Google to enhance SA's digital skills pipeline

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 16 Aug 2019
Google CS First will be rolled out across SA’s nine provinces.
Google CS First will be rolled out across SA’s nine provinces.

Google SA has committed to upskill over 30 000 primary and high school leaners across SA’s nine provinces through its computer science programme, CS First.

Yesterday, the search engine giant officially launched the initiative at an event in Kempton Park that brought together government officials, members of the education community and community leaders.

CS First, according to Google, is an educator-created programme to equip learners with the fundamentals of computer science in a collaborative environment, and make coding easy to teach and fun to learn.

In addition, learners watch instructional videos while simultaneously building projects in Scratch, a blocks-based programming language.

It is well-documented that SA faces a digital skills gap, with government, private sector and industry commentators calling for an increased focus on skills development to take the country through the next digital revolution.

Google’s computer science curriculum is one way the technology company is looking to assist in addressing the country’s digital skills gap, and develop a culture of young African tech creators and digital innovators.

Asha Patel, head of marketing at Google SA, explained CS First targets learners between grades four and eight. However, she emphasised, the skills they learn are relevant all the way through grade 12.

“CS First is a Google programme created by educators and aims to train young learners on the fundamentals of computer science,” Patel noted. “By teaching our young learners coding from a young age, we are equipping them not only with the skills they need to be users of technology but also developers of technology.”

Globally, more than two million learners have been taken through the Google programme. In SA, the company is looking to train 30 000 learners within the space of one year, she revealed.

“We want to ensure our reach is scalable and representative of our population. As a result, our training will focus on 70% of public schools, 40% of rural schools and 10% special needs schools.”

Partner network

For SA, Google first introduced the project in 2016, piloting it across three provinces: Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Western Cape.

During this time, 2 400 learners were trained, according to Patel. The learners were selected from South African public schools and two community centres.

In the Western Cape, Google partnered with the Cape Town Science Centre and I-CAN Centre, a public access facility in Cape Town’s Elsies River, to run and facilitate the CS First pilot in that province.  

For the I-CAN Centre, up to 15 grade seven learners from three different schools were selected to enrol and participate in the project, according to executive director Llewellyn Scholtz.

Scholtz noted the success of the project: “The impact we have seen is that these learners are still at school and have enrolled for subjects related to the ICT sector.’

“CS First gave these learners the opportunity that technology is not far-fetched. They also have this attitude that you can combine technology with everything and anything to be successful.”

The programme has not only created users of technology but also started to create developers, he pointed out. “This is what the CS First project presents: building more ICT users and, at the same time, building developers.

“That is where we need to focus on. Our children face a challenge where they can’t connect with the curriculum because they have embraced technology. They view their classroom to be distant to the technology they use. We need to show how we can embrace technology and bring it in a classroom setup, whereby the learner will be able to also relate to the curriculum.”

Also speaking at yesterday’s launch event was Theresa Felino from the Cape Town Science Centre, which provides support to the organisations that rolled out Google’s CS First programme.

“I can testify that the area where Llewellyn and his team are working is not an area that everybody will just walk into, and those kids really need these opportunities.

“The beauty about this programme is that it allows young kids to come and write their first line of code and learn computational skills while they learn how to code.”

Communications and digital technologies deputy minister Pinky Kekana spoke at the Google CS First launch yesterday. (Photo source: GCIS)
Communications and digital technologies deputy minister Pinky Kekana spoke at the Google CS First launch yesterday. (Photo source: GCIS)


Referencing SA’s National Development Plan (NDP), Patel pointed out that government, through this particular development plan, has clearly stated skills development will be critical in addressing poverty, inequality and unemployment in the country.

Pinky Kekana, deputy minister in the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), who was also in attendance, said the alignment of the NDP goals to every South African should become a tangible and realistic vision that is broken down into smaller goals, depending on a specific company, its industry and its objectives.      

Kekana noted the importance of preparing young learners to take part in the digital economy and preparing for the full impact of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The DCDT has dedicated attention to all things related to 4IR, with department head Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams coining the now-popular phrase "building a capable 4IR army". Ndabeni-Abrahams believes it is important to build capacity for the 4IR by making sure the workforce is ready for the revolution.

President Cyril Ramaphosa designated the communications and digital technologies ministry to coordinate government's 4IR programme.

"Dear Google, you have taken the NDP and made it your own. You have taken the goals of the plan, and aligned it to your own strategic objectives, and found the path to success by achieving a goal with CS First,” said Kekana.

“I’m proud to say the 30 000 learners that will be trained will be joining a global community of two million learners who have already experienced CS First.”

Bridging the gaps

Nitin Gajria, Google Africa director, said it is his company’s responsibility to examine the skills gaps and hopefully play an important role in bridging some of these gaps.

“We want to do that by providing access to tools, education, skilling programmes, upskilling and reskilling programmes, and working with various partners in the skilling ecosystem.

“In order to support the NDP as well as the agenda of the fourth industrial revolution, we are thrilled to make various commitments.”

These include training 10 million Africans with digital skills, training 100 000 developers with the right skills, awarding an equity-free grant valued at $3 million to 60 start-ups on the continent over the next three years, as well as a $20 million award over the next three years to non-profit organisations through 

According to Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, policy and government affairs manager at Google SA, over the last two years, the company has trained thousands of South Africans on digital skills with the help of its training partners through its digital skills for Africa programme.

“Google is always inspired to see what people can do when they have access to technology,” concluded Mgwili-Sibanda. “CS First exposes students to coding as a means of developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills which have been identified as essential in the fourth industrial revolution.”