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Coding in SA schools: what needs to happen to make it work

The complexity is that the foundations are not in place for effective implementation.

South Africa is training a group of teachers to learn how to code and how to teach coding. The subject will be piloted at 1 000 schools across five provinces, starting in the 2020 academic year. The announcement has resulted in debates around the country’s ability to deliver on such a commitment, particularly when considering the low literacy and numeracy skills of learners. The Conversation’s Nontobeko Mtshali spoke to Professor Ulrike Rivett to find out more about this.

What is coding? Are there African countries teaching it nationally at school level?

The Department of Basic Education describes coding as the writing of instructions for computation using a programming language to achieve a specific goal or to solve a problem. In simple terms, coding refers to using a language that a computer understands to develop computer programmes, mobile applications, websites etc.

Coding is therefore similar to introducing a new language in the school curriculum. The misconception has often been created that coding requires a talent in maths or physics, but that’s not necessarily the case. Coding, similar to any language we use, has certain structures and rules – like grammar – and these rules have to be learnt and practised. While the discussion around coding has been very closely linked to that of the maths curriculum, there is no reason to believe that students with subjects such as maths literacy cannot learn how to code. The challenges of introducing coding as a subject are manifold, but maths education is not one of them.

There are a number of schools that have already introduced coding. Most are well-equipped schools or private institutions. This is also true for most African countries.

Countries like the UK have well-established national policies. In the UK this was done in 2013. Others that followed included Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovakia. Some of these countries have included coding in their national curricula.

What are the challenges in the way of making this a regular subject in schools?

It’s great that South Africa has decided to roll out coding nationally. But the complexity is that the foundations are not in place for effective implementation. Dr Mmaki Jantjies, a senior lecturer at the University of the Western Cape’s Department of Information Systems, cites five core elements that need to be in place for effective rollout. These include:

  • infrastructure,

  • teacher training and support,

  • localised learning content,

  • technical support, and

  • safety and security.

To provide a good foundation in digital skills, computers have to be available on the school premises together with the relevant IT infrastructure and internet connectivity. This translates effectively into having an IT department at the school that can manage the equipment, keep it up and running and be able to support teachers and learners when problems arise. This requirement translates directly into a cost factor that is not a once-off investment, but rather a regular addition to the annual budget in the form of a recurrent cost item.

The second challenge involves teachers and a curriculum. Teacher training is expensive and currently teachers don’t learn how to code. To develop an integrated and sustainable curriculum, it will be essential to reflect on the current requirements for teachers, and to understand how they are trained.

Another challenge of making coding and robotics a regular subject at school is time. In an already crowded timetable, which subject do we remove or allocate less time to? Do learners have to spend more time at school? In the UK, a solution was found by integrating digital skills into other subjects.

In South Africa coding and robotics will be introduced through the existing technology subject taught until Grade 9, or through a new subject called “digital skills”.

The curriculum is expected to provide learners with the necessary knowledge and skills to become “inventors of new technologies to make a valuable contribution towards the global community”.

What are the risks if school children don’t attain this skill at the basic education level?

The need for coding is becoming ubiquitous. In the same way that employees are currently expected to have the ability to read, write and count, in the near future there will be an expectation to have the literacy of coding. This will allow learners to harness the power of computers.

Right now, the most sought after careers are in the IT space. From the retail sector to financial institutions, our world is becoming digital. Online shopping, online banking, online TV watching – the risk of not being able to attain the skill of coding will be a risk of not attaining a job.

What needs to be done going forward?

Throwing equipment such as tablets or laptops at schools without addressing the training of teachers hasn’t resulted in any sustainable solutions on the continent.

An opportunity that should be more widely investigated is the engagement of universities in the initiative. Many of the computer labs of higher education institutions are empty for 26 weeks of the year. We took the opportunity to link up with CodeSpace during the June vacation to host a coding camp for high school learners on UCT campus – the labs were filled with excitement in an otherwise deadly quiet time and it gave us insight on the potential of using our resources to fill a real need.

With the experience of hindsight, South Africans know that curriculum changes have not always been as successful as had been hoped and that a radical change – such as making coding and robotics a school subject – might be too much for some schools. Will the country end up with another subject that creates “have and have-nots”?

This is an opportunity to engage, to grapple with a difficult challenge and for higher education institutions to draw alongside the Department of Education, our schools, teachers and learners. This might be the one time where the lofty heights of academia can provide some insight and practical space to introduce a subject that will provide our children with a skill for future success.The Conversation

Ulrike Rivett is professor of Information Communication Technologies at the University of Cape Town.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Caramba – we cannot even teach basic mathematics in our schools and they want to go coding!!!
These fools live on another planet and probably get fat commission from the suppliers of the tech stuff which will be stolen – and probably sold back to them.

I stopped reading right after this: “The misconception has often been created that coding requires a talent in maths”

The person uttering this jewel, clearly does not know the first thing about real coding. Without maths you’re completely lost. If you don’t understand mathematical stuff like matrices, arrays, Boolean logic, and even simple arithmetic, forget about ever, under any circumstances becoming good enough at coding for it to be a marketable skill.

