Eric Ku, co-founder of tech training centre iTrain Malaysia and iTrain Asia Pte Ltd, still remembers how his parents used to bring him to the national library to read when he was a child. But things are different now, he observes, and few parents or children are even aware of the public libraries in Malaysia.
These libraries are not only stocked with books, but also have computers and internet connection, which are underused in many parts of the country. This sparked an idea in him: What if he utilised the libraries to provide children with free coding lessons?
“We have more than 600 public libraries in Malaysia, including those in small towns. They are present everywhere,” he says.
Ku launched the SenangCode programme in late 2021 to bring this dream to fruition. His goal is to provide free coding classes to teachers and students around the country through public libraries. While there are already many coding programmes in the market, he believes a free course that is easily accessible by underprivileged children, including those in rural areas, is essential.
“Coding is already being learnt by many children whose families can afford it. These students can also afford to learn things like ballet and music. Ballet is an interest and may not change your future, but coding will definitely change it,” says Ku.
“[Former US president Barack] Obama has said many times that all American children should have the core skills of reading, writing and coding. Reading is to acquire knowledge, writing is to express it and coding is to build [it into] something.”
Ku believes that the teaching of coding in national schools is insufficient because it focuses more on computational thinking skills rather than actual coding skills. Additionally, some students may not have access to the internet or computers at home, which may put them a step behind their peers who can self-learn coding languages at home.
Senangcode, which is also accessible virtually, could circumvent this by enabling local public libraries to offer such courses. iTrain will either send a teacher to these libraries or train someone local to teach the course.
“Nowadays, a lot of coding centres offer self-learning courses because it’s easy to deploy and franchise. But to make children a creator of technology [rather than just a user], self-learning is not an option because there is nobody to mentor them, and children below the age of 12 need an adult to guide them,” he says.
Through Senangcode, students will be exposed to courses like app development, Scratch programming, Python programming and data science. It will be conducted through project-based learning.
“The teachers will start by leading students to a problem statement first. Then, they will figure out how to use coding to solve the problem. When children follow these steps, they learn how to look at problems and test their solutions. We also allow them to make mistakes. Then, they will try and try again,” says Ku.
About 10 classes are scheduled each week on Senangcode, which students can access anytime. Some of them are repeated week to week, and each class is about 90 minutes.
Working with libraries and rural community centres
Senangcode started by offering the courses virtually due to the pandemic. Nowadays, almost 80% of the classes are face to face and held at the national library and venues of its partners, such as the Malaysian Research Accelerator for Technology and Innovation (MRANTI).
Ku and his team reached out to parents through the public library network and its partners. His target was to reach 10,000 students per year, which he achieved in 2022.
“Now, we are looking for a person-in-charge for each town library to see how we can enable them to disseminate the information,” he says. This will enable students outside the Klang Valley to benefit from these classes as well.
According to Ku, they have also run a train-the-trainer programme with Teach for Malaysia and hope to do the same with several teacher training colleges and universities. These teachers can utilise the resources at local public libraries to teach students.
Running the programme has its challenges. The National Library of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur has about 40 computers, while others have between 10 and 20 computers. The problem is that some libraries do not have enough resources to maintain the computers, so Ku has to visit the location to ensure the computers are working. This was also the case when they were running other iTrain programmes previously.
“We have to go a day earlier to help them fix the internet and computers. Our trainers often have to do a lot of troubleshooting,” he says.
Ku is already expanding the reach of Senangcode beyond public libraries. He has been in discussions with the mini rural transformation centres (RTC) around the country to run coding classes.
“They have internet and there are at least 10 computers at each RTC. When we visited one of the RTCs, we were surprised because they had a computer that was more than three years old and was still in a box. We also want to collaborate with internet centres in rural areas that are under the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission,” he says.
Ku is also working with universities, such as Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and UniKL, to utilise their spaces on weekends and at night. “Nobody uses those spaces at those times. So, why can’t we bring the children to the university?”