Training African youth in coding and robotics has never been more urgent

Only through a joint and concerted effort by all African stakeholders (ministries, foundations, NGOs, specialized training providers and other agile startups) will the keys to the future be handed over to our children, whose creative potential only needs to be unlocked.

A coding and robotics class at Happy Coders Academy in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. 2019. Photo: Happy Coders Academy.

This post is the fifth in a blog series published in 2020 in the context of collaboration between the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), started in 2017.

As the digital revolution forges ahead, radically changing our manufacturing processes and distribution channels, digital technology has now ceased to be reserved for overqualified tech experts or geeks working in IT departments.

The speed and scope of this revolution is unprecedented in human history and it’s inconceivable that the economic divide between Africa and the rest of the world should be widened by creating another divide—this time digital.

Consequently, while digital technology is becoming increasingly integrated in our daily lives—mainly thanks to the improvement in phone networks on our continent, which have made their way into our homes and workplaces—mere access, though clearly necessary, is no longer sufficient.

If our young people are to be represented and competitive at the global level, they can no longer allow themselves to be confined to an implementation role.

To be driving forces and active participants rather than bystanders in tomorrow’s world, they must master the key aspects of these digital languages and robotics. This means that they must understand how these technologies work and, more important, they must know how to be innovative in this context and unlock their creative potential.

The importance of coding for education and training in Africa

Programming languages (coding) and robotics are now more accessible than they were before, both financially (most languages are free as open source products) and technically, because of their “textualization” (command block assembly) as well as the plethora of online tools and tutorials that make learning them a basic and accessible exercise for everyone.

The challenge is not so much one of access but rather one of usage. Users must learn how to think with these tools, and to create, innovate and integrate them into much broader and deeper thought processes. In essence, users must relearn to learn while taking advantage of the inherent positive effects of learning computer coding and robotics.

Through exposure to coding and robotics, children acquire essential cognitive skills that can be useful in learning any academic material (whether or not scientific). By learning to code, children will become familiar with problem-solving techniques and develop their critical thinking skills. They will have to precisely identify and isolate the issue to be addressed, identify its root causes, and then test the potential solutions to be applied to it. They will also develop their sequencing abilities by organizing their actions in a coherent and logical order (algorithms).

Coding unlocks creativity

A coding and robotics class at Happy Coders Academy in Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire. 2019. Photo: Happy Coders Academy

Coding also fosters independence and unlocks the creative potential of children. By discovering how to create miniature action scenes or games on their own, children are encouraged to use their initiative.

Furthermore, they learn to use their imaginations and creativity, as they must design, predict and then deploy screen sequences. Even a very simple computer problem can be solved in 500 different ways. Children therefore develop their own style and use original thinking to devise their own solutions.

Children ultimately acquire an intuitive understanding of the world around them. These “digital natives” will therefore be able to impact the world in a way that will propel overall societal advancement; They will also possess the key skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

According to the most recent report on the jobs of tomorrow published by the World Economic Forum, the professions of the future will increasingly require both digital and human skills. The key professional clusters that are emerging reflect the adoption of new technologies, leading to greater demand for green economy jobs, jobs in the data and AI fields, as well as those in engineering, cloud computing, robotics, and product development.

While we do not know what the jobs of tomorrow will be, one thing is certain: programming skills are needed in all professions—from doctors to mechanics!

Overcoming bias

Teaching computer coding in schools can lead to resistance at different levels of education systems. Some educators, teachers, policymakers and even parents may be opposed to the idea of teaching coding to children, believing that the material is complex and should be reserved for the more advanced educational levels.

We think it imperative that children, as well as teachers and parents, understand the challenge of introducing this new multidisciplinary academic content. An enormous task lies ahead, as this involves teaching new material without having a pedagogical team with prior training in this field and in a context where educators often still belong to an era where, from a disciplinary standpoint, their training was based on a vertical specialization model.

To meet this challenge successfully, partnerships among schools, enterprises, universities, regional and local authorities, private education stakeholders, parents of students and research entities are critical.

Let us build the bridges needed among the different stakeholders to successfully face this challenge together, for the sake of our continent.

Why partnerships are essential

First, it is imperative that the different education ministries in our countries incorporate computer coding and robotics instruction into school curricula as early as possible (starting in the lower grades, with a greater mix of offline/online activities so as to limit screen time and encourage hands-on experimentation).

Second, schools clearly need to continue to be given the tools essential for this learning (computers, internet connections, educational robots). This must also be part of a joint initiative involving all relevant stakeholders (ministries, foundations, NGOS, specialized training providers), so as to encourage African youth to learn coding.

However, in addition to developing the “hardware,” which many countries are currently doing reasonably well, the keys to this specific mode of learning must also be handed over to school teachers. In other words, the “software” or learning methodology, namely “active pedagogy,” needs to be developed.

This is the biggest challenge that involves changes in pre-service training, the ad hoc recruitment of trainers, incentive-based continuing education proposals to teachers, etc.

The Happy Coders Academy methodology

Happy Coders Academy (HCA), a vibrant African startup launched in 2015, has become one of the main entities providing training in digital tools to African youth. Its goal is to equip African millennials with all the tools needed to succeed in an increasingly digitized world.

With three laboratories already operating in Cote d’Ivoire, Morocco and Senegal, the startup emphasizes active pedagogy based on investigation, research and experimentation.

Through workshops on coding, 3D modeling, video game design and, of course, robotics, the 20 HCA professional facilitators share their passion daily with children or teachers via programs designed to train the trainers.

Since its launch, more than 10,000 children and 500 teachers have already been introduced to its learning programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic requires radical action

With the coronavirus in our midst, we no longer have a choice! This crisis could have a salutary effect on Africa. It has underscored the importance of very rapidly eliminating the digital divide currently denying millions of children access to education and heightening inequality.

We must radically change the vision underlying our educational models. We must chart a course for our future.

Let us build the schools that reflect the Africa that we want! Schools that will train African youth whose potential only needs to be unlocked. Schools that will cast aside conventional roles and will need a genuine trust-based contract between the State, the private sector, and associations.