I am the CEO and founder of Code College ZA – I have been teaching coding for 30 years. The bottom line is Coding is a practical skill (like woodworking) which can help you learn logical skills. We have seen many cases of mathematics under-performers becoming top coders. A lot of kids are bad at maths because they were never introduced to it properly – Coding can be a great introducer.

You need an average intelligence, a keen interest, and great determination to succeed. One of the top personality traits of great coders is determination. Another top personality trait found in top coders is humanitarianism – wanting to help people solve problems badly. This is a driving force to create solutions.

The misconception that you mention is the reason why so many kids were prevented from coding. It is not difficult to code. The reason why there is such a shortage of coders is that they never had the opportunity to try it.

I can go on and on …

Arnold Graaff – find me on codecollege dot co dot za

>> You need an average intelligence

You need an average intelligence to scrape your way into a coding job, hate it all the way, ruin the lives of your actually competent co-workers, and ultimately escape to a quasi-business position.

The coding we excel at is the hand signal the school principal gives to the pregnant 11 year old in class to meet him out back.

Coding is a literacy, like mathematics or reading. So it is not something that is truly picked up in 21 days, or a year, or two. It is something that takes years and years – perhaps at least 10 years – to become embedded in the literate person.
In this day and age, when computers are ubiquitous, it is a vital skill for everyone, and gone are the days when it was tedious and analytical.
Good coders are poets. They are the modern day poets, expressing functional poetry.

Well said. It’s the old 10 000 hours needed to master any skill – no matter how smart you are.

Coding is not a cure for all our unemployment issues. Only a small no of people will be employed as programmers.
What we really need is people skills, empathy, patience, communication, pragmatism, problem solving, logical thinking and conflict resolution.
All sadly missing in our schools. (and homes as well)

I spent 37 years teaching programming. Coding requires, above all, the ability to think abstractly rather than concretely, and abstract problem solving. You have to be able to imagine how the scenario is going to play out. (Each minute the worm climbs three cm up the wall, then slides back 2cm. How long will it take him to get out of a 30cm jar?) Maths also requires (and builds) that same abstract mental ability, as does reading music, or general literacy. So if kids can’t do basic maths and can’t read for meaning, it is probably because they have not reached the requisite stage of mental development.

Please forget about trying to teach them to code.

The education theory started with Piaget’s work (he called the mental development stage “formal abstraction”).

Read a bit about “Computational Thinking”. There are some fantastic resources (games and activities that do not require tablets and IT departments in schools) to build the skills. That would be a much better start four our kids than teaching coding.

No man. These are kids sitting in front of a computer at a very young age, and learning something. It can open the way for some and spark interest. This is 1,000x better than an adult getting a job in a corporate sector who hasn’t touched a computer mouse in their entire lives.

Someone is already working on a coding app.

My phone translates any language with voice recognition. No need to learn new language or pay translator. Soon I will code the same way.

We might still need a plumber though?

We need to focus on reading and arithmetic before we focus on coding.

As they say, if you don’t start you will never finish. Instead of shooting this down try a pilot project and see where we go. No need to sell the family jewels.

There are always people who will make it work.

A case in point is my youngest child who had health problems at high school. In spite of paying horrendous private school fees they dumped her in a maths literacy class. They do not want their statistics damaged irrespective of the poor teachers they employ, profits are also important to them.

We had to put her in a bridging school after matric. Here she encountered the best maths teacher she ever knew. He was a refugee from Zimbabwe. Today she is in third year at Wits studying a BSc degree.

Teach them linux first and to use the terminal. Then try Python and Haskell. If you can’t understand math you will surely collapse. Robotics uses functional programming. Better fix the toilets first and kick the politicians out. Perhaps you should teach them some algorithms and flowcharting but then that requires logical thinking.

Oy vey!

This article demonstrates why CR2017’s delusions of 4IR, along with NDR, RET and other 3LA’s [three-letter acronyms], will fail.

Most post PC-revolution [that’s Personal Computer, not Politically Correct] learned to code by doing it on Apples, IBM’s and their precursors. often late at night in their bedrooms. The folks behind the Raspberry Pi and its competitors realised this, hence the provision of cheap computers of sufficient scalability for them to learn on. There are plenty of tutorials and howtos available on the internet.

So, while SA is trying to *instruct* kids in “computers” (using teachers who are barely numerate or literate), our global competitors are *learning* to innovate and to be self-sufficient. Further, most users of “computers” will not need more than simple spreadsheet and word-processor skills + the ability to search on the Internet with a small minority using macros. While the ANC are apparently mesmerised by the “blinkligte” of “computers” (one has to ask how many members of the cabinet or NEC can write a simple “Sawubona Mhlaba” program in any code), the real 4IR countries take the “three Rs” and mathematical ABCs [algebra, boolean and calculus] for granted and are focussing on STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects at school and tertiary. ‘It’s all Geek to me’

What is needed to compete in the First IR is fixing SA’s public schooling; this implies confrontation with SADTU. We can then proceed to the Second, Third and Fourth IRs — doing so WILL be a National Democratic Revolution. Fixing schooling will provide the foundation for more kids to learn “computers” — “baby steps”. (Ramaphosa’s promise to fix preschooling is a good start.) And let’s not forget that the 4IR is actually driven by entertainment, from the original Ataris, Sinclairs & Apples as a programmer’s “toys”, to its need for viewing porn and to the iPod and iPhone for listening to music and viewing videos.

