The University of Nairobi’s Professor Bitange Ndemo shares on why all children must learn to code as it enhances their creativity.
Across the world, the conversion of information into a digital format – also called “digitalisation” – has increased productivity in the public and private sectors. As a result, virtually every country in the world is working towards a digital economy.
As this new economy evolves, special skills like computer programming are needed. This is like a language of numbers, known as code, which allows people to write instructions that are executed by computers. The goal is to create something: from a web page to an image, to a piece of software.
Early coding languages emerged in the 1940s. These were basic in what they could do but complex to learn and needed an advanced understanding of maths. By the 1990s – when universities, businesses, and people started to connect over the internet – computing speed and memory improved to use high-level coding languages.
Nobody can escape the touch of digital technologies. It’s used in fields as diverse as hospital equipment, remote education delivery, marketing creative art pieces or improving agricultural productivity.
Coding language develops the software that can effectively deal with problems and challenges – for instance, because of coding, people who couldn’t get a bank account can now keep, send and borrow money using mobile phones. It’s an important skill to have as countries develop.
In the past four decades, several studies have assessed the effect of learning code on primary school children – usually between the ages of six and 13. In each case, the findings show that it is beneficial to children, irrespective of their career path later on in life.
Coding is just another language, and children are known to learn new languages faster than older people. So starting young is a good idea.
Several countries – including Australia, Finland, Italy, and England – have developed coding curriculum for children between the ages of five and 16 years.
Coding language works with zeros (0s) and ones (1s) and strings of these numbers represent an alphabet. These then translate into words and sentences which triggers the computer or processor to initiate specific tasks. For example, print an image on a screen, open a document that is saved in a computer or play some music.
There are various coding languages. Some are so easy to understand and work with that even children can learn them. Visual programming languages – like Scratch – have been developed to help children learn code using images, signs and diagrams. Other programming languages that children can use include Python, Ruby and Go.
Most of these languages can be used to write a series of commands or to develop web applications.
Benefits of coding
Aside from giving them a head start for the future of work, compared to other forms of numeric sciences, learning code can enhance children’s creativity.
For instance, much of teaching math in Africa is still done through rote learning, a pedagogical method that is outdated and discourages creativity in children. Rote learning is based on memorization of information and repetition, “parroting” so to speak. Research shows that rote learning isn’t effective because the learner rarely gets to understand the application of what they have learnt.
By comparison, coding builds logical thinking as it requires a focus on solving a specific challenge. This teaches children to evaluate situations from different angles and come up with creative solutions. They also get to test these ideas and, if they don’t work, figure out what went wrong.
Access to coding
Broadband and digital devices – such as computers and smartphones – are key tools for learning how to code. Access and affordability of these is essential. Governments must invest in broadband so that high quantities of data can be transmitted at high speeds. They should also provide subsidies, or at least not tax information and communications technology (ICT) tools, so that more children can learn coding at home or at school.
Many African countries, like Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Rwanda, have taken steps to reform the ICT sector and expand broadband capacity.
In Kenya, the government is aware of the need for ICT education and has started to integrate ICT in the curriculum.
The government also rolled out an ambitious Digital Literacy Program which would bring broadband to schools and try to integrate technology into learning.
But it may take some time to cover the entire country until there’s enough resources to integrate it into all schools. In many African countries, even the more developed ones like Kenya, there are still basic challenges to address. For instance, a lack of infrastructure – like electricity – resources, computers, and teachers who know how to use technology.
Fortunately, there are informal ways in which children can learn to code. These include boot camps, codelabs, holiday coding camps and after school coding groups. In Kenya, independent modular coding programmes exist for children. There are also many free online learning tools that children can use such as Massachusettes Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare and Codecademy.
Coding is no longer the preserve of computer scientists. Every profession in some way needs it. Like other subjects, it is always better introduced at an early age.