Diverse human resources make a difference in coding education globally

〜The KOOV® Coding and Robotics Education Kit〜

KOOV® is a connected robotics and coding kit to bring robots to life.
It removes obstacles to the spread of coding training and has realized products and services that enable anyone to learn coding happily and simply.
We spoke to employees from various backgrounds who are involved in the project at Sony Global Education, Inc.*, and have taken up the challenge of spreading education in coding around the world through KOOV®, which is designed to be accepted by users irrespective of country, race or gender.

Masaaki Isozu
Sony Global Education, Inc. President
Phuong Hoai Le
Sony Global Education, Inc.
Engineers
Marika Nozue
Sony Global Education, Inc. Designer
Yuga Harada
Sony Global Education, Inc. Domestic Corporation Sales
Cheg Zhag
Sony Global Education, Inc.
In charge of China

Creating an internationally attractive product by bringing a team comprising diverse human resources

Isozu:Training in coding is now in the spotlight in the education business throughout the world. KOOV® was developed as a training tool to enable any child to learn coding with ease using robots on the basis of a gender-neutral design concept. Coding education is currently growing in importance throughout society, especially in Japan, and has become a much-admired occupation among engineers. However, it also faces quite a few problems, including the fact that relatively few women aspire to become engineers. Out of a desire to resolve these problems, we sought to create educational materials that would satisfy parents & guardians, teachers and, of course, children. In developing KOOV®, it was vital that diverse human resources from various backgrounds, cultures, professional careers and societal experience contribute ideas on the development side in order to create a product strong enough to win in global markets, including the United States, China, and Southeast Asia, as well as Japan. As our company is relatively small, individual employees have to identify new issues for themselves and make flexible decisions at the gemba level. With this in mind, personnel from various careers and nationalities were assigned to the KOOV® project.

Nozue:IT service companies engaged in the educational sector in Japan can easily gather together personnel with similar occupations, such as network engineers. However, Sony Global Education has a more broadly balanced staff that includes designers and educational producers as well as engineers, from various nationalities and age groups. Given such a wide range of employees, it is relatively easy to elicit opinions and ideas that differ from one's own. We often hold brainstorming sessions within the company, and I believe the diverse backgrounds of team members imbue KOOV® services and content with extra depth because these sessions generate ideas and divergent views that may not occur to fellow team members.

Harada:I entered the company immediately after graduation, so I believed the environment here was similar to companies in general. But when I saw visitors to the company express surprise at how closely engineers and designers work together, I realized just how much the environment facilitated widely diverse natural interchanges. The subject of diversity came up when I was studying information engineering at university, but I felt that attempts to force respect for various value concepts were out of place. However, since this company fosters an environment that encourages various value sensibilities as a matter of course, we are able to work naturally without thinking too much about it.

Staffers from various backgrounds occupy desks at our one-floor office

Encouraging acceptance irrespective of country, race or gender

Le:KOOV® enables interchanges with users around the world because the app allows images and programs to be uploaded to the cloud. However, user needs and related legislation differ from country to country, so we have to customize cloud functions according to individual countries. The United States, for example, has strict laws to protect personal information, so the app allows nicknames to be easily generated automatically instead of allowing children to input their own. We have also adopted mechanisms that enable managers of the service to quickly check whether images of pieces created by users contain personal information. Furthermore, we facilitate communications between children who speak different languages by providing automatic translations of descriptions of their creations. I believe approaches like this lead to services that are easily acceptable irrespective of country or region.

Nozue:Boys are said to be more interested in mechanical things like coding or robots than girls, but KOOV® makes no distinction between boys and girls. To enable as many children as possible to enjoy themselves, bright and colorful designs are used for the blocks and the application's user interface. KOOV® is designed so that people can learn coding by freely assembling parts together, then repeatedly disassembling and reassembling them if the project does not work. For this reason, the application does everything possible to avoid negative expressions when things do not succeed. On the assumption that the product will be used in various countries, we have adopted a variety of icons and other aids to ensure users understand the details without relying on human languages. A wide range of skin and hair colors are available for the avatars adopted by users for display within the apps to make them more naturally acceptable whatever the country or culture.

Harada:Given the global upsurge in interest in coding education, countries the world over are publishing their findings on educational research. Differences between countries are of course very important, but I'm constantly surprised by the variety of approaches to coding education even within Japan. For example, there are differences in the degree of enthusiasm towards coding in urban and rural areas, and in the extent to which parents and guardians show interest. There are also differences in the ways teachers approach education in coding, and in the guidelines that are considered ideal. We are attempting to propose teaching methods that match individual teachers, and provide support for the type of education teachers want to realize through KOOV®.

Designs that encourage children to handle and learn
These avatars are readily acceptable to people from different countries and races

Expanding the Chinese market by understanding national characteristics and culture

Zhag:In China, we receive advice and opinions from Sony China, which carries out promotions and sales for KOOV®, and incorporate them into product development and services. We are creating a system for product compliance initiatives and customer support in cooperation with local entities in China because regulations concerning products, etc., differ from those in Japan. China's Internet environment also differs from Japan's, so even though we use dedicated educational networks in schools, communications with overseas take time because Network speeds are slow, making it difficult to handle large amounts of data. To deal with this, we are building data servers within China to allow better access. I believe unit sales of KOOV® are increasing in the Chinese market as each of these initiatives delivers results.

