Tech is an enabler, not a solution

It was encouraging to hear Gauteng Premier David Makhura talk about how the province was continuing to install “smart classrooms” in a number of our poorer schools during his state of the province address this week.

He mentioned that information and communication technology (ICT) had been rolled out in 377 of Gauteng’s no-fee schools, benefiting 64 000 matric learners as a result.

We hope the teachers are being properly trained in how to teach technology to young, hungry minds in these paperless classrooms, given that computers may be alien to many of them.

While it is heartening that the government is investing in technology for schools, sadly, the cost and extent of such a roll-out will inevitably exclude the impoverished minority for a long time to come.

In the meantime, the gap between these poor children and their tech-savvy counterparts in better resourced schools is widening, and the former will undoubtedly continue to be left behind as the rest of the world advances at a gallop.

This is a crying shame in a country – and, indeed, a world – that is desperate for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) skills.

These are the skills that will be in demand in the 21st-century workplace. Not only will they inspire people to train as software programmers, but they will also produce a new generation of critical, creative and analytical thinkers and problem solvers who are adaptable and innovative.

Hence, we should adopt an educational approach that reaches beyond laptops, tablets and internet access. We should be regarding teaching technologies, as well as teaching with technology, as concepts which are not mutually exclusive – because you do not necessarily need computers to teach basic computer science skills.

I run a nongovernmental organisation that teaches coding to children in a bid to cultivate a generation of boy and girl “geeks” who get a kick out of technology.

We offer two programmes – Knit2Code and Knock2Code – which use knitting and woodwork concepts to teach the basics of programming without the need for actual computers. These are but two of the cheap, sustainable solutions out there that could be used to enhance the education curriculum.

We have children as young as six being challenged and stimulated while trying to develop a game, an app or a webpage. It is possible.

We need to explore innovative ways to enable technology to be an integral part of education, instead of only giving learners the tools. In other words, instead of just giving them the proverbial fishing rod, let us teach them how to fish.

By embedding technology as a way of life early on, we can help learners develop a healthy interest in Stem as it will be seen as natural and fun, rather than intimidating.

Currently, ICT is taught in public schools only from Grade 10 onwards, and even then, mainly in former Model C schools.

I believe some form of computer programming, not just computer literacy, should be made compulsory from primary school level if we are to be competitive in the 21st-century knowledge economy.

If we prick an interest in Stem subjects at primary school level, children are more likely to focus their educational efforts on the skills needed to work in these areas. This, in turn, can help raise the number of South Africans who eventually pursue careers in these fields.

In addition, an early introduction to coding in all schools can enhance diversity in the workforce of the future.

Unfortunately, many young people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds turn away from careers in information technology because of the current lack of diversity in those fields and the dearth of suitable role models and educational support.

Teaching coding to all children will help lower some of the barriers associated with unconscious bias around Stem fields.

It will also give more options to those who may have originally been interested, but lacked proper exposure to the skills.

Tragically, it is a fact that giving children access to computers is not enough to make them computer literate, let alone technologically savvy.

I have seen township schools with fancy computer laboratories donated by corporates that are white elephants because no one knows how to use them.

Gauteng’s paperless classrooms are undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but the high costs of such a roll-out mean that many disadvantaged children will remain disadvantaged – and the cycle of disadvantage will continue.

Let us look at innovative solutions to get our youth excited about technology and give them equal opportunities to succeed and excel in life.

Matlali is the founder and “chief volunteer” of Africa Teen Geeks

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