Get with the program

LAST year, the UK became the first country to make computer programming a compulsory school subject.

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CodeX: Sought-after skills, useful in many areas.  Picture: CODEX ELIZABETH GOULD

CodeX: Sought-after skills, useful in many areas. Picture: CODEX ELIZABETH GOULD

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Last week, legislators in the US state of Utah approved a bill that will give primary and high school students equipment to learn coding.

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Both examples acknowledge that code learning teaches children problem-solving and creativity. It also gives them a skill they will have for life.

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Being able to code could soon become an essential skill to have in any field, not just for career coders or people who intend to pursue technology businesses.

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Coding is language used to write a program using a computer. Using step-by-step commands, coding tells a computer what to do. It makes it possible for people to create computer software, apps and websites.

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For career coders, that’s an essential skill. But it could also be an add-on skill that would enable a business owner to create a website, or a tech-savvy doctor to build an app that would assist his or her patients remotely.

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Supporters of coding say toddlers can learn it, and there are online platforms that teach coding to children or adults.

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Elizabeth Gould, TV producer and CEO of recently established organisation codeX, says the need for coding skills is especially acute in SA, in every sector of the economy. “Every business, organisation and government agency needs a digital presence. It’s [difficult] to come up with hard statistics because it crosses every sector,” she says.

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Gould believes that coding should form part of the SA school curriculum: “Coding is a language everyone should learn, and everyone knows you learn best the younger you are.”

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There are hundreds of free online resources for teachers to incorporate into their curricula, says Gould.

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CodeX, which was created about a year ago in Cape Town, offers apprenticeship programmes where developers can learn coding and engage with industry professionals and mentors. Successful applicants can pay off their course fees by working with technology companies.

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Gould says codeX had 800 applicants during its pilot period last year but accepted just 11 students.

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It will be starting with 20-25 students this month and plans to open a branch in Johannesburg later this year. “Unfortunately, as universally useful as coding skills are, there’s not enough practical training happening yet in SA,” says Gould.

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CodeX isn’t the only organisation that teaches coding. Technology entrepreneur Baratang Miya has been teaching schoolgirls from Cape Town townships like Khayelitsha how to code for the past 10 years through her organisation, Girl Hype. Miya says smartphone adoption has fuelled the development of mobile applications, making coding a valuable and sought-after skill.

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“For schoolchildren, coding will be like learning a new language,” she says.

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Miya, who is also the manager of proof of concept of incubation programme Bandwidth Barn Khayelitsha — a subsidiary of the Cape IT Initiative — says Girl Hype teaches schoolgirls the basics of coding using Java. And it has been able to draw volunteers from universities and start-ups who teach other coding programmes.

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“In the beginning it is hard for some girls and 90% of them are often not interested. But once they see what they can do with coding, they start loving it,” Miya says.

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Girl Hype trains about 50 learners a year. It accommodates boys during school holidays. Teaching girls, Miya says, helps remove the belief that sectors like information and technology are better suited to men .

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“Most of the girls going through our training are so good, we just need to help them gain confidence,” she says. Already, some of her students have developed ideas for apps which will be entered into an international competition called the Technovation Challenge.

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Girl Hype aims to expand nationally and has begun to teach schoolteachers how to code. It works directly with schools in Khayelitsha.

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This year, the US embassy will bring specialists from US-based nonprofit organisation Girls Who Code to Gauteng and the Western Cape. Girls Who Code aims to bridge the gender gap in what has traditionally been a male-dominated sector.

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A global initiative, the Technovation Challenge is also designed to inspire girls in technology and entrepreneurship . The challenge, which arrived in SA last year, helps girls learn how to code apps and to pitch them as potential businesses. – Financial Mail