Afikele Sikwebu is a teacher at Linkside High School in Port Elizabeth, where he teaches CAT and Digital Technologies.
As technology continues to fuel the world we live in, recently and in the next coming years, no IT related talk or article will end without the mention of the fourth industrial revolution. It appears as a panacea to our problems and has sparked the emergence of initiatives geared at teaching children to code.
These efforts are admirable and commendable as they ensure that children, as early as in primary school, receive opportunities to help them with algorithmic thinking, problem-solving skills, collaboration and other skills related to early coding, and hopefully subsequently to a fruitful career in ICT, engineering, in the arts and others, where a combination of these acquired skills can be used.
For the past few years, I have been running coding clubs at various schools and youth center's in townships around Port Elizabeth and, when the opportunity arose to work with Africa Teen Geeks, an NPO that focuses on computer science, it was naturally up my alley of interest and I grabbed the opportunity.
Teaching coding using block-based programming languages – a type of language where the programming is represented by puzzle-like blocks to allow the design of simple algorithms using a drag-and-drop method from a palette of commands – limits the anxiety often experienced when starting out on text-based coding. Through the use of the platform Mszora, one of the block-based programming languages, I had the opportunity to interact with children who came from different provinces and had various backgrounds. These learners participated in Grade 6 coding lessons, which covered different aspects of the coding curriculum. With all the classes conducted digitally on Zoom, it was exciting to see participation, with some children notably connecting every day. The answers they provided demonstrated that they were paying attention to the one-hour daily lessons and some of them were brave enough to share their projects with the entire class to watch.
As the lessons continued, this spoke to me about the potential of replicating similar lessons in places where IT infrastructure exists without an ICT teacher. The resources needed are computers, Internet connectivity, audio devices such as speakers and a projector. This is because, with the videos being recorded, each school can access these video clips from YouTube and login to the Mszora platform to replicate the lessons.
Initiatives such as these will, however, need buy-in from school principals, teachers and sometimes community volunteers to assist in hosting coding clubs at local schools. It will require each of these stakeholders to take ownership of the initiative to ensure that no learner is left behind.
This also means that a lot of time needs to be dedicated to changing teachers' perceptions about coding. Therefore, educating and training teachers about coding becomes important and needs to be addressed in order for the implementation of early coding in rural and township schools to work. Since teachers form an integral part of this initiative, training and equipping them with basic skills is needed in order for them to be a step ahead of their learners. Ongoing teacher training sessions will play a big role in ensuring that teacher anxiety is dealt with and, at the same time, to equip them with digital skills that can translate to a transformed use of computers for teaching and learning. However, I am wary of teachers' current reality being inundated with administrative work, and there is a high probability, especially in rural areas, of an unwillingness to take up a new skill.
The current online sessions will potentially make it possible for schools with under-skilled teachers in coding to plug and play the video clips for their learners to replicate. We have made attempts to replicate a class set-up where children can ask questions. I believe the same questions may exist in a real classroom. As both a Computer Applications Technology and Digital Technologies teacher, I believe these coding lessons will play a critical role in cementing what a child will learn in class through the curriculum as they will be able to revisit them at any point they may wish to do so. The video chips can be accessible on video-sharing platforms and also on the Africa Teen Geeks Web site, which has been zero rated by certain service providers such as MTN, IS, Telkom and Mweb.
In preparing our children for the future, it is imperative that we begin now; the consequence of an ill-prepared population will be felt in the future, when we are heavily reliant on the fourth industrial revolution technologies. We have the potential to turn coding from being another subject to becoming a literacy, but it will take a collaborated effort from all relevant stakeholders to achieve it.