Poland in the spotlight of Code Week 2020 – Interview with Alexandra Zacharska, Code Week Ambassador
In 2020, Poland hosted over 20,000 coding activities and reached the first place on the Code Week podium. The ambassador of Code Week in Poland, Alexandra Zacharska, shares her impressions of Code Week 2020 and gives insight into what drove Poland to success.
I: Alexandra, congratulations on becoming the most successful country of the 8th edition of Code Week! Could you share with us how Code Week was organised in Poland this year and to what you owe your success?
A: Thank you. To be honest, I think the Polish edition is somehow different compared to other countries. Here in Poland, I am both a public worker and ambassador of Code Week. I work in an institution called NASK – the research and academic computer network in Poland and we worked very closely with the Ministry of Digital Affairs. Together, we developed something like a central, national bureau of Code Week.
We developed a Polish Code Week website and we have a hotline and contact email where new and recurring participants can ask about Code Week and how to organise an activity. We also have a Polish Code Week fan page on Facebook and as of this year, an Instagram account.
Thanks to our networks, as this “national bureau” we conduct well-thought-out promotional activities, nationwide, involving various circles.
I: How busy is the hotline, how often do people contact you to ask about Code Week?
A: It depends on the time of the year but normally between August up until the end of October, we often get questions, like every couple of days or even every day.
I: How do you promote Code Week and distribute information to potential participants?
A: At the central level, we prepare an info package with relevant details about Code Week. And because we are a big institution and we have a wide network of contacts, we can send this package to other institutions, schools, NGOs and tech companies across Poland to distribute it further. We also prepare visual and audio-visual materials like short promotional videos to explain what Code Week is about. Finally, we provide coding workshops for primary school children but also training for parents and teachers. This year, given the circumstances, they took place online via Facebook Live.
One more thing that has surely contributed to the participation of Polish schools in Code Week over the years, is that people in Poland are very competitive. So, having the map and the scoreboard on the codeweek.eu website, and combining this competitive element with educating people about something that is still fresh and new like coding, seems to do the trick.
I: How do you work together as ambassadors, edu-coordinators and leading teachers? And how do you work with “normal” teachers?
A: We, the ambassadors know each other well and we work together almost on a daily basis. And as I mentioned, we worked very closely with the Ministry of Digital Affairs.
As for the leading teachers, last year I didn’t have the chance to work with them as closely as I was hoping, so I was determined to work together this year. We prepared letters of invitation to them and we were in contact with around 10 leading teachers. We shared educational materials and info toolkits so that they could also promote Code Week in their communities. We hope to cooperate even closer next year.
I: Who are your main partners? Schools, companies, NGOs, public administration?
A: As I said before, because of our profile, it is natural to cooperate with public administration and schools – we can use our networks to communicate with them. If we speak about tech companies in Poland – we are still working on that. Yet, there is one company we collaborate with – Edu Sense, an ed-tech company that sells educational robots and other programming materials. They have a program, called “We teach kids how to code” and provide free-to-use materials for teachers. Thanks to this program, they have a very wide network of teachers and they promote Code Week via their Facebook fan page that has almost 25,000 followers. This way, they have very direct contact with teachers, and I can see that teachers engage with the content we share. We owe a large portion of the events this year to this organisation.
So essentially, NASK, the Ministry of Digital Affairs and Edu Sense are the three pillars of Code Week Poland.
But we keep sending letters of invitation to other tech companies and NGOs every year. For example, this time we had our first cooperation with Meet And Code and we hope to develop it in the future.
I: What did you do differently in 2020 compared to previous years?
A: In 2020 we had to do online workshops instead of physical ones because of the pandemic. This gave us the advantage that everyone who wanted to join could simply tune in and watch the webinars. I believe we had around 2,000 participants and around 40 000 viewers (unique recipients) at the end.
We also try to do more on social media and on our website because this is the first and most accessible information source for participants, be it information on when Code Week takes place or how to organise an event.
I: In this regard, was COVID-19 a challenge for you and how did you cope with it?
A: Well, I think people still prefer physical meetings over virtual ones.
On a more serious note, we weren’t sure how to organise an online edition of Code Week when we first started planning. We decided to plan everything online, we organised online events and encouraged others to add activities without meeting in person.
And to motivate participants to organise online activities, we launched a contest for online organisers. Usually, we encourage people to register activities on the map and the first 1,000 we reward with small prizes like educational materials. This year, we decided to change the conditions of the contest and reward the first 1,000 organisers of online activities and there were some great ideas!
I: What were the most popular activities?
A: From what I can tell, most of the activities are unplugged and focused on kindergartens and primary schools. On the one hand, I think this is great because kids start to learn from a very young age. But then the question is what comes next and we’d like to focus on more advanced activities in the future. Scratch is also very popular in Poland.
I: And what’s your feedback from the ground, so to say? Why do people in Poland participate in Code Week? What motivates them?
A: I believe this is rather subjective and it depends on each teacher individually. But one reason could be to diversify their lessons – basic programming session can be really fun for kids and teachers as well! And also, certificates are of great advantage to engage Polish teachers, that’s the competitive spirit I was mentioning.
As for parents, they are very motivated since the whole world talks about programming as a must-have skill for building a successful career in the 21st century.
I: And what about you? Your educational background is in sociology. How did you discover programming and Code Week?
A: Before joining the Code Week team in Poland, I was working on social projects. After a while, I needed a change and eventually, I changed civic society for digital society. But I see a lot of touchpoints between Europe Code Week and my previous work and I find myself doing a lot in a similar way and based on my experience with social projects.
I: Any advice, tips and tricks that you would like to share with other countries?
A: To be honest, I am sure I still can learn more from other countries. But what I could say is that to start small is better than not to start at all. So, beginning with unplugged activities or visual programming environments is a good direction as to not scare people that programming is strange or hard. Once this first base is established, you can continue from there and build on with more sophisticated tasks.
I: In 2021, Code Week will take place from 9 to 24 October. What are your plans?
A: Well, something I’d like to improve in Poland is to reach out to different groups. Code Week is primarily for schools, but I like the idea that everyone can learn how to code, not only kids but also senior citizens, for example.
I: You know, we did have a similar activity in Greece where kids would teach their grandparents the basics, using Hour of Code.
A: Exactly, we had similar activities in Poland as well, and I see more potential there.
A second thing would be promoting more online and more advanced programming activities, also working more closely with our leading teachers in 2021.
I: One final question, how can the central team assist you further down the line?
A: First, a big thank you to the team! From my contact with teachers, I noticed that shifting from offline to online events was challenging, as well as understanding the difference between private online activities and open online activities or closed offline events versus open offline events. So, preparing more simple and clear instructions on each step when registering an activity would be of big help. They also sometimes have trouble finding their event on the map, which could discourage them from registering an activity on the website, even though they organised it. It would be a good idea to improve upon that in the future. One more recommendation I have is setting a minimum for activity descriptions so that we can check and approve activities more efficiently.
What are your plans for the next edition of Code Week? Share your ideas in our Facebook Group for Teachers.