Should children as young as 5 be coding?

I recently came across an article in the UK’s Daily Telegraph online, titled “Digital literacy ‘as important as reading and writing’” by Josie Gurney-Read, in which the author discusses the evolution of information communication technology education in that country.

The article neatly summarises a number of “digital education challenges” – I have extracted some of the main points below.

1. Computer programming should be presented to children as young as five.

Apart from a much more digitally-focused 2014 curriculum announced by the UK’s Education Secretary, mainstream computer programming lessons are now being offered in a number of schools across the UK, and the lessons start with children as young as five.

I absolutely agree – children should be able to understand – at least the basics – of the code and mechanics. Whether they become engineers, bloggers, website developers or graphic designers, understanding the principles of how digital interfaces works is invaluable. Via code.org, this year I will be presenting an offline module introducing young learners at Hazyview Digital Learning Centre (HDLC) to coding. It is a very basic introduction, but it’s a start. It’s an introduction to digital problem-solving, and more and more, that is an invaluable skill.

2. Digital should be seen as the “fourth” literacy in addition to reading, writing, and maths.

Gurney-Read opens her piece saying: “When I was at school, ICT was labelled, rightly or wrongly, as the ‘doss lesson’. Unlike English, maths and science, ICT was not tested and, as such, was universally thought of as an hour of either surfing the net, or falling asleep over yet another lesson in Microsoft Office.”

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Children from local schools at HDLC engaging with innovative learning apps

In many schools (probably the majority) across South Africa, digital is still seen as a “nice to have.” Without digital fluency, young people are disconnected from future economies. Part of our mission at Good Work Foundation (GWF) is to prevent the “nice to have” mistake from happening. Regardless of where they are from, young people must cross the digital bridge, and that’s our mission. Make digital enjoyable and promote it from being a supplementary class that is less important than English and math. Many of our adult students who graduated less than two years ago, have never operated a computer. Try and wrap your head around that. It is just not acceptable and for GWF, it is a reality that we are going to change for the next generation of young South Africans.

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Group learning with the digital whiteboard

3. Close the gap between schools that are embracing digital and schools that aren’t.

This is a problem all over the world, but especially outside of urban areas. Historically there is already a gap in the quality of education (and access to opportunities) between urban and rural, and if rural fails to embrace digital education, that gap will only get bigger. The obvious problem in rural Africa is the lack of resources and facilities, but even in the few cases where computer centres exist, the educators are not trained in digital literacy themselves. Our mission has been to provide world-class centres with qualified “digi-teachers”. However, in 2014 we plan to place GWF-trained “digi-teachers” in schools surrounding our digital learning centres. Hardware is the easy part, it’s the effective, innovative and creative way that digital literacy is presented and taught that is the hard part.

4. Digital literacy needs to be embedded across the curriculum.

The article gives a great example of how digital is NOT being effectively embedded across the curriculum: “In art, for example, the curriculum states that children should be able to use paint, pencil and clay, but nothing about digital, and yet, most art jobs that you would go into now, would involve a huge element of digital.” In the Open Learning Academy our vision has been to remove pens and paper as much as we can. Yes there are “computer” lessons, but most of the time maths, English and life skills are taught on tablets and via interactive education apps.

5. We must teach students to be smart and safe online.

Online policies are sometimes “policed” excessively. Rather than shielding students from the negative influences of an online, digital world, we need to teach our students and young people how to be responsible online. Shielding students can actually put them at a disadvantage – part of life-skills and emotional literacy is teaching young people how to safeguard and protect their online activities and even, how to present themselves online. We recently ran a workshop for our young teachers on “using social media responsibly” and it was very well received. We cannot just expect young people who are new to digital to know how to behave online – we must guide them and that is extremely important.

Henceforth & Thembi

Learning to have digital fun, responsibly

What are your thoughts on the five points above? Is your child attending a school where digital literacy has become the fourth literacy, or do you feel there is still resistance? As a parent and a teacher, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Yours in digital literacy and beyond,

Kate Groch
CEO, Good Work Foundation

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