dong, located in the heart of Gangnam district. Ewha Voice visited the five top-listed coding academies in the Daechi-dong area provided by Naver, Korea’s most popular search engine. Most coding academies were only just starting, such as that of “W Coding Campus,” which had a simple signpost over a household flat. Another coding academy which was advertised as “Codelab,” was found to be a side program offered by a math academy of the same name, and only had promotional placards placed in front of its office, to inform that the academy provided coding education as a supplement to the academy’s main programs.
The more well-known hagwons such as “Play Coding Academy (PCA)” or “Namu Coding,” were open on Sundays for parental consulting and classes for children. A number of these famous coding hagwons are discussed on Naver blogs for interested parents under threads such as: “Where should I send my child for the perfect coding curriculum?”
Interview with Park Jun-seok, author of “Coding, the letters that make the world”
Park Jun-seok, a patent lawyer of 15 years, met Ewha Voice to discuss how he came to write his introductory-level coding book. Published in March 2018, the book just completed the printing of its eighth edition, selling 20,000 copies, and was also selected by Jinjoong Moongo, the book supplier of the Ministry of National Defense.
Park was inspired to write the book when he visited a bookstore back in 2017 and realized that the science section contained no introductory-level books on coding.
“When you visit the science corner, you see many books on quantum mechanics, biology or chemistry. But for coding, there weren’t any books that you could pick up to learn about the underlying history, concept and rationale of coding,” he said.
As a patent lawyer, Park’s job is to translate the technical language of patents claimed by IT companies such as IBM, NHN and Kakao to simplified language that non-specialists can understand.
“When there is a lawsuit, I have the job of making the prosecutors, who are mostly humanities-majors, understand the technicalities of intellectual patents,” he explained.
In the same respect, Park thought that he could bridge the gap between IT specialists such as professional developers, computer science professors, coding experts and the general public.
“Little things such as using the terms ‘coding’ and ‘programming’ interchangeably are explained in my book. Although substituting one word for another doesn’t pose a huge problem, technically speaking, ‘programming’ refers to the higher-level synthetical thinking that goes into solving a problem, whereas ‘coding’ is used more to refer to the actual task of typing in lines of code, which is considered to be more menial,” he said.
Throughout the interview, Park emphasized that there is no need for coding skills to be universal. He believed that it could be a useful tool for those who want to apply it to their daily tasks given at work or school, but it is not necessary for employment in non-IT sectors.
“For instance, say you are a journalist and your boss asks you to analyze the occurrence of certain words in the comments section of your internet article. If you didn’t know how to code you may have to manually go through all the words and count them, but if you knew how to write a simple code that would minimize the time to perform this task, and maximize the accuracy, you would have an edge at work.”
Park also suggested taking a broader perspective in understanding the word “coding”.
“Coding isn’t just the language we feed computers to make them write programs. The universe, our brain and even the human body is intricately written in intricate source codes. Coding is much more than what we think it to be.”
Helsinki, in Retrospect
Ewha Voice reporters took a 9-day trip to Helsinki, the capital of Finland in early February to explore how the country with the so-called “best education system in the world” was taking on IT education.
The biggest lesson taken from the overseas coverage was that, “Nothing is ever black and white,” as said by Professor Jari Lavonen, one of the interviewees featured on our first edition of Finnish IT Education.
Professor Lavonen, whose specialty is Physics and Chemistry Education at the University of Helsinki, both confirmed and busted some of the mythical aspects of Finnish education the reporters had.
When asked about the very contrasting atmospheres of classroom environments between Korea and Finland, stemming from the relative presence of competitive fervor, he mentioned that there were pros and cons for both systems. Although Ewha Voice reporters had approached the interview as a benchmarking opportunity for Koreans to learn from the less-pressurizing and seemingly more effective education system, the reality was not so simple.
In fact, according to Lavonen, and PISA statistics, Finnish rankings have been dropping in recent years. Of course, he added that this is a sign of decline if one is to trust the PISA framework.
In a similar respect, Professor Andrew Logie, another interviewee from the first edition of the series, mentioned how much of a national brand PISA had become. In the reporters’ travels, the word “PISA” came up every so often in the education section of local bookstores, as well as mainstream Finnish media – both broadcast and print.
Finnish universities were indeed more respectful of individual student freedom – but such things as unregulated attendance records, or course drop periods aroused curiosity. How would instructors gauge students’ diligence or track their progress if everything was so free and up to the students? The answer to that had always boiled down to responsibility. Every student had to be responsible for the amount of freedom that they were given.
This is one aspect many Korean observers, whether students or educators, are envious of. But when Korean educational policymakers, professors, teachers and documentary makers take the pros of a highly functional Nordic education system out of context and try to apply it to a drastically different landscape such as Korea’s, they are almost always faced with a dead end.
The solution to any kind of education problem, which for Ewha Voice Reporters has been making sense of the rapidly marketed and hugely invasive coding education industry, is not taking a chunk of Finland to Korea. In fact it would be more sensible to see what works for Finland in their socio-political and economic system, and devise something that would work in Korea.