The Status of Coding and Robotics in South African Schools

The Status of Coding and Robotics in South African Schools
The world as we know it continues to rapidly change because of technology.  The careers of the future, across disciplines, are leaning more and more heavily on computer-based skills, with data scientist skills specifically high in demand. The response of the South African Basic Education sector to these developments resulted in the release of the Digital Skills Curriculum for Grades R to 9. According to the Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga, the teaching of this new subject “aims to equip learners to contribute in a meaningful and successful way in a rapidly changing and transforming society”. Since school forms part of a much bigger ecosystem in which we all co-exist, it has the responsibility to prepare and sufficiently equip learners for both post-graduate studies and the world of work, addressing the need for more entrepreneurs and innovators.

A webinar on the Status of Coding and Robotics in South African Schools, hosted by ASSAf on 28 April 2021 – brought together experts from the public and private sector to discuss the teaching of coding and robotics in schools.

Prof Hussein Suleman, Acting Director of the School of Information Technology and Head of Department and Professor in Computer Science at the University of Cape Town (UCT), shared his views on the end goal of teaching coding and robotics on school level, and the foundational skills that are required by industry, universities, and other higher education institutions to sufficiently prepare learners and make the transition between school, those institutions and the world of work, seamless.

Societies all over are changing because of technology. Banks, smart phones, transport (e.g. taxi industry and self-driving cars, self-navigating drones), communication (e.g. the fax machine), medicine, entertainment, and online shopping are all driven by technology. 3D printed houses can address a key developmental need in SA. We need a variety of people with a variety of skills to create the future world and the technology to support this future world, including entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers, engineers, designers and more. To study computer science on tertiary level, the most important requirement is that students have strong mathematical skills, computational thinking skills and also strong language and communication skills. Coding is not a pre-requisite to enrol for computer science since it can be taught. What universities do not want is a whole cohort of students having had bad experiences of coding and technology in high school.

Context is further critical. In the South African environment, transformation is imperative. Diversity in technology skills is something that needs to be addressed now. Whether in a private or public school – all children should be equally exposed, and we need to get good teachers into our schools.

Emma Dicks, founder and director at CodeSpace, agreed that learners should be inspired and have positive experiences so that they will continue their studies in coding. Our country needs more code developers, and it will be of great benefit for our economy. Currently work is outsourced out of the country since we do not have sufficient people with the required skills.

Dicks confirmed that language and mathematical literacy skills are essential to learn coding (indeed for all future learning and problem solving) yet the average primary school child in our country is not proficient in foundational skills. 78% of grade four learners cannot read for meaning in any language, and 61% of grade five children cannot do basic mathematics (Dicks, 2020). She is of the opinion that many schools will not be able to cope, detracting from basic foundational skills. A good approach would be to focus on foundational skills/literacies at primary schools, and to only make technology laboratories available at secondary school level. We are in a crucial moment in our education system and should take a sober look at how robotics and coding are introduced in schools. We should avoid entrenching further inequality in our education system.

Prof Jean Greyling, Associate Professor in Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha, shared experiences from the TANKS coding project, through which they also encourage schools to start their own planning and coding clubs. Skills required for the 4IR are directly linked to coding and robotics. There are however a few challenges that should be addressed:

  • Not all schools are ready to adopt the new curriculum. 16 000 out of 25 000 schools lack technology laboratories.
  • Teachers are not sufficiently trained to offer coding and robotics.
  • Schools do not have technical staff to maintain laboratories. There are many dysfunctional laboratories across our country.
  • Learners, parents, teachers, and headmasters experience FOMO – the fear of missing out. While they see what is happening at other schools, they are concerned since their schools do not have the necessary resources.

Prof Greyling suggested the following when implementing the new digital literacy curriculum:

  • Teaching coding and robotics in schools should not be dependent on technology laboratories.
  • School days should not be lengthened.
  • Get rid of some content from the current draft curriculum.
  • Keep it fun – learners should enjoy coding and robotics.

Mr Jonathan Freese, Chief Education Specialist (Technology), Department of Basic Education, Western Cape Government, shared that the ultimate aim of teaching coding and robotics in schools is to assist learners to be globally relevant and employable.

The Digital Skills Curriculum design started in 2017. The orientation of pilot teachers began on 26 April 2021, which included a 40 hour course completed at the end of May. The new curriculum will be implemented as follows:

2021: Foundation Phase (200 schools) and Grade 7 (1 000 schools)
2022: Intermediate Phase (200 schools) and Grade 8 (1 000 schools)
2023: Grade 9 (1 000 schools)
2024: Coding & Robotics compulsory as a stand alone subject for gr R-9

As far as teacher training concerns: teachers will receive 160 hours training through UNISA, and a blended approach will be followed.

Freese emphasised that coding is essential since every career will involve some level of coding. Coding and robotics can support language and mathematics competency. “We have to do things different to get different results”.