GG: STEP Academy has recently launched its 48th campus in the heart of International Geneva near Maison de la paix. Does your success suggest something about the way children are being taught IT in schools?
VB: Growing up in Switzerland I learned coding the hard way in schools: sitting down, read and read and repeat. But that’s not how you learn coding, you learn by practice. When you start learning by practice, by really creating things, you don’t create for the classroom or to get marks from a teacher. We ask our students to create things they can use in their everyday life. They build things they can take home and show to their parents and friends. This makes it much more rewarding. At STEP Academy we don’t teach tech for tech, we are teaching tech as a tool.
VV: Digital skills are missing in schools, and many students come to us who have never touched a PC before. But they’re able to obtain much better results than computer literate children because they learn really fast. That’s probably the greatest advantage of kids at STEP Academy is the rate they acquire knowledge, and the freedom to ask questions. In some countries it’s very difficult to get kids to ask questions, because the mindset is, “If I’m asking questions I might look stupid.” Here the students are always asking questions, and soon this series of questions suddenly becomes a video game!
GG: Where children start is very important. It’s not just about gaining a vocational tool but also of programming their brains on being more receptive to learning.
VV: Yes, when we start each class we explain the end goal, to say in the end you will accomplish this. The idea is to start with the smallest element and then build from there. For instance, building a website about a restaurant starts with a few recipes, or maybe traditional dishes that run in the family. The emphasis is less about programming than content creation which is something everyone can do. It’s also very important not to tell students ‘what to do’ but rather ‘how to find’. Google is a tremendous resources. We encourage children to be explorers.
VB: Parents are often worried that sending their children to technical schools will turn them into geeks. But the opposite is true. Look around, almost every child has access to a screen, whether phone, tablet or computer, which turns them into media consumers. Our approach is to turn these little consumers into actors, to teach them how to create a game instead of playing a game. We’ve seen this at our other campuses: once children start creating their own games, the time they spend playing games actually decreases. It is much more empowering for a child to play a game they have created. In the end we’re not forming geeks. We’re shaping young people to be informed and prepared for the challenges of tomorrow.
“Once children start creating their own games, the time they spend playing games actually decreases.” – Vincent Baumgartner
VV: Public education is not tackling this problem. Most institutions are preparing children for the world they know about. But the world and the state of technology is changing constantly. This new economy of lifestyle vlogs and vanity pics really stresses me personally, as I have a young sister. What children post to social media today could be highly embarrassing when they grow up. It’s essential to teach children about Online privacy, cyber security, and how to behave on the Internet. Technology itself is getting better and better but the way we use technology may actually be getting worse.
GG: It seems children today are in need of a healthy digital diet. Depending on the visual stimulus they absorb their cognitive muscles are likely to expand or retract.
VV: As we are surrounded by technology, it’s important to understand the good things and the bad. You see it in Geneva, children seated in cars having tablets to keep them quiet. This is conditioning children to use technology in a passive way which can have a negative effect on their development. With today’s App economy children don’t have to consume games, they can create games themselves. For instance, at the STEP Summer Camp kids spend 5-days building what they see in toy stores. Using professional kits they learn robotics and sensors with Arduino, build components with a 3D printer, make stop motion Lego videos for YouTube, or design game environments with the Unity 3D engine. It’s also a great way to meet other talented and creative children in the Geneva area.
GG: Are video games intrinsically educational whether or not we like what values they convey?
VV: It upsets me that games are addictive, but education is not. Education should be even more interesting than video games! Video games are seen as time killers. But look at the behavioural aspects of a video game: children must process volumes of information, carry on voice chat with people who share the same values as them, track indicators on progress and how your level is improving. In the traditional education systems it is vice versa. You come to a classroom and if you don’t do something great you receive a bad mark or negative comments from the teacher. Parents and teachers then compare you to other students warning you not to fall behind, urging you to improve. This is why games are more fun for children than education, in games you start from zero and progress toward something. Our goal is to make education more addictive than games. Kids are natural learners, but somewhere along the way their curiosity is lost.
“Kids are natural learners, but somewhere along the way their curiosity is lost.” – Vitalii Varbanets
VB: What’s great about new technology is you can gamify the educational experience. However public education in Switzerland is slow to adapt. Countries like Estonia and Sweden are much more forward looking in their curricula, whereas the City of Geneva is reluctant to introduce coding in public schools, arguing it’s too complicated and takes too much time, that they don’t have the capacity to pay the teachers. I can’t comment on the quality of public education today but when I was in school we learned nothing in this area.
GG: STEP Academy’s open-learning format may run contrary to the customary Socratic method of Swiss education. Does tradition put Swiss children at a disadvantage to children in Eastern Europe and Asia?
VB: It’s interesting, I went to primary school in Bienne, university in Hungary and spent one year studying in Iran so I’ve seen different cultural approaches. In Switzerland there is emphasis on how to think, and how to be critical, more than rote learning. In school we did not have to read lots of books. We learned very little about Swiss literature.
VV: For me, having taught in 17 countries, I’d say Switzerland has the best system. In my ideal world, education in schools should not only be about learning but lead you to find your passion. Or what you want to do in life. Once you find out what your aspirations are, everything changes. I find it really upsetting for people who only understand what it is they want to do at age 35 or 40.
