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Posted by on Jun 27, 2016

Teaching Coding to Kids: Caveats and Initiatives from Africa and Asia

noun_45869Reposting here from Panoply Digital.

Teaching coding to children is, if press reports are to be believed, an educational imperative, some sort of literacy that children can’t live without in the 21st century. We see initiatives throughout the world in the UK (with the express goal of creating a ‘code-literate’ society), the EU, and elsewhere, all presenting the imperative of CODE.org that “leaders and trend-setters all agree on one thing.” Coding=core literacy.

Rasberry Pi and BBC’s micro:bit make the technology accessible. Scratch, Minecraft, and Tynker make it a game. But it all still revolves around that core belief that coding is an imperative. Which might be true but certainly isn’t the whole story. And I wouldn’t even argue against that imperative all that much, despite the misunderstandings from both teachers and tech leaders. I would just qualify it by stating that we should be highlighting examples from developing regions, where educational initiatives tend to have fewer mouthpieces and talking heads, but no less impact. And, as always, we should diversify a bit by making sure teacher training mandates are out front and that coding is linked to curriculum, rather than merely upskilling.

We have Africa Code Week, which attempted in 2015 to teach 20,000 children to code in one week and to date has reached 88,000 through 3000 different coding events on the continent. 20,000+ in Cote D’Ivoire alone. Not bad. AFRICODERDOJO takes a more grassroots approach to the same goal. One of my favorites, and one nearer Panoply Digital’s core, is GirlsCode which works with vulnerable young girls in Nigeria by teaching how to code. A part of Pearls Africa, GirlsCode “entails training young girls from underserved communities in tech tools and different programming languages such as HTML, CSS, Java, and Scratch for the purpose of economy independence, and then connects them with female mentors and technology companies on internship.” There are more regionally specific examples like the Ghana Code Club.  Andela applies a lot of the same Silicon Valley venture capital investment trope to the equation, complete with the Zuckerberg funding. Some momentum across the spectrum there with some potential pitfalls as well.

In Southeast Asia, we see similar initiatives with UNESCO & InSTEDD YouthMobile Initiative in Cambodia (and elsewhere), initiatives in Vietnam and Girl Will Code in the Philippines, with some parallel development in Myanmar. All positive developments. Northeast Asia is well ahead of the curve here with coding being a part of the Korean formal and mandatory elementary curriculum by 2017. China takes this up a notch with many Chinese children now “getting exposed to coding by the time they reach preschool, as private coding classes for youngsters open up.” Whether a bandwagon, a fad, or a permanent addition to formal curricula, it is hard to deny the momentum.

My real caution here, particularly in developing regions, is to diversify a bit. Coding is not the sum total of the design experience. It alone won’t take you from Point A to B (although it certainly helps). Coding does just what it says it does: it codes in the flows of activity or communication that we want to stimulate. You need to view the rest of this like architecture; we are building structure. Structure to communicate, to scaffold, to design a workflow. Coding is a huge part of that, for sure, but so is the flow itself. Who is communicating, how do they communicate, and how can we support that communication through a flow of activity. We can teach that flow through tools with easy visual interfaces like Textit. We can teach children how to build for SMS or smartphones but to do so in a way that targets those who are missing out on all the coding hoopla.

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