/ 24 May 2019

Cyril wants SA’s pupils up to code

Matric pupils at Protea Glen High School in Soweto use tablets during a life orientation class. The need to incorporate computer skills in the country’s school curriculum is necessary to equip people for the working world.
The basic education department is adopting a ‘phased-in’ approach to reopening schools, with some schools possibly starting up as early as next week. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Last month, President Cyril Ramaphosa handed over computer tablets to grade 10s from Thahameso Secondary School in Phuthaditjhaba, in the Free State. On his Twitter feed he has said he wants to make programming compulsory at public schools, and that he will put pressure on the basic education department to move in this direction with “great speed”.

During the ANC’s manifesto launch in January, Ramaphosa said the youth need skills in data analy-tics, coding, the internet of things, blockchain and machine learning.

“A social plan will be designed to address retraining and support for workers that could potentially be displaced by new technologies. Government will open up opportunities for young people to develop new software and applications, devices and equipment through specialised start-up support programmes.”

But, warn experts, achieving this goal won’t be easy.

Introducing coding into the curriculum may be a positive step, but schools do not necessarily have access to the appropriate resources to facilitate this, says Joanne Hardman, associate professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town.

“In order for coding to be taught in schools, the schools need to be equipped with the requisite technology to enable this and the schools need to be fully functional,” she says, referring to both the technical skills of the teachers as well as internet connectivity at the schools.

“While I have no doubt that teaching students to code and do robotics would prepare them for success later in life, without extremely well-trained teachers and appropriate resources, we cannot achieve this,” she adds.

Trying to find a mix of solutions that work in the South African context is something that Jonathan Novotny, chief executive of Code for Change, says is critical. “Generally, they [solutions that only provide a tablet] don’t work because the cost of rolling out hardware with training of teachers and learners is far higher than the hardware itself.”

Novotny founded Code for Change in 2009 to provide information and communications technology education to unemployed young people. Last year, he launched CodeJIKA, an extracurricular programme in which high school pupils are taught how to code and become front-end web developers without being resource intensive.

“We started working with international programmes and found that they do not work for the African context very well,” Novotny says.

He realised that South Africa requires solutions that take into account the limitations at schools such as hardware and connectivity, as well as teachers’ skills.

“I think we can all agree that South Africa’s youth is not equipped for the present, let alone the future,” Novotny says.

CodeJIKA’s curriculum has a unique twist to fit local complexities. Besides being available on its website, teachers can get access to the curriculum offline. For example, teachers can download and print instruction sheets, which show them how to build a website step-by-step in preparation for a class. The curriculum seeks to allow people to teach themselves and emphasises group learning.

Novotny says the programme has trained 12 500 pupils, and has coding clubs in a dozen schools.

He adds the dropout rates are lower and pass rates are higher at schools that teach computer science and coding. “In computer science [classes in schools] youth get taught a lot of theory but with CodeJIKA they learn how to become a front-end web developer. This builds a lot of confidence and they walk away with a skill that is monetisable.”

In April, the department of basic education revealed its plan to pilot coding and robotics as a subject in 1 000 schools by 2020. Beyond that, the department plans to have at least three teachers who can teach coding in each of South Africa’s 16 000 public schools.

This government initiative is part of Ramaphosa’s commission set up in April and tasked to look into opportunities presented by the so-called digital industrial revolution.

Similar initiatives to CodeJIKA that teach young people to code have started in the past few years.

Inspired by the model of École 42 in France, WeThinkCode was launched in Johannesburg in 2016 and, later, in Cape Town. WeThinkCode offers anyone between the ages of 18 and 30 tuition-free classes and experience in programming. The company recently started the Explore Data Science Academy, which focuses on teaching data science.

African Teen Geeks is a nonprofit that teaches schoolchildren and unemployed youth how to code. Earlier this year, it went into partnership with the basic education department to develop coding and robotics in the curriculum from grade R. Since 2014, the organisation says it has trained more than 110 teachers and provided computer science training at 30 schools in poor areas.

Jacques Coetzee is the Adamela Trust data journalist at the Mail & Guardian, a position funded by the Indigo Trust