How We Taught Computer Science to 225,000 Students in Saudi Arabia

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In fall 2014, I helped teach 225,000 students, half of them women, how to code--in Saudi Arabia. Compare that to the US, where less than 40,000 students took the AP Computer Science test in 2014, including zero female students in Montana and Wyoming. So how did AppStudio create and bring a computer science curriculum to 225,000 Saudi Arabian students in one year?

Saudi Arabia’s Need for Computer Science Education

Concerned that they depend on large numbers of expatriate workers to fill technical and administrative positions, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia started Tatweer for Education Corporation to reform education and develop new subjects and new curricula that would be more relevant to the needs of the country. 

With a population of 28.7 million people, Saudi Arabia now has 24 universities, many with brand new campuses. 60% of the university enrollment is female; the youth literacy rate is 98.1%. Scholarships to study abroad are available: over 100,000 students are studying in western institutions.

There are 450,000 students in each year of secondary school. And as part of the Tatweer initiative, Saudi Arabia is one of the first jurisdictions to make Computer Science a core high school subject, taught in two terms in 10th grade. The first term covers fundamental topics in computer science and an introduction to programming. The second term is called "Technologies and Programing for Smart Devices".

AppStudio in Saudi Arabia

My company produces a software development environment called AppStudio. It's sort of like Visual BASIC for mobile devices, though updated to use JavaScript as well as BASIC. Unlike most programming languages, it has a built-in user interface design, making it easy for student to create visually appealing apps.

Smartphones increasingly never leave the hands of students, so the idea of making smartphone apps is sure to get young people interested. Most new development is directed towards mobile devices, so the subject matter is relevant to the real world as well.

We were contacted about a year ago by Tatweer. I soon left for Riyadh (the capital) to conduct a training session for some teachers and the curriculum committee.

Teaching Computer Science in Saudi Arabia

Teaching in Saudi Arabia is much like teaching anywhere, with a few differences. I taught in English: students with better English skills translated each sentence after being delivered. There were a couple of breaks each day for religious purposes; they were simply worked into the schedule. Since women and men were in separate rooms, a video crew and projection equipment were used.

Compared to North America, the classroom was much more relaxed. The trainees, both teachers and the curriculum committee, interrupted freely with questions, which actually turned out to be a benefit: I always had good feedback as to their comprehension level. We had frequent hands on lab sessions; everyone was writing programs the first day. Cellphones rang constantly in the classroom, which seemed normal to them.

A frequent question was how they could integrate their apps with Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media. Students in Saudi Arabia use their phones for all the same things the rest of the world does.

Outside of the classroom, I met a number of members of the Tatweer team. Nearly all armed with PhD degrees from western institutions, they seemed genuinely committed to great education. The simple, top down organization of the Ministry means they have the ability to quickly accomplish what would take years in western school systems.

Part of the training class in Riyadh.

One I met with was Dr. Hammad Al-Sheikh, the Vice Minister of Education. (His doctorate is in Economics from Stanford). A clearly intelligent, articulate man, it's largely at his initiative that Tatweer was formed and that Computer Science was made a core subject. 

One thing we discussed was how computer science education in high school can identify promising students. Part of the population is naturally wired to be good at computer programming--around 17%, according to a study at The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Exposing all students to computer programming in high school helps identify those students. Developing those with ability has to be one of the best payoffs in education: 5 years later, these people can be software developers at the top level.

Expanding Curriculum Outside of Riyadh

From January to May, the Saudis developed a 150-page curriculum. That was the easy part: over 5000 teachers spread out over an area three times the size of Texas would also have to be trained. In March, 40 top level instructors were trained; in April, another 200; then in May the final 5000.

Classes started in September: the first 225,000 students have just completed the course. Teachers report that students are enjoying programming.

What did we learn from the project? The people in the Ministry are intelligent, well educated people who care deeply about educating their people. They recognize how important education is to their country's future. Computer Science is an important skill of our time. Few countries (and none in the English speaking world) have made Computer Science a core subject. Less than 10% of American high schools even offer it. But there is no reason why it cannot be taught anywhere in the world.

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