Tangible coding apps give rural kids the chance to programme offline

Staff Writer
By Staff Writer, ITWeb
Johannesburg, 30 Apr 2024
Offline apps  - Tanks, Boats and Rangers - teach coding and collaborative problem-solving.
Offline apps - Tanks, Boats and Rangers - teach coding and collaborative problem-solving.

An 'unplugged' coding game developed by Nelson Mandela University (NMU) is helping introduce kids to coding. The software's offline functionality and free availability make it particularly effective in reaching underserved communities.

These offline coding apps — Tanks, Boats, and Rangers, with more in development—are enabling education non-profits like Good Work Foundation (GWF) to improve their coding and robotics programs.

GWF’s mission is to prepare young people in rural Mpumalanga and the Free State ready to for the Fourth Industrial Revolution-driven workplace, armed with life skills, digital knowledge, a creative mindset and the ability to analyse and solve problems.

While GWF’s six digital learning campuses are equipped with computers, tablets and coding robots, as well as Lego kits for building robots out of blocks and coding them to move, they also emphasise the importance of collaborative problem-solving through the use of Tanks, Boats and Rangers offline apps.

Coding you can touch

Using only physical game tokens, a mobile app and a smartphone or tablet to introduce young people to coding, this concept is known as “tangible coding” because you can literally touch the code (i.e. the game tokens) with your hands as you plot it out.

Patricia Ubisi, a coding and robotics coordinator at GWF’s Hazyview Digital Learning Campus, is an enthusiastic proponent of both online and offline coding as ways to unlock curiosity in young minds.

“The children have so much fun while learning coding – and fun is one of our values at GWF,” she says. “We use Tanks and Rangers on our campuses. Rangers, for example, is not just about coding – it also teaches young people about conservation and teamwork.”

Such conservation awareness is critical, as most of GWF’s campuses border the Kruger National Park and many of its students, armed with the right skills, could end up working in the wildlife economy in the area.

The Rangers app uses physical game tokens laid out on a black cloth to help the “game rangers” outwit the “rhino poachers”, moving through various levels of difficulty. Once the youngsters have plotted out a code to help the rangers protect the endangered rhino, a picture is captured on a tablet or a smartphone and uploaded to the app. They then watch and adapt the code as the ranger moves, navigates the obstacles, and shoots nets in a bid to capture the poachers. It’s challenging, educational fun.

These offline apps are the brainchild of Professor Jean Greyling, who heads up the Department of Computing Sciences at NMU, and Byron Batteson, a former honours student of his.

Teaching problem-solving and teamwork

“In 2017, Byron submitted a proposal to teach kids coding without computers. Obviously, I was very excited, because if you are trying to market computer science in schools across the Eastern Cape but there are no computer labs there, you are talking into a vacuum,” says Prof. Greyling.

“But often students from the townships and rural areas would come into my office, saying we need to go and promote this discipline [computer science] at their former schools because there is no awareness of it there. So we decided to create an app to address the problem.”

The envisaged coding app had to be free, not require a computer, work without internet and electricity, and have a low barrier to entry for learners as well as teachers – because often, teachers with no programming background get tripped up by the complexities of “traditional” coding applications.

And in the seven years since the idea was born, the project has snowballed – and evolved.

“As we became more involved in the educational aspect of it, we realised the bigger impact beyond the ‘coding’ buzzword was teaching young people problem-solving – as well as 21st-century soft skills like computational thinking, communication, strategic thinking, perseverance, communication, collaboration and teamwork,” says Prof. Greyling.

Tangible Africa

Today, these apps (managed by the Tangible Africa joint venture between the university and the Leva Foundation) are used across South Africa and in five other African countries, and are garnering interest from education institutions and non-profits around the world. Prof. Greyling has many heart-warming stories of young people who were exposed to coding via these apps and have since gone on to study computer science – and even become software developers. “It’s helped to raise awareness of tech careers among kids and demystify the world of coding for teachers,” he adds.

In just a few short years, says Prof. Greyling, at least 120 000 young people have benefited from these unplugged coding apps, with a further 16 000 participants in 22 countries using them to participate in the annual Coding 4 Mandela tournaments during 2023.

Ubisi says GWF is already gearing up for this year’s tournament on 18 July – Madiba’s birthday. Its Open Learning Academy learners will be among the envisaged “30 000 learners celebrating 30 years of democracy”, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. An inter-campus coding competition will add extra spice to the occasion – last year, GWF had 55 teams competing in the tournament, with 212 staff and students joining in the fun.

Ubisi adds, “It’s part of how we as GWF help equip learners for their future careers, since as we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution more things will be done digitally – but skills taught by coding, such as problem-solving, will apply to any career.