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Why Tangible Africa teaches coding without computers

At last month’s AWS Summit Johannesburg, a handful of customers got the opportunity to take the stage during the keynote presentation and tell their stories.

One of those Amazon Web Services customers was non-profit organisation Leva Foundation, whose engagement manager, Jackson Tshabalala told attendees more about Tangible Africa, and how the organisation is tackling the issue of technology skills development by taking the concept of coding offline.

The NPO is also expanding its learning model beyond South Africa, with learning coding offline seemingly a concept that can be applied in other countries like SA, where a distinct digital divide exists.

To gain a better understanding of how offline coding works at Tangible Africa, we spoke with Tshabalala.

Here’s what he shared.

Hypertext: So how does Tangible Africa fit in with the Leva Foundation and its objectives?

Jackson Tshabalala: Leva Foundation is a non-profit based in Gqeberha. What we really do is unlock opportunities for people to enter the economy. We do this by offering them vocational skills through one of our programs called Work for a Living, which is a job skills centre.

Another thing we have is the Red Band Barista Academy, where we teach people how to make a good coffee, how to run a coffee bar, and that allows them to be employable.

So we try to see how do we get people working or starting a business.

The Leva Foundation partnered with the Nelson Mandela University through Professor Jacques Greyling, and we said we have this project and we need to see how we can roll it out across South Africa, and Africa.

The project is Tangible Africa, which introduces coding without the use of computers. This allows us to go into any remote village, or a township where there are no computers in those schools.

Using our physical tokens which have QR codes on them that serve as instructions (turn left, turn right, move forward, move backwards, shoot, action, etc.), when the learners get our games, there are certain vehicles that need to reach a pre-determined location. By using those physical tokens, and looking at the game app, they actually end up using physical tokens with digital technology to learn coding concepts.

So it’s about playing and having fun, and gamification, within a coding environment.

Hypertext: The game sounds really interesting, as AWS has its own DeepRacer solution designed to teach developers to work with machine learning concepts. Is that something you’re aware of, or would ever look into?

JT: Not yet. When we started with Tangible Africa it was basically the game and offline solutions. What we saw is that for sustainability to happen, we need to start online solutions as well, because that’s where we want the learners to eventually get to.

How do they develop apps, how do they work on Python and C#, so we’ve recently been exploring online alternatives.

So DeepRacer is something we’d be interested in looking into as we develop our Tangible Academy. These are academies where learners can come and learn Python, Java, or C#.

Hypertext: Can you touch on the importance of gamification when it comes to delivering these offline coding sessions?

JT: We found that learners learn best when playing. When they’re having fun, they don’t have to memorise concepts like parrots, and when you play, you don’t mind losing or failing. There is a fear in traditional academia that you cannot get any answer wrong, so when kids play and get the answer wrong, they often see whether they can debug for example, and try to correct it.

So we are really keen on seeing opportunities for kids to learn through play.

Hypertext: As far as Tangible Africa’s approach is concerned, offline learning is designed to spark inspiration, and online learning is to take things to the next step. Is that right?

JT: Yes. Offline is all about awareness and instilling the idea that you can think computationally without digital resources. It’s a framework of thinking.

From there we can explore anytime kind of context or environment. We can go into deep rural Ghana, we can go into deep rural Kenya because that offline learning makes use of physical tools to create the concept of coding.

Online is focused on getting these learners to a library that is connected to the internet, and from there, what further can they learn and explore.

Hypertext: Lastly, where does AWS fit into the picture?

JT: As an NPO we are limited in terms of resources. Post-pandemic there has been a lot of talk around donor fatigue, but that’s not the case with AWS.

Amazon has helped to sponsor, fund, and fan our spark, supporting our initiatives across Africa and launching abroad.

In Cape Town, for example, we reached roughly 10 000 learners by training 100 “mamas”. These were women who weren’t employed and knew nothing about coding, so Amazon said we will give you guys funding to train these mamas, and they would then impact their communities by teaching 1 000 children each to code.

Those mamas got paid, so they got an employment opportunity, and they also got educated.

So initiatives like that with Amazon are how they’re really impacting us.

[Image – Photo by Clément Hélardot on Unsplash]

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