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Tangible Coding Apps let Rural Kids Code Offline

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Vusi Melane
Vusi Melane
Staff Writer
A Kid
Coding leaner pupil

Believe it or not, introducing children to the excitement of coding doesn’t have to rely on having computers, high-speed Wi-Fi, or teachers with programming degrees. An “unplugged” coding game, developed by Nelson Mandela University- NMU, is garnering attention precisely because it operates offline, is free, and the primary “hardware” needed is eager young minds eager to enjoy learning while having fun.

Due to their accessibility and user-friendly interfaces, these offline coding applications—Tanks, Boats, and Rangers, with additional ones on the horizon—are aiding educational non-profits like Good Work Foundation- GWF in enhancing their coding and robotics programs.

GWF’s mission is to prepare young people in rural Mpumalanga and the Free State for the workplace driven by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They aim to equip them with life skills, digital knowledge, a creative mindset, and the ability to analyze and solve problems.

GWF operates six digital learning campuses furnished with computers, tablets, and coding robots. Additionally, they provide Lego kits for constructing robots from blocks and programming them to function. Moreover, they stress the significance of collaborative problem-solving by utilizing offline apps like Tanks, Boats, and Rangers.

Coding you can touch

Using only physical game tokens, a mobile app, and a smartphone or tablet, this concept introduces young people to coding. Known as “tangible coding,” it allows you to physically touch the code (i.e., the game tokens) as you plot it out. Coding and Robotics Coordinator at GWF Hazyview Digital Learning Campus, Patricia Ubisi, enthusiastically advocates for both online and offline coding as means to spark curiosity in young minds.

She says, “The children have so much fun while learning coding – and fun is one of our values at GWF. We use Tanks and Rangers on our campuses. Rangers, for example, is not just about coding – it also teaches young people about conservation and teamwork.”

Conservation awareness is crucial, given that most of GWF’s campuses border the Kruger National Park, and many of its students, equipped with the necessary skills, could potentially pursue careers in the local wildlife economy.

The Rangers app employs physical game tokens arranged on a black cloth to aid “game rangers” in outsmarting “rhino poachers” across various difficulty levels. Once the participants have devised a code to assist the rangers in safeguarding the endangered rhinos, a picture is taken with a tablet or smartphone and uploaded to the app. They then observe and adjust the code as the ranger progresses, navigating obstacles and deploying nets in an attempt to apprehend the poachers. It presents a challenging and educational experience.

These offline apps are the brainchild of Professor Jean Greyling, who leads the Department of Computing Sciences at NMU, and Byron Batteson, one of his former honors students.

Teaching problem-solving and teamwork

Prof. Greyling says, “In 2017, Byron submitted a proposal to teach kids coding without computers. Obviously, I was very excited, because if you are trying to market computer science in schools across the Eastern Cape but there are no computer labs there, you are talking into a vacuum.”

“But often students from the townships and rural areas would come into my office, saying we need to go and promote this discipline- computer science at their former schools because there is no awareness of it there. So, we decided to create an app to address the problem.”

The envisioned coding app needed to be free, not require a computer, operate without internet and electricity, and have a low barrier to entry for both learners and teachers. This was essential because many teachers lacking a programming background often struggle with the complexities of “traditional” coding applications. Over the seven years since its conception, the project has grown exponentially and undergone significant evolution.

“As we became more involved in the educational aspect of it, we realised the bigger impact beyond the ‘coding’ buzzword was teaching young people problem-solving – as well as 21st-century soft skills like computational thinking, communication, strategic thinking, perseverance, communication, collaboration and teamwork,” adds Prof. Greyling.

Today, the Tangible Africa joint venture apps, managed by the university and the Leva Foundation, are used in South Africa and five other African nations, gaining global attention from educational institutions and non-profits. Professor Greyling recounts inspiring stories of youths introduced to coding through these apps, many of whom pursue computer science studies and even become software developers.

“It’s helped to raise awareness of tech careers among kids and demystify the world of coding for teachers,” he adds.

In just a few short years, says Prof. Greyling, “At least 120 000 young people have benefited from these unplugged coding apps, with a further 16 000 participants in 22 countries using them to participate in the annual Coding 4 Mandela tournaments during 2023.”

Ubisi says GWF is already gearing up for this year’s tournament on 18 July – Madiba’s birthday. Its Open Learning Academy learners will be among the envisaged “30 000 learners celebrating 30 years of democracy”, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. An inter-campus coding competition will add extra spice to the occasion – last year, GWF had 55 teams competing in the tournament, with 212 staff and students joining in the fun.

Ubisi adds, “It’s part of how we as GWF help equip learners for their future careers, since as we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution more things will be done digitally – but skills taught by coding, such as problem-solving, will apply to any career.”

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