Isozu:China is presently putting a great deal of effort into coding instruction because it is very enthusiastic about education. The central government allocates large budgets to regions designated as special education zones, and some schools have purchased around 200 KOOV® units. In addition, we started marketing teaching materials and content in collaboration with Beijing University in the summer of 2018, and the product is extremely popular among teachers at public schools, perhaps because this cooperation with a famous university has been well-received. KOOV® has even been introduced into the curricula of some Beijing schools along with subjects such as Chinese language, arithmetic, science and civics. My feeling is that understanding Chinese culture and its ideas on education, and incorporating them into products and services is leading to success in that country.

This KOOV🄬 textbook was created in collaboration with Beijing University

Lowering the hurdles to coding education and removing hindrances to widespread use

Isozu:In Japan, the KOOV® service for companies, known as KOOV for Enterprise, received two of the best-known awards in the educational field, the Japan e-Learning Grand Prix and the IMS Japan Grand Prix. We believe these prizes were awarded because the service set new records by being simultaneously introduced into some 300 cram schools. It is also the first ever all-in-one educational materials service, and includes the first Japanese educational materials to be accepted overseas. However, we believe the main reason for the awards was the fact that the service reduces the teachers' burden and is of great assistance in lessons.
It has been announced that coding education will be made compulsory in Japanese elementary schools from fiscal 2020, adding to the teachers' growing burden along with newly compulsory subjects such as English and dance. In the case of KOOV for Enterprise, improved education manuals and other support tools for teachers are being prepared in addition to KOOV® products and services. This means that lessons can begin very quickly, and should make it easier even for teachers with no training experience in coding to introduce them into lessons. In the education sector, for example, the product has been highly evaluated because of cases where teachers in elementary schools in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area have taught programming lessons after just one month of training, even though they are not specialists in the subject. The lack of leaders is a major obstacle to the spread of coding education, but I think that KOOV® will lower that barrier and make coding education more accessible.

The Japan e-Learning Grand Prix and IMS Japan Grand Prix trophies

Towards teaching materials that foster creativity to transcends cultures and value sensibilities

Le:As a Vietnamese, I find KOOV®'s design really beautiful. Designs that are appealing to everyone irrespective of gender or nationality are extremely attractive. KOOV® also embodies an important vision that can change the future for children throughout the world. As an engineer, I want to create software that is simple and easy to use. While receiving feedback from around the world, I want to improve the software to create an environment that will enable children to foster their creativity simply and effectively.

Zhag:We have received approximately one thousand requests for improvements and additional functions from Chinese users. From my perspective as a native of China who understands its culture and values, I look for any factors that are necessary for business or greater effectiveness, and propose that engineers reflect them in functions and services. Selecting what is essential from the huge number of requests we receive is really hard work. That said, as I am the only person who is handling this job, I will continue to do my very best for the sake of Chinese children who use KOOV® for learning, and for their teachers.

Nozue:Some two years have passed since KOOV® went on sale, but I believe it is not yet perfect as a product. It continues to evolve as the software is updated monthly. When I consider the large number of requests we receive from school teachers, my desire to make it an even better product strengthens. My enjoyment of growing KOOV® into a product that is even easier for children and teachers to use encourages me as I go about my daily work.

Harada:Sony Global Education holds a contest called the KOOV Challenge for children who have studied using KOOV®. The entries submitted for the contest reveal regional differences between the locations and curricula where KOOV® is used, such as between Japan and China, and between schools and cram schools. Seeing entries that differ completely from the entries they created themselves appears to stimulate the children. KOOV® has a function for sharing creations in the cloud, allowing users to actually build works created by other users. I think it is marvelous that they can develop flexible conceptual abilities through the mutual stimulation afforded by communications with children all over the world using KOOV®. It seems quite possible to me that KOOV® itself will foster diversity in markets and among users.

Isozu:Since Sony has used various brands to build its business over time, I want to establish KOOV® as a key educational materials brand in the coding education sector. Although an increasing number of cram schools are adopting the product in Japan, its use in public schools is still limited. The costs of introducing the product and training teachers are obstacles, but we intend to overcome them one by one until we eventually reach the stage where KOOV® is distributed in the same way as classroom toolboxes are distributed.
Essential skills change along with the times. Looking ahead, I suspect high levels of creativity will be necessary to perform the sorts of work that cannot be replaced by AI. We want to see KOOV® play a key role in personnel training that fosters creativity while at the same time providing a forum where the children of the world can communicate with each other across the boundaries of country, language, race and culture.

Children unveil their creations for the KOOV Challenge
  • ※Sony Global Education, Inc.:We provide services that use devices such as tablets and smartphones, together with the Internet, to enable people to enjoy studying easily at any time and any place. We create highly effective educational services in cooperation with companies, educational bodies, schools and cram schools from around the world. In addition to KOOV®, we sponsor the Global Math Challenge, an online contest to determine global rankings for the capacity to think.
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