The ambitions of Thailand 4.0 to escape the middle-income trap and become an innovation-driven economy are commendable.
If achieved, the entire country could see rising living standards and the rewards of Asia’s fourth industrial revolution. However, without a clear strategy of investment in Thailand’s human capital, these ambitions will remain a dream for most Thai citizens. To turn its aspirations into reality, Thailand will need to address its weakest link, education, by leveraging the fun of learning to code.
Under the objectives of Thailand 4.0, Thai organisations are encouraged to expand into 4th generation industries. These include digital technologies, smart electronics, robotics, artificial intelligence, aerospace, next-generation transportation and other cutting-edge activities which will define the 21st-century economy.
Unfortunately, the government’s plans for Thailand 4.0 lack a timeline, a strategy, and a concrete process to support the realisation of their objectives. There have been slogans, seminars and some colourful infographics, but little in the way of carefully thought-out plans, training or education that will equip Thai students to succeed in a technology-dependent, innovation-driven economy.
The Industry 4.0 model is not unique to Thailand. Countries in our region have already adopted it. Countries that have made progress in transition to this economic model have realised that technology, engineering and computer science lie at the heart of all future innovations. Any country hoping to become competitive in this environment needs to invest in vocational training to ensure those already in the workforce can reskill and avoid becoming unemployable, and education to ensure school and university students are empowered with the skills to navigate this digitised future.
In Asian countries like China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, education reforms have been successfully launched by introducing computer science in primary and secondary schools. These countries ensure students are introduced to coding from an early age. If Thailand is serious about its 4.0 model, the country needs to follow this path, with education reforms placing computer science on the national curriculum alongside traditional subjects such as mathematics, social studies and foreign languages.
Currently Thai students learn about computing via a subject called “Careers and Technology”, in which they are taught how to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Photoshop. Being able to use these applications and send emails is important, but it should only be a start. Students spending 12 years at school ought to learn more than just how to use products already created by software giants. Instead they should be given the skills to understand how computer programs work, so that they will be able to develop their own programs and apps.
Unfortunately, fundamental education reforms remain as elusive as ever. While computer science will likely gain a place on the national curriculum, without developing well-qualified teachers, they may never come at all. Teachers, students and parents with access to the Internet, and one hour of spare time, can sidestep the bureaucrats’ lethargy by enrolling in an excellent, free online initiative called the Hour of Code.
Each year, during December, millions of students take their first steps towards understanding computer science with the ground-breaking, non-profit initiative, the “Hour of Code”, at www.code.org. The Hour of Code, which was launched in the US in 2013, aims to “demystify the art of coding” and expand student participation in computer science. In 2016, millions of students, from 180 different countries, signed up to take Hour of Code tutorials, and organisers saw even higher levels of participation this year.
Thailand’s Ministry of Education has been tasked with empowering the country’s students with the skills to succeed in 4.0’s innovation-driven economy. As such, it should launch a national campaign to enrol all students in the Hour of Code’s child-centred, intuitive tutorials, such as the Minecraft “Hero’s Journey”, for which a Thai version could be produced.
Given Thailand’s well-documented educational failings, some might argue that it would be better for schools to focus on improving numeracy and literacy. However, it should be noted that learning coding and engaging in coding activities provide students with learner-centred, stimulating, mental exercises which support all-round cognitive development. As Apple founder Steve Jobs once emphasised for the US, “Everybody in this country should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.”
Learning to code is not just for students who wish to become computer programmers in the future. Coding helps student develop problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills and creativity, which, according to the World Economic Forum, are essential for individuals to thrive in the 4th industrial revolution.
Don Carlson, education director at Microsoft Asia Pacific, an Hour of Code sponsor, has been encouraging schools across the region to make computer science available to students. He notes, “Coding empowers young people, giving them the tools they need to not only express themselves, but also transform the way they think critically and solve complex problems. When students use technology to create something of their own by coding, it builds skill and confidence – both of which are critical for success in the future.”
If Thailand’s Education Ministry is incapable of introducing reforms to provide students with opportunities to learn the basics of computer science, already initiated by developed countries and some neighbouring countries, individual schools, teachers and parents must fill the void. The most practical way to do this is by joining millions of other learners and getting involved in this year’s Hour of Code. Students will enjoy the experience, will begin understanding how computers work, and will have taken an important first step towards preparing for the innovation-driven economy. We sincerely hope that these students will include all social strata, thus not widening the country’s development gap further and preventing the development of Thailand 4.1.