/ 21 June 2024

Building the next generation: How coding and robotics can transform SA classrooms

Coding Without Computers Reaches Thousands Of Learners
The basic education department has announced the addition of coding and robotics to the school curricula but many have questioned whether under-resourced schools can effectively offer such a hi-tech subject

Many educators have welcomed the news that the basic education department has gazetted changes to the national curriculum, adding coding and robotics​ as an additional subject​ to school curricula for grades R to nine. This move will modernise the school curriculum and bring a much-needed focus to the development of 21st-century skills. 

While the focus of the curriculum, especially in the foundation phase, is on unplugged coding, many have expressed concern about those schools that don’t have computer laboratories or high-speed wi-fi connections for their learners from grades four to nine.

​“You don’t need a state-of-the-art laboratory to teach coding and robotics,” says​​ Rajesh Ramakrishnan, tech educator​ and co-founder of edTech Resolute Education​. 

“The aim of coding and robotics is not to make perfect engineers and computer scientists,” he said in a 2023 TEDx talk. “It is an opportunity to build their critical thinking and problem-solving skills.” 

The inclusion of coding and robotics supports and complements other STEM subjects, such as computer applications technology, maths, physical sciences and information technology in grades four to nine.

Studies show that exposure to robotics promotes the uptake of STEM subjects by engaging learners and capturing their interest. When children see abstract concepts in physical form, and they are able to play with what was only theory before, it engages the brain more deeply and sparks curiosity.   

This was the case at the rural Rooiberg Community Care Project in Limpopo where coding and robotics programmes were introduced at Itireleng Secondary School and Thabakhubedu Primary School. 

Natalie Klerk, the head of the project, commented about the programme: “It had a huge impact on the learners, socially, but especially their academic contribution was evident in how some of the learners’ mathematics improved.”

According to the African Development Bank, less than 25% of higher education students study STEM-related subjects. In addition, according to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, published in 2023, fewer than 30% of all South African matric students took maths as a subject. This points to a clear need to get children more interested in STEM subjects, as well as raising their awareness of these subjects as crucial for future jobs and careers.   

Coding and robotics might be one way to do it. When introduced to the subject at school level, learners are exposed to hi-tech skills in a fun, playful manner in a way that encourages creativity, innovative thinking, problem solving and collaboration.  

​​​Yolandi Farham, publishing director​ ​at ​Oxford University Press Southern Africa, says exposure to robotics encourages children to become more involved in what some educators have called “the maker culture”. This concept is linked to world-renowned mathematician MIT Professor Seymour Papert, a pioneer of constructionist learning, which posits that children learn better when they are experimenting and building things.   

But to successfully launch coding and robotics across the board in South Africa will require a​ combined effort​. Strategic alliances between organisations able to provide resources and tools, as well as training programmes for teachers, is vital, especially in marginalised regions.  

Farham says, “SA schools are facing significant challenges, but educators, teachers and parents must come to the party with creative solutions to ensure our children are ready for the future.​ The solution doesn’t have to be expensive.​” 

She believes coding and robotics should be brought to learners, irrespective of the school’s situation in terms of teachers or resources. In very constrained schools, techniques could include “unplugged” tools, such as board games and the use of basic cellphones, puzzles or any number of activities that help learners understand the fundamental concepts related to coding.  

“We are talking about building a learning ecosystem that empowers the next generation of thinkers,” she says. 

Ramakrishnan agrees, “Successful implementation of coding and robotics in schools delves into the nuances of how schools approach professional development and prepare teachers to drive this change, not just as a one-off, but through a continuous programme.” 

He says this means providing continuous support for schools and building a community around them where they feel supported. Importantly, it also includes working with the parent body and learners in building innovative projects and fostering an innovation culture in schools and homes. 

This becomes even more significant when one considers that the World Economic Forum estimates that 85% of job offerings in 2025 will require digital proficiency. South African children need to understand the basics of the information and technology age. While they might not need to be coders or software developers to thrive in the future global economy, they will need to understand how digital tools, software and computers fit into workplaces.

Every learner deserves to see how technology can transform their lives. In South Africa, we must open the door to the world of technology for as many learners as possible.   

Jonathan du Plessis is​​ the chief marketing officer at Resolute Education, which has partnered with Oxford University Press South Africa to bring educational tools and programmes to schools across SA.