A new way to teach. A new way to learn

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At first, it was a way of combating the isolation brought on by lockdown. A way for a few lecturers and senior students in the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to come together virtually and learn something new. It was a space of innovation and collaboration, and an antidote to those early months of Covid-induced solitude and uncertainty.

But in no time at all, it evolved, and today the brand-new UJ Scratch Coding Club is using technology to advance the careers of its student teachers and, in turn, the experiences of the young lives they will teach. It’s bringing the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) into South Africa’s classrooms and into our collective future.

Discovering Scratch

Scratch is a visual programming language that uses stories, games and animations to help learners learn how to experiment, to think creatively, to reason critically, to prototype and to work together. In the world of 4IR, each of these skills is critical. 

UJ’s Scratch Coding Club was developed to empower student teachers to be able to teach with this useful tool, and to pass this knowledge on to their learners too. 

“We chose Scratch because we like its approach,” says Linford Molaodi, a lecturer in UJ’s Department of Childhood Education, who is running the UJ Scratch Coding Club together with his colleague, Kenneth Baloyi. “It’s not like other coding platforms, which can involve strict and complicated rules. Our focus isn’t on coding but on developing creative thinking, and Scratch is the ideal tool to help us nurture this — both in our future teachers and in their future learners.”

While Scratch has been around for some time, it has evolved significantly since it was first developed by the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten group. UJ is working closely with MIT as it rolls out the programme among its students today.

During the initial lockdown Molaodi initiated a coding club to introduce participating students to “Scratch”. At the time, the training didn’t offer any formal certification. Later in 2020 the Scratch Coding Club was formalised as a research project under the leadership of Professor Sarah Gravett. It was also formalised to allow participating students to earn a certificate based on a portfolio that they submit.

‘A very exciting and stimulating journey’

“The experience has been amazing,” says Michelle Khumalo, a fourth-year education student and one of the club’s facilitators. “At first, the programme was a welcome distraction. With so much happening, both in our coursework and in the world around us, the club gave us the opportunity to come together, to experiment and be creative in a relaxed and comfortable environment. Students who were initially quite shy very soon came out of their shells.”

Maeketsa Mofokeng, another Scratch Coding Club facilitator who is currently doing his honours in the Department of Science and Technology Education, agrees. “The club instilled our fellow students with new confidence,” he says. “It gave us all a new tool to use in our practical teaching sessions and in the real-life classes we support, which we found enormously empowering.”

Almost no-one involved in the club had used technology like Scratch before. Now, however, they are attending weekly sessions (which are often shared with the hashtag #reascratcher, which means “we are scratching”) in which they work together with their teammates to develop and build various projects.

“Working with Scratch has taught us not to be afraid to try something new,” says Vuyisile Mashele, another fourth-year student and club facilitator. “We know now that things don’t have to be perfect the first time round. We’ve learnt to experiment, to see what happens, and to continually adjust our approach. It’s a very exciting and stimulating journey.”

What this means for education in South Africa

With an increasing number of schools using smartboards, and many learners having access to laptops and tablets, it’s important that UJ’s teachers are equipped to take advantage of their future working environments. “Scratch can be used to teach any subject, from foundation phase right through to high school,” Molaodi adds. “With Scratch experience under their belts, our students will be able to create Scratch content for everything from first-time readers to matric maths learners.”

“A lot of teachers don’t yet know how to incorporate technology into their lesson plans, or how to properly prepare learners with the 4IR skills they need in order to succeed,” says Khumalo. “Our club has taught us not to feel intimidated by coding, and has equipped us with the digital literacy expertise we need to transfer to our learners. We can’t not teach like this.”

UJ’s Faculty of Education is likely the first to offer this sort of training to its students, and it’s nurturing essential 4IR skills of creative thinking, problem solving, innovation and collaboration in the process. “The club has made us realise how important it is that we keep learning ourselves — we need to be curious and creative on an ongoing basis,” adds Mofokeng.

In 2021, the Scratch Coding Club will run twice, once in the first semester and once in the second semester as part of the Faculty of Education’s curriculum. 

Through Scratch, the teachers that emerge from UJ will be able to teach creative coding in tandem with the school curriculum, so arming their learners for a digital future we cannot yet predict. 

As a leader in academic thought and research in Africa, UJ has embraced the technology that is shaping our future, not just on our continent, but globally. We’re doing this by applying it to both teaching and learning, using it to advance not just ideas, but skills, expertise and capacity. People everywhere will be able to see real benefits and positive change in their lives, both as developers and recipients of everything that 4IR has to offer. 

Whether it’s teaching emergency rescue through state-of-the-art simulation, or gathering data to enable remote diagnoses with artificial intelligence (AI), or understanding and addressing societal problems with pinpoint digital tools, UJ’s embrace of 4IR technology is making an impact on people’s lives. Find more stories here 

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