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Introduction: A South African Perspective

The use of technology is an integral part of education. With artificial intelligence at the cutting edge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the current form of the education system.  Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, announced that coding and robotics will be included in the Gr R – 9 Curriculum from 2020. An initial pilot study will be done at approximately 1000 schools across the country (Xulu, 2019) to introduce the Digital Skills Curriculum (Gr R - 9). Another DBE pilot study which includes approximately 600 schools across the country, will introduce Robotics and Coding in the existing Grade 7 - 9 Technology Subject. With global educational trends such as intelligent tutors, virtual and augmented reality, game-based learning and now coding and computational thinking, it is the ideal time to disrupt current practice and provide 21st century learning opportunities within the curriculum.

The Global Competitiveness Index measures the readiness of countries to participate efficiently and productively within the fourth industrial revolution. South Africa was ranked 67th of 140 countries and second to Mauritius of the Sub-Saharan African countries. (Schwab, 2018) This report illustrates two alarming areas that need redress in Sub-Saharan African countries. Firstly, Innovation Capabilities impacted by limited research and development and secondly, low ICT adoption. A possible contributing factor is that 54% of the South African population has access to internet. Furthermore, the current workforce has a significant low digital skill ranked at 116th and critical thinking ranked at 78th.  (Schwab, 2018) Hence the implementation of the Digital Skills Curriculum as well as the Professional Development Framework for Digital learning contributes to the realization of the goals.

Coding in Education: The Rationale

Digital skills and effective communication within a global community is essential to help learners thrive in a future driven by technology. The introduction of coding in primary schools will develop skills such as computational thinking, problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, creative design and effective communication. Computational thinking can be conceptualised as the ability to:

  • Break down problems in smaller pieces (Decompose)

  • Find similarities and differences (Pattern making)

  • Design one solution that would work for multiple problems (Abstraction)

  • Listing steps to finish a task (Algorithm)

  • Predict and analyse the outcomes to inform decisions (Logic)

  • Troubleshoot and making judgements (Evaluation)

Even though for the purpose of Demystifying Coding in Education, coding is emphasized, it is not the primary focus of the Digital skills curriculum. Equally important, is Application Skills, Internet and eCommunication, Data and Information, and Computational Thinking, 

 

While only 1600 schools are earmarked for various curriculum pilots, all schools can already explore open education resources and development programmes for after school coding clubs. One could also explore the alignment of digital skills components within the existing schools curriculum subjects. 

 

“It will take five years for learners to get tablets, but the most important thing is that our children must get a better education,” said South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa in the State of the Nation Report. (Central, 2019)

eSMASH: The Coding Guide

Implementing coding at a school can be a daunting undertaking. eSMASH is a great starting point for teachers who need guidance. The website is an information asset which aims to:

  • Initiate discussions among Curriculum decision-makers, office- and school-based educators

  • Demystify coding in Education

  • Provide guidance on coding implementation strategies

  • Provide readily available information regarding the Curriculum subjects to include coding 

  • Justify and exposure to the use of game-based learning and project-based methodologies

The website implements the following assets to achieve these aims:

  • Interactive video: The video uses embedded questions to ensure user participation, improve comprehension and promotes reflective learning.

  • Widgets: The whiteboard-, and matching widgets improves memorisation and internalisation of concepts learnt in the interactive videos as users reflect on and replicate elements of their learning.

  • Game-based learning: Users are exposed to embedded games to illustrates the possible implementation strategies schools can use to establish coding clubs 

  • Life Chat pop-up: The website allows for interactive feedback, question and answers and general information sharing between user and developer.

  • Online form: The website allows for communication between the user and developer to nominate themselves for volunteering work as a coding facilitator.

Implementation Strategy for  Coding Clubs: Learning to code

Schools need to adopt a structured approach for implementing coding. Equally important is the methodology used to introduce, excite and develop learners to participate and become skillful communicators and critical thinkers. The following structure is proposed:

To demystify the concept of coding it is recommended that learners are introduced to coding without the use of technology also referred to as Coding Unplugged. This would include pair and share work where learners practice to write logical instructions, decompose difficult tasks, and communicate their designs. 

Using game-based learning educators can leverage on the power of incidental learning. Pattern making, Logic thinking, and Algorithms associated with computational thinking can be taught with games such as Bee-Bots. Bee-Bots make use of directional instructions and not block or line coding. However, computational skills are the foundation for successful coding. Long before block coding or line coding are introduced, learners should be challenged to give instructions verbally or to use a toy/game such a Bee Bot to achieve an intended outcome. Next, Blocky games can be introduced. It is a series of challenges that teach learners various computer programming techniques through a self-pace interactive game. During the game, learners learn the foundations of algorithm-based concepts such as functions, logic, loops and variables.  

Now that the concept of coding has been demystified, the attention can shift to determine the appropriate coding language to implement at school level. An interesting game to explore is Code Monster for line coding or Scratch for block coding. Both these applications teach JavaScript. JavaScript, HTML and CSS are languages which are used to do front-end development of platforms (what the user interface looks like and how screen items react). To build the functionality for one platform to interact with another platform, you need to learn back end programming languages such as Python and C++. (CS Dojo, 2018)

Ideally a formal coding programme should be implemented using a scenario-based curriculum with a strong project-based methodology. Typically, this implies the context of a problem that needs solving. Whether it is a game where a bird needs to catch a worm or an app to address an identified problem in the community.

Conclusion

In addition to the development of computational thinking and related soft skills, coding also advances learner interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) which could potentially increase the prospect of the learner intake in these subjects. 

References

Central, C. (2019, 03 29). Could new school subjects prepare SA for the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Alverton Record. Retrieved from https://albertonrecord.co.za/204471/new-school-subjects-prepare-sa-fourth-industrial-revolution/

CS Dojo. (2018, 01 27). What Programming Language Should I Learn First? You Tube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=poJfwre2PIs

Schwab, K. (2018). The Global Competitiveness Report. Switzerland: World Economic Forum. Retrieved from http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GCR2018/05FullReport/TheGlobalCompetitivenessReport2018.pdf

Xulu, K. (2019, 04 26). Coding and Robotics gets the green light. Highway mail. Retrieved from https://highwaymail.co.za/318166/coding-and-robotics-curricula-gets-green-light/