Is teaching children how to code to prep them for a digital future and to fill the skills gap in the job market, writes Christina Kennedy
Eight-year-old girls are meant to play with dolls and do girly things, right? Most definitely not, says Lindiwe Matlali, founder and “chief volunteer” at Africa Teen Geeks, which is getting tweens and teens hooked on computer coding as a stepping stone to a career in programming. This Gauteng-based not-for-profit organisation focuses on both boys and girls, but Matlali and her team of volunteers have made a concerted effort to bump up the proportion of girls enrolled in the programme from 20% two years ago to 50% today.
There is much talk about boosting maths and science literacy in South African schools, which was in the spotlight again this week as the nation was embarrassed anew by the dismal performance of its learners in a global education study.
But little is said about the need to develop competency in computer science and coding – a 21st-century skill that will be critical to the workplaces of the future, Matlali explains. But it’s more immediate than that: there’s a shortage of Java development skills right now, according to the labour department.
That’s why she’s made it her mission to get coding into the classroom and make it cool for kids – and now geeksin-training all over the country are getting switched on to technology, in bits and bytes. The organisation’s Saturday classes at Unisa labs have reached more than 1 000 youngsters so far, and by going to schools to train teachers in how to teach coding, the “geek team” is paying it forward even more.
“I got involved in coding by chance,” Matlali explains. While attending a programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) a few years ago, she was struck by an eight-year-old girl who presented an app she had created.
“She was amazing – she was answering technical questions in a way you’d expect from an IT executive. I was so inspired, and I thought: ‘Why in South Africa are we not creating opportunities like this?’ I knew it was all about exposure to technology, not about how smart our kids were.”
She was alarmed to discover that the official government school curriculum only teaches information and communication technology (ICT) from Grade 10 onwards – but most of that takes place in former Model C schools. And it’s only the top private schools that are teaching the skill of coding – which goes beyond creating and typing in a Microsoft Word document.
Township and rural schools either don’t have computer labs or, in cases where they do, the teachers haven’t been trained to impart the skills – so the machines gather dust, expensive white elephants.
“If you go to a township school, chances are you’ll never touch a computer till you get to university,” she says matter-of-factly.
Much of the problem also has to do with perceptions. “Children think computer science is hard or geeky. The world is going more digital and there’s a shortage of coders, but we’re producing children who have no skill or interest in this field,” says Matlali.
“That’s why we wanted to open a conversation about teaching kids technology and building a pipeline. We want them to think: ‘I, too, can become a Mark Zuckerberg [the founder of Facebook].’”
She formed Africa Teen Geeks in 2014, which joined forces with Unisa to teach children how to code at the university’s computer labs – first in Johannesburg, but now expanding nationwide.
“Now, I’ve got kids as young as six who are coding already – some can’t even speak English, but they’re getting the skills and exposure to help them get ahead. But it’s important for the programme to be sustainable to have an impact, not ‘touch and go’.”
Africa Teen Geeks helps, among others, vulnerable children through the welfare services. “These kids come from difficult circumstances and can’t even look you in the eye. In the space of a year on the programme, they are confident. One of them, a 16-year-old, created a styling app for women during the Festival of Code. When asked why she was doing it, she replied: ‘Because I’m a
Agirl geek and I’m proud.’” Now that the programme has hit its straps, technology companies, banks, government entities, the SABC Foundation and other businesses have started coming to the party with partnerships and sponsorship. In October, the organisation hosted its second Festival of Code at Unisa, where 100 top young “geeks” aged between nine and 18 gathered to learn about Java programming and entrepreneurship. Senior international ICT personalities such as Robinne Burrell, the executive chair of digital platforms at the Academy of Television in the US, came to inspire children and show them how to build a working prototype of their digital ideas. Among the stars of the show was Phumzile Mthombeni (10) from Middelburg in Mpumalanga, who impressed so much with her first attempt at coding that she inspired the organisation’s #GirlGeek initiative. “She had never seen or touched a computer, but was such a natural. It just made you think how good these children could be if they are exposed to coding and given opportunities,” Matlali reflects. The Festival of Code participants had been identified as showing promise and aptitude during Computer Science Week, where children from township schools are introduced to computer science at Unisa labs around the country. Now, many are starting their journey to become certified as junior Java developers – handing them the gift of an opportunity to change their lives.
Next year, thanks to a partnership with the Mpumalanga basic education department, Africa Teen Geeks will be piloting coding in eight provincial schools. Four Gauteng schools will also take part. The Oracle Academy will help train the teachers, who will use free periods or life orientation periods to teach coding. But this is just the start of what Matlali hopes will become the norm.
“We want to get code taught as part of the curriculum,” says Matlali, “with a focus on primary schools. Kids who can code do well in maths. They learn how to think logically. If you know the skill of coding, you can immediately go to work, even if you can’t attend university. We need to start exposing these kids and showing them what they are able to achieve. We need to invest in the digital revolution – and not just through internet connectivity and data.”
Another Africa Teen Geeks project for next year is Knit 2 Code, which aims to get young township girls interested in technology by linking knitting to computer science. No computer access is needed for this novel initiative that has been developed specifically for the African context in conjunction with Matlali’s former MIT professor. “It doesn’t cost anything except wool and needles – about R20 – so it’s very cost-effective,” she explains.
“Coding teaches you how to create software and be creative. So it’s not just about learning how to use the programs, but actually creating them. You can sit and create a new game that’s even better than the one you’re currently playing. Don’t just use software; create it.”
MIND THE APP Lucinda Coetzee is a proud geek, she’s learning the skills that will be critical to the workplaces of the future