By Kerushun Pillay for The Witness
Once a specialist field for nerds, the world of coding has today become pretty much a norm in the career space — so much so that even basic administrative jobs require people to know basic coding.
And the trend is being felt strongly: several online platforms, including universities, are on offer for people to get quick crash courses in coding, in addition to a wealth of online resources and free coding software for anyone interested.
There are a few non-profit organisations teaching coding and advanced IT to impoverished schools, with other local organisations strongly advocating for coding to be taught to the youth.
The looming fourth industrial revolution — which is likely to kill the traditional “blue collar” line of work — has meant advanced IT skills is slowly becoming no longer just advantageous, but more of a requirement. And those who’ve mastered it have seen a whole new world open up, from new employment and freelance opportunities, to suddenly being sought-after in their fields.
A pupil entering Grade 1 this year will graduate in 2031 if they do a one-year post matric qualification, when the world — and more importantly, the job market — is vastly different.
Coders make up a huge portion of the increasingly popular “gig economy” — where freelancers are hooked up with companies.
Even a traditionally pen and paper industry like journalism is slowly beginning to value basic coding skills, with more international newsrooms listing knowledge of basic HTML coding as a requirement.
The Department of Basic Education (DBE) is making plans to implement coding into the school curricula for Grade R to Grade 9 starting from next year.
The Department of Basic Education is looking at introducing coding schools.
The DBE has developed a “framework of skills for a changing world” and provincial departments are already in the process of implementing them.
The DBE said the Council of Education Ministers had last year approved the implementation of a Coding and Robotics curriculum to begin during foundation phase.
“Teachers and learners will be able to respond to emerging technologies, including the Internet of things, robotics and artificial intelligence,” the department said.
The DBE has partnered with Unisa, which has made 24 IT labs available to train some 72 000 teachers in coding.
Unisa and the University of the North West are both working on developing the education framework for coding, the DBE said.
Those universities are also supporting the DBE to develop a coding platform which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to customise teaching and learning. That platform will be available in all 11 languages.
“There are plans in place to train at least three teachers in each of the 16 000 primary schools to teach coding.
“The implementation of Coding in the system will be preceded by a pilot project in 50 schools in five provinces during 2019, to ready the system and to ensure that the schools are prepared for full implementation post 2020,” said the DBE.
What is coding?
Coding makes it possible to create computer software, applications and websites. These are made using a specific coding language.
So how does coding help children?
The “four C’s of coding” enable pupils to make sense of the digital world and develop crucial skills for the future job market.
It encourages pupils to maintain a “can-do” attitude towards solving difficult problems. One of the coding concepts taught is debugging, where a coder has to identify and fix a bug. This process takes perseverance, and once it’s solved there is a sense of achievement and emboldened confidence in their coding abilities.
Coding encourages experimentation, making mistakes, exploring ideas and questioning assumptions. In doing so, pupils develop the mindset for creative thinking. Instead of being passive technology users, they become active inventors and innovators.
Working in teams is an essential life skill. Coding may be seen as an independent task, but it calls for collaboration and group work, since many projects or apps are designed by teams. Coding projects also involve liaising with and presenting ideas to clients.
4. Computational thinking
By starting young, children will be better prepared to succeed and thrive in the 21st century. Computational thinking provides children with a new way of thinking that can be used to solve a variety of problems.
Here are five coding languages you should look at if you’re interested in coding. These will allow you to create a fully responsive website.
1. HTML — Think of a website as a human body, with HTML — or Hypertext Markup Language — being the skeletal structure. HTML is the most basic level of a website where the coder inputs all the components in plain text.
2. CSS — If HTML is the skeleton, then CSS is the clothing. CSS — or Cascading Style Sheet — allows the coder to input colours and fonts and rearrange components — also known as elements — and design the website as required.
5. PhP — or Hypertext Processor — is a server side language which allows the coder to include a server on the website. A server is used for, among other things, storing usernames and passwords. Facebook, for example, relies on PhP to store users’ information.
How do I even start?
