Coding over a cup of coffee: Designing the future in the most comfortable setting

Whether it be a grumpy old man sitting with his newspaper, a tired mother with a kid in each arm finding the strength to handle them or the iconic group of six F.R.I.E.N.D.S., everyone enjoys spending time at a coffee shop. There is a significant serenity in the atmosphere which invites dates, meetings, conversations with strangers or just the comforting company of a book. Capitalising on this very inclusive quality, Tommie Lo and his team have created a hub for decentralised education in the guise of a coffee shop. 

A usual coffee shop with an unusual tagline and glass exterior draws attention from a distance.

Preface, a company started by Lo in 2014, focusses on providing education outside the traditional framework. However, it is their year and a half old coffee venture that draws most attention. Walking down Ngan Mok Street, right at the T-junction with Lau Li Street in Tin Hau, a bright board with coffee makers and projections on the wall gleaming through huge glass windows is surely an enticing place to halt and hang out. Only upon entry does one realise how different it is from all other coffee shops. Like every other coffee shop, there is the usual reading corner with a few books, magazines and newspapers. It is the iPads, menu projected on the wall and the unusual semi-amphitheatre like seating arrangement, however, that distinguish this place from all others. 

A placement with no chairs and tables, but instead an open seating where it is possible to talk to anyone sitting anywhere encourages conversations, collaborations and engagement. Jane Lau, a core team member of Preface, said, “You can just walk in, order something to drink, have a good brew, have a social experience by taking to people around you, or you can have a really comfortable place that gives you enough headspace to explore your own ideas.” All team members feel that the unique structure makes the space open and welcoming to all, which is their goal.

An open seating allowing easy flow of conversation with the menu and facts about AI projected on the wall.

Most people who walk in take a minute to register this incredible mixture of coffee and tech. Everyone who asks for the menu is directed to look at the projection on the wall behind them and they do so with a look of surprise. Almost all the people who walk in are just here to have coffee. After playing with the iPads which have short presentations, flashcards and games created by 6 year olds showcasing the work at Preface, the baristas are interrogated and some transform into new clients for the coding program. With a target clientele from ages 3 to mid 40s, the big challenge is assumed to be faced by marketing. However, the marketing head Edwin Chiu explains they have the perfect solution. “It is all about location, location, location. The building we are in and the building down the road (pointing to a building with McDonalds) are at special advantage because they house a lot of hobby classes for children” said Chiu. He went on to explain that when working professionals come to drop their young children and wait for their class to end, the perfect place to relax is a coffee shop where they realise the possibility of learning for themselves as well as their children.

Reading at tech corner with iPads where you can play games designed for kids or take quizzes on machine learning and programming.

The motive behind this set-up is to encourage people to learn programming which Tommie Lo, the founder, considers a necessity in this day and age. “I realised that the future was machine learning and coding in 2014 when I started Preface, but mostly because I realised there was a problem with our education system and AI (artificial intelligence) would be the solution to that” said Lo, while introducing his innovation to a group of 20 young professionals at a workshop held on the 25th of September. Lo disagrees with the idea of having a standardised system where students with different backgrounds, capabilities and grasping power are taught in a large group using one teacher, one book, one method and one pace. For him, personalisation of curriculum to suit your learning capacity is key.

This is where the AI comes in. Not unlike Google, Facebook and Instagram which use personalised ads, timelines and search results, Preface learning platform is modelled to take feedback from tests and surveys to constantly personalise the activities and tasks to the user’s needs. “A teacher with 30 years of experience knows exactly what children like and how to teach them but they can’t pass this knowledge on. All they leave behind is the book. But AI is self-learning and even with a different trainer, your program is set for you” said Lo. With such personalisation and attention, Preface believes ‘There isn’t a thing that cannot be learnt’ and thus birthing the idea of #NOEXCUSES.

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Workshop for working professionals to highlight the importance of machine learning in education.

At Preface, people can book sessions with trainers at any time and place as per personal convenience. It could be in their office, home or in the Preface coffee shop itself. One major downside of Preface, though, is the cost. For a complete course in the adult module, the sum comes up to about $49,000 for a total of 80 hours of training. Lau said, “You can sign up for Udemy and Code Academy (self-learning coding websites) for a nominal fee but according to research, they have very low completion rates, about 10-12%, which we feel is due to the lack of the personal touch we provide here at Preface.” The truth in that statement is yet unknown, however, they claim more than half their students finish the whole program.

As expected, this business model has its own challenges. Aside from the high fee, Preface finds it hard to convince people the importance of learning coding at a young age. “Hong Kong is not like the US or the UK where people know their kids need to learn this. When people see what little kids can design at the age of 5 and 6, they get encouraged to make their own kids join, but that is still a struggling sector for us” said Lau.

However, Tommie Lo is very confident about the future of his venture. “I did not drop out of my PhD for a risk. I knew this was the future and I knew I wanted to be a part of the educational revolution we desperately need at this time. And I will not stop expanding till I see this vision come to life” Lo said.

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