What is further needed is making “IT” available to nerdish youngsters. Firstly, subsidising the completion of the fibre-to-the-home rollout, thankfully commenced by the private sector. This will enable kids to get “online” and those will aptitude will find out what to do. Subsidising the likes of Raspberry Pi’s (perhaps building them here?), possibly awarding them as prizes to scholars attaining required maths, “computer”, science and general exam results. Alternatively, thinking “outside the box”, one can learn to code on a smartphone and dual-SIM smartphones are already retailing at less than R1,000; admittedly this is far less convenient than using a keyboard, screen and mouse (though these can be bought as accessories) but they could — given real-world budget constraints — be used to set the learners simple programs to determine who should be stepped up to Pi’s or equivalents.

use the coding as bait.

to solve some, or many problems, they will need to know and understand the maths needed to solve a specific problem. this will motivate them to look into maths, and then do the coding.

at the same time they are getting experiences in logic.

if the children does not understand the problem, give them exercises in comprehensive reading, then bring them back to coding.

they will soon realize that you need maths/language to a great extent to solve coding problems.

for example, in cspwcspw’s post, the worm-problem requires that you need to know the following maths:

3 – 2 = 1
30 / 1 = 30
(this got nothing to do with imagination)
(good example of breaking down a problem into smaller pieces)

the math, language and coding classes should run parallel.

coding will not go away (i heard this ‘soon-we-wont-code-story’ for the last 45 years), but the beast changes face very often!

and do not forget, logic and common sense goes hand in hand … … …

and remember the BIG pay-off in the class room:
the children gets immediate results, because they can try something, and gets feedback immediately. they SEE their mistakes much sooner.

once they are hooked into the ‘clutches’ of reading-thinking-comprehension-thinking-coding-ERROR-thinking you got their attention for life!

by the way, not really on topic, but each desktop computer should have at least two screens:

one for coding, one for the results.
(that’s how i taught people HTML twenty years ago)

once addicted to multiple screens, you could end up with 5 screens like me:
1. desktop icons
2. email-screen
3. program to enter raw data and run your application
4. the resulting-printout in a browser
5. spreadsheet etc

this eliminates switching between open-windows, and arriving emails never disturb you, you see the email instantly when you look at the screen.

mj the reason why the imagination was needed is to realize the answer is 28 and not 30, which is the trap most people fall into

and i forgot, teach them about Idioms and Homophones, teach them that computers cannot THINK, and you will eliminate many if not all of the current urban legends about what a robot will be able to do one day.

Teach them the importance of syntax and accuracy otherwise it ain’t gonna work.

Prof. I suspect you are not a very good programmer. It is NOT simply learning a language. I think it is similar to learning the tune of a song but you cannot play it on any musical instrument. The tune is the HOW and the instrument is the LANGUAGE – and there are many languages as you should know.

This article makes it sound as if this is something new, whereas it’s already in place for over 30 years in Model C schools.
I learned Turbo Pascal back in 1999 and it was pretty easy. One of the requirements to join this special class was to have Higher Grade (HG) Math. Only a select few could join the class, like 25 or so. A lot of kids quit and we were left with about 20 towards the second year and abut 15 in the final year. This was a school with about 1 000 pupils. We had old and slow computers, nothing fancy, no internet, DOS based, dot matrix printers, etc. and guess what, we made it, we learned it, we were successful at it. We had a great teacher as well, she knew a lot.
In my final year, I wrote a fully functional commercially viable gym membership program and received top marks for it… Just to put things into perspective.
Come along, 20 years later.
Schools are now being sponsored by Government with software licenses, free internet, top quality computers, tablets, etc. Does it teach the kids anything? No, I don’t think so. It teaches them how to be an end-user. This is where you click so that would happen, etc.
Do they need to lock the stuff up? Yes, otherwise it gets stolen.
I’m sure you can get away with a Raspberry Pi, screen, keyboard and mouse to get the fundamentals right, with minimal costs and still be up to date with the latest technology trends.

infrastructure – basics are needed as per above (to do math, you need a pen(cil), paper and calculator (if you cant do it in your head), and a brain off course)

teacher training and support – it’s a new subject, will take ages to learn, especially an older generation

localized learning content – no need for this, computers and coding are a global subject, why try to reinvent the wheel?

technical support – no need if the teacher is technically inclined and the school already has an IT provider

safety and security – societal thing, disconnect from internet (this is where most safety and security concerns would disappear)

Radical change? No need, why push the MSM agenda?
Academia insight? someone disconnected from society that makes a living off article writing and teaching theory.

I’m intrigued. You did HG mathematics, but you call it “math”. You wrote it in the US?

Really? That was your take away?

If you do not have electricity (Eskom) and you do not have computers (stolen by the community) you are dead in the water before you even started

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