You can learn a number of coding languages right now and all you need is an internet connection. Here’s how:
1. Use online tutorials — free guides, like W3Schools for example, are available to help you learn programming languages and also have solutions to commonly experienced coding problems.
2. YouTube — There are several “code along” videos to get you into the groove of coding. There are also channels offering step-by-step tutorials for every language.
3. Try it out — You learn by doing, and coding is no different. Let’s say you want to design websites: take a website you like which has a simple design and try to code it yourself. Online resources like GitHub also offer countless examples for you to test out.
4. Google it — Encountering stumbling blocks is inevitable but rest assured as dozens of people have had the same problem and have posted a solution.
What the analysts say
Analysis felt the move to adopt coding in schools was a positive one, but say implementation could be a challenge.
Dr Anthea Cereseto, the national CEO of the Governing Body Foundation, said while the foundation had not yet adopted a standpoint on the issue, the country could not risk being “left behind” while technology advances.
“We will advise schools to keep up with modern advances and coding is part of the future. The problem is with funding, and while we can’t neglect coding, attention must also be given to other shortfalls,” she said.
Cereseto said the department needed to weigh covering “essentials”, like early childhood development, while implementing coding: “There is a finite budget and the department has to prioritise properly. Recently, department expenditure has been declining.”
She added: “It should also be broadly rolled out and can’t only be introduced in elite pockets. Right now only the elite can get [coding] training if they pay for it, and some schools offer it. But it needs to be rolled out in schools or else the equity gap will be increased.”
Cereseto said training teachers would be another challenge: “Learning coding is not an overnight thing. They need to be trained properly and then we need the resources because something like coding can’t just be theoretical.”
Education analyst Professor Labby Ramrathan said: “It’s a big step, and introducing coding is more useful than introducing more languages. It would allow the curriculum to align itself with education for relevance.”
He said the DBE’s pilot roll-out will provide a sense of what is needed for proper implementation.
Tech guru Arthur Goldstuck said learning coding was like learning another language, as it will allow young people to understand the advancing world.
“It is wonderful to expose children to it and they will find a whole new world open up, but teachers generally don’t learn new concepts and we can’t start rolling it out until that happens.
“Resources are another challenge, but if money is taken from places where there is misspending and put in education there should be no problem,” Goldstruck said.
He added that schools should also look at teaching entrepreneurial skills, which go hand-in-hand with freelance coding and collaborating with other people.
It’s all the rage
Pupils are enthusiastic about coding, and it allows them to improve their creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
This is according to advocates for taking coding to the youth who run workshops at schools and offer coding training.
Stefan Louw, the co-founder of the CodeSpace Foundation, said learning how to code made technology more meaningful to pupils, and that it allowed pupils to think creatively to solve problems.
The foundation tasks pupils with project-based work in order to build their skills.
“When you’re learning, you’re making mental models and building things up in your mind, and when you’re applying that knowledge, you’re building something in your mind — that’s when you’re really learning effectively.
“The theory suggests that it’s by working through problems that are part of a larger project that students are able to ‘build’ the learning that will stick with them to be applied to future problems,” he said.
He added that his foundation will soon introduce robotics to schools.
“The job market is already experiencing a massive shift as automation becomes a reality: low-skill or unskilled labour is increasingly automated, but it’s definitely not all bad news.
“There’s a considerable opportunity for employment in this field, and a tech education can allow South Africa to leapfrog into a position of frontrunner in the world of innovation, if we’re able to provide tech education that will allow us to meet the worldwide demand for skilled, talented programmers.”
He said the current school system was “outdated” and there was now the opportunity to integrate IT to the point where it enhances learning across classes.
CodeJIKA, a non-profit which takes coding to schools, echoed Louw, saying that young people would not understand the demands of the new job market without being exposed to coding at an early age.
According to CodeJIKA, who have established pupil-run coding clubs in high schools, contrary to the perception that advanced computer skills are only valuable in IT professions, over 70% of computing jobs are outside that industry.
The organisation believes a knowledge of computer science is increasingly critical in research, finance and manufacturing.