Back to school: Robotics, coding curriculum pushed back

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 15 Jan 2020

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) will only kick-off the pilot of its coding and robotics curriculum for grades R-3 next term, ITWeb has learned.

This is despite the DBE previously stating it will pilot its coding and robotics curriculum across South African schools in January. Furthermore, only some 50-plus schools will participate in the pilot kicking off in the second school term.

To address SA’s critical skills gap, government, including the DBE, has made concerted efforts to increase skills development and competencies to prepare learners for the fourth industrial revolution.

As a result, at the end of 2017, the department started a framework to introduce coding and robotics as a compulsory subject in all schools.

In March last year, the department, charged with the country’s basic education, announced it is planning a pilot for a coding and robotics curriculum for grades R to 9.

Ms Zora to the rescue

While the news to rollout a coding and robotics curriculum was publicly welcomed, some red flags were raised, especially on issues such as lack of sufficient teachers really literate in the topics and fundamentals, and availability of resources.

Even Mugwena Maluleke, general secretary of the South African Democratic Teachers Union, expressed concerns about teacher-preparedness and resources.

In an effort to allay some of the fears, the DBE last week unveiled Ms Zora, an artificial intelligence (AI)-based educational platform, to support the introduction of the coding and robotics curriculum this year.

Ms Zora aims to empower school pupils across all grades to develop and improve their 21 century skills by serving as both a teacher’s assistant and a personal tutor to the learner.

The AI-powered virtual assistant was conceived and developed in partnership with ICT skills development initiative Africa Teen Geeks and IT company Apodytes, to support the DBE.

Lindiwe Matlali, founder of Africa Teen Geeks, explains Ms Zora was developed to support the coding and robotics curriculum the DBE is looking to implement, especially given there isn’t enough time to train teachers.

“We looked at the best ways in which to make it easy for teachers to deliver the curriculum, where they learn as they teach and aren’t necessarily the only source of all the information. Through AI, we are allowing the learners to self-learn. Ms Zora is basically Siri but for STEM.”

Extended deadlines

Meanwhile, the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) has been forced to reopen its online admissions system for late grades one and eight applications from today until 24 January.

The GDE applauded parents who submitted their online applications for the 2020 academic year, noting the challenge of trying to accommodate learners in schools across the province.

“The department will on 15 January 2020 open the system for late online applications, and close on 24 January 2020. Only schools with capacity will be availed in the system during this period.

“Applicants will provisionally be placed until they submit documents to the school accordingly. No objections or appeals will be entertained,” states MEC Panyaza Lesufi.

The GDE revealed it has a total of 912 primary schools and 374 high schools with space available for late applications.

In an effort to assist parents with applications, from 15 to 24 January, all districts will operate as walk-in centres.

“Districts are to place applicants and send parents to identified schools with available space to submit documents. Parents who need assistance are encouraged to visit the district offices,” he says.

The department also indicated it is in the final stages of finalising a partnership with the Curro Independent School Network to accommodate learners at its schools. “We are also interacting with other private schools to assist us,” concludes Lesufi.