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Posted by on Nov 6, 2016

pi-top, Ekobits, and Digital Citizens Fund: Running the Gamut in Coding & ICT Education

Raspberry Pi

Reposting this here from Panoply Digital. Picking up where I left off in a previous blog post on learn to code initiatives, today we have a few more entries into the rather large field. Yet these aren’t initiatives focusing on learning to code as an end in itself, but rather as building capacity for actually doing something. Before diving in, we need to be critical about learning to code initiatives. We need to know how they empower (or not) teachers, how they teach (or not) critical thinking skills, how they prepare (or not) students for an undefined future. Coding is great but I don’t see it as an end to itself. And these initiatives seem to agree with me.

The first is a London-based computing and learn to code startup called pi-top makes clever use of the Raspberry-Pi computer by developing a laptop housing kit for the pi microprocessor. The laptops emerged from an initial crowdfunding campaign straight into a considerable amount of Series A funding; a series of kits are being sold now and all looks promising.

As an education person, I am less interested in the funding or the specs (although it is a nifty idea) so let’s focus on the educational application: since “the team makes software designed to make learning to code simpler and more fun for a target age range of roughly 10- to 16-year-olds” and they are touting their desktop version-pi-topCEED– “as the perfect desktop for the classroom environment.” I would argue that is mostly due to its design (the thing screams out to be tinkered with) and CEEDUniverse, a “MMORG but with the game lore integrally linked with coding and practical computing skills”, which they tout as: “Throughout CEEDuniverse you’ll discover technologies left behind by the previous civilisation. You can learn from them and add to your crafting tree. You’ll learn to use complicated features and functions, such as loops, to advance further in the game.” Gamification of learning with coding not as explicit as other initiatives seem to position it; it is within the games, the universe that the coding emerges as a means of communication, a language to keep playing.

And they have content directed, sort of, at educators themselves, although it appears to be mostly of the follow the workbook/linear oriented sort of activity. I want more critical thinking in the mix here, perhaps even gamifying issues like data collection and overreach, surveillance, and power and political issues embedded in coding. Granted, these are designed for 10-16 year olds but I want critical thinking to parallel technological capacity at all times. However, we need to be wary of the sort of empty edtech marketing speak that accompanies claims that “these tools will have students achieving higher grades in computing and STEM subjects in “three to six months of play”. Oh yeah? Also, grades are proxies for core competencies so improving scores doesn’t interest me as much (even if there was evidence for this claim) as the competencies themselves.

In terms of their use in development, not yet I would wager as the price tag ($264.99) is actually more than many laptops cost. So one would really have to sell this as a DIY educational coding initiative and larger ecosystem rather than as about building digital literacy. We saw something similar with One Laptop Per Child, a larger ecosystem of activity, content, software, and hardware; perhaps pi-top learned a valuable lesson from OLPC and are directing their efforts towards emerged rather than emerging markets.

There are more that I will highlight in subsequent posts, such as EkoBits Academy, “a youth based social enterprise that uses ICT multimedia creatively to improve the lives of less privileged youth from the non-formal settlement. The target population for Ekobits is vulnerable youth in Lagos, Nigeria. …Ekobits is offering ICT training for these youth to give them skills to enable them engage in gainful income generating activities…The training curricula is based on creativity and encompasses marketable applications including web-design and development.”

Brilliant intersection of all the bits I believe make for good education. Need (less privileged youth), mentorship (internships), connection between the abstract (creativity) and the concrete (entrepreneurship). Some sustainability built right in from the sudden employability of its graduates. Well done.

Also, is the coding Afghanistan for young women movement almost single-handedly developed and executed by Roya Mahboob, one of Afghanistan’s first ever female technology CEOs. “Ninety percent of the employees at Mahboob’s software company – Afghan Citadel Software – were female, with this employment giving them desperately-needed independence from the men in their lives.” Further is the the Digital Citizens Fund – which gives digital education and access to women in Afghanistan. Despite death threats and treason accusations, 9,000 young women have been educated at her ten centres in Kabul and Herat. Another post for another day.

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