“Education in schools should not only be about learning but lead you to find your passion.” – Vitalii Varbanets
GG: What is it the Swiss do differently if it’s about cultivating a child’s natural interests?
VV: To me what’s remarkable is that parents have much more time to spend with their children, that parents play with their children outdoors more than letting them play video games at home. That is a very important concept. One of the best metrics for determining success for the next generation is understanding the ratio of time children spend playing with their parents versus the time spent playing computer games on their own.
GG: What we often think of as play for children is actually more like collaborative world-building. Perhaps the role of parents is to help give shape to the proceedings?
VV: We’ve had several parents come to our Open House on game development, and they stayed with the children to observe, and then start working on the game together. This is the ideal case, for parents to create something with their children rather than letting them alone. For our YouTube course children have to prepare a weather report at home. Parents often end up filming which is a great way to get involved.
GG: YouTube is something we often think is for teenagers, but the course starts at 8 yo. Are there other skills children can acquire at this early age?
VV: We’ll have new programmes for children aged 5 to 7 beginning in September, focusing on basic introductions to algorithms. There’s a tool called Lego WeDo, which is similar to Lego Mindstorms, where students can build a model of a crocodile and learn how to programme the mouth to open and close. Another exercise teaches the coding required to construct an elevator. With the YouTube classes, we teach stop-motion animation, using small Lego figures, placing them on a scene, and then compositing the photos. We also offer a course on 3D modelling using TinkerCad.
GG: 3D modelling at age 7 ??
VV: We were also surprised to learn that children of this age are better at 3D design than 2D. It’s simply because they experience the world in 3D so it is much more intuitive to create models in 3D. Using 3D pens they can very quickly creating simple models like tanks, butterflies or Les Minions.
GG: Being able to build something that resembles the worlds they see on television must be really rewarding.
VV: Constructor kits by Little Bits have gained popularity, which teach children how to build mechanical devices. By piecing various components together and adding buttons you can generate music or sounds or play like a guitar. While small children are not so good at complex tasks they are really good at putting parts together. There is also the Dash & Dots robots which can be piloted by a mobile phone, where you programme commands to go forward, turn left and right, or avoid obstacles. It’s not like a simple controller with a joystick but something you have to code. This teaches that code is about having a fixed task and then splitting those tasks.
While small children are not so good at complex tasks they are really good at putting parts together. – Vitalii Varbanets
GG: And what are the future plans for STEP Academy? Have there been requests to teach adult courses?
VB: One of the projects we are developing is with private daycare, or crèche. Many of their educators studying at the University of Geneva are not current on digital skills, which are in greater demand, not for teaching but for daily workflow. So we’ll be setting up courses for their employees. We will be moving more in this direction of corporate trainings. In Geneva, for a variety of fields, there is a lack of very basic skills on specific types of tools for the workplace.
GG: Continuing education has become quite popular in recent years though, with Migros or Ifage offering software training for adults.
VB: There are plenty of reasons people don’t commit to ongoing education. Say you want to take an advanced course in Microsoft Word but only need to learn a few features. Is it really worth enrolling in a full course? And then to take another course in Powerpoint or Excel, this becomes extremely costly. We think it’s better to develop courses specific to the client and we’re discussing new formats with several companies in Geneva.
VV: The focus of the adult courses will be coding, digital design and Internet marketing, with an emphasis on real-world applications. We are discussing with several companies about developing partnerships with our students, for instance, if they can build a landing page for a website, or coding for mobile Apps. Not necessarily for the corporate website but perhaps adding features to existing sites or Apps.
VB: Our aim is to be flexible. If a business has a specific need we can design a course or a workshop. Because half of our staff are based in Geneva, with the backoffice in Ukraine, we can call on our technical team to develop a format quickly and affordably. This allows us to adapt very quickly to the market, if suddenly there is a need for blockchain we can deliver a course on short notice.
GG: The hot trend this year is improving ‘Data Culture’ to promote broader transmission of data-related skills within UN agencies and IOs, many of whom are your neighbours near the Maison de la paix.
VV: This is very important as STEP relies on data management for its students, and many of our decisions about improving courses are data driven. Across all of our STEP campuses, for every enrolment, their performance and feedback is monitored via our central administration. Our HQ looks like NASA with giant displays screens showing metrics on all of our students, which refreshes every 30 secs. Like this we know exactly where we can optimise on a daily basis. Most executive education centres they only address improvements after the course is completed.
GG: You seem to be channeling the future of executive education. Do you get a sense that, coming to Geneva, you’ve travelled back in time?
VV: Companies that wish to survive for the next 10-20 years will need to adopt this type of monitoring and apply AI to their management systems today. You have to make decisions quickly and be ready to effect change for the benefit of your client. Education itself is changing very rapidly. Looking into the 2019 curriculum we are testing two programmes which are not about acquiring skills, but on improving how people learn. One course for children age 7 is about brain development, on how to memorise objects or written texts.
GG: I guarantee that course will be in-demand for children age 35 as well!
VV: Yes we have parents who are learning by the same methodology we provide their children. Another course focuses on creative expression, how to have a beautiful imagination and understand the role of creativity in cognitive development. This kind of ‘soft skill’ enables students to better communicate with people and to understand, for instance, what a client is really saying on a brief.