Code Week Austria – Digitalisation in School
Interview with Code Week Ambassador for Austria, Andrea Mayr-Stalder
Over 3,000 Code Week activities were organised in Austria last year, and you came in third on the activities per capita scoreboard. To what do you owe this success?
There is a very active initiative in Austria called eEducation.at. It currently involves 2,700 schools. A lot of them took the chance to take part in the European Code Week. eEducation.at was initiated by the Ministry of Education some years ago. There was a moment when we realised that instead of planning things in parallel, we should combine the eEducation activities with Code Week.
How is EU Code Week organised in Austria?
Usually, the teachers and other stakeholders meet face to face at educational events, such as “Interpädagogica” and “eEducation Fachtagung“, where they work on digitisation in schools. The coordinators and some very active members usually meet in spring to discuss our plans for the upcoming edition of Code Week.
Who are your main partners?
When I started to get active for European Code Week five years ago, we focused on NGOs, small companies offering courses for kids, software developers, engaged individuals, etc.
To roll out our activities for a wider public, we started to address local administration for financial support, which we also got. We had great formats like the Viennese Parktour, which is essentially an open-air coding event for teachers, kids, and anyone else interested in joining. It is quite risky, but so far we haven’t been bothered by the weather conditions. It was a great experiment but also very good for local community building.
Another initiative I’m pleased about is Meet And Code, which offers grants to small projects and organisations so they can organise courses, workshops, etc., during Code Week. I think this is a source of innovative educational programmes, which, of course, we hope will have a sustainable effect locally.
Please tell us more about the Austrian platform, where teachers register coding and digital literacy events and how it relates to Code Week.
It is quite an attractive service for schools. Every school can register and improve its status on the platform by regularly running courses in coding or digital literacy. The better their status is, the more financial support for additional teacher training in computer science the school gets. This allows training sessions on all levels – from primary school over lower and upper secondary to vocational school.
Does that mean that programming is a mandatory subject in Austrian schools?
There’s a new curriculum for digitalisation, according to which digital literacy is compulsory in primary and secondary school. However, this is not introduced as a new subject but rather as an interdisciplinary initiative. There is still much room for improvement, and we need to move away from learning specific tools to learning computational thinking and problem-solving.
Was COVID-19 a challenge for you, and how did you cope with it?
2020 was, in fact, the first year in which Code Week was announced on the central eEducation.at website. So, this year more schools were addressed and involved directly.
On the other hand, the situation was challenging due to the pandemic. We could manage a lot of things, but it took an enormous effort. We had to invent new formats and ideas to keep in contact with students, parents and teachers. Overall, COVID-19 triggered a massive learning wave across all schools, how to deal with online resources. In the long run, the challenge will be to develop blended courses that combine online and offline elements more seamlessly because it showed that two modes of teaching are complementary rather than substitutive.
What are the most popular Code Week activities in Austria?
Many of the activities run in schools use Scratch because the platform is easy to use, and there is a lot of learning material available for teachers.
Unplugged coding is also very popular among the younger classes.
Based on the feedback from the ground, why do teachers and students in Austria participate in Code Week? What motivates them?
Teachers are a diverse group of people, so it differs. Some are motivated by the incentives of the education system. I see many educators participating because they know that computer science qualifications are essential today. We need to teach our kids how to be actively involved. Celebrating Code Week brings that into focus.
Andrea, you lead a media education team at Vienna University. Tell us more about your work there and as a volunteer for Code Week.
My background but also passion is in coding for the Arts. In that context, I developed TurtleStitch.org, which has a very active community worldwide. It is about combining coding (also complex mathematics) to create textile artefacts through machine embroidery.
Currently, I work for Vienna University Children’s Office, the host for the Children’s University in the summer holidays. It opens its doors for thousands of kids to Viennese Universities. One of our focus areas is on media education, which is very important today. We run workshops on every single school day of the year. These teach skills such as critically assessing materials found online (fake news), protecting personal information, as well as creative coding and robotics.
What are your tips for teachers who want to include coding in their lesson plans?
My tip for teachers who are new to coding: Keep it simple and hands-on. Chose a theme you are familiar with and start either in an offline coding session or chose Scratch or Snap!. Don’t forget to run a test the weekend before at home.
Any additional advice you would like to share with other countries?
Every country is different, of course. For us, it was essential to get the Ministry of Education involved. It helped us to reach the schools. Setting up this cooperative network also makes it possible for external institutions to bring their ideas to schools.
Another very general thing is to look at how other countries or continents bring innovative coding projects to students. I get very inspired by this and usually try to find time for this kind of research.
Code Week will take place from 9 to 24 October. What are your plans for 2021?
It is both easier and more complicated than it was last year. The educational sector was and is still massively stressed. There have been so many extra demands on the teachers that it would be hard to do even more. Also, the uncertainty of the teaching situation in autumn makes planning a bit more challenging than usual.
The positive thing is that it’s easier because there is so much more experience now, and we can build on that by making offers that focus on hybrid learning situations. Based on these conditions, we will define our goals for 2021.
How can the central team assist you further down the line?
It’s hard to say. You do a wide range of support already, like community work, translations, information, and support for social media. For us, opening the contact with the Ministry of Education was a game-changer. This was something we probably wouldn’t have reached on our own.