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TANKS coding app goes to Paris

Read time 3min 40sec
Professor Jean Greyling, project co-ordinator: TANKS Coding App.
Professor Jean Greyling, project co-ordinator: TANKS Coding App.

Jean Greyling, associate professor in Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, is joining UNESCO’s Mobile Learning Week (MLW) panel which will bring together global education stakeholders under the theme ‘Artificial Intelligence and Inclusion’.

MLW, which will be held from 2 to 6 March in Paris, is the United Nation’s flagship event on digital technologies in education and has been organised by UNESCO and its partners for eight consecutive years.This year’s edition aims is to encourage international cooperation to leverage AI in education.

Greyling will share his experience in rolling out the coding app TANKS, which was developed by his Honours student Byron Batteson, and aims at introducing learners to coding concepts with the use of tangible tokens and image recognition, thus eliminating the need for a computer.

Thousands of learners from mainly disadvantaged communities have been reached in coding workshops across all the country, and as the project coordinator, Greyling was recognised as a finalist in IITPSA’s IT Personality of the Year 2019 Awards.

Realising possibilities

TANKS uses gamification to teach young learners about basic coding concepts and social issues such as ocean conservation. The app is made of 35 levels and uses puzzle pieces and a smart phone to introduce basic coding concepts such as Turtle commands, Loops, Decisions and optimisation to young learners.

“With TANKS, we have reached 20 000 South African learners with coding workshops that typically see 30 to 40 learners participating in small groups,” Greyling explains. “The vast majority of these learners are from schools in townships and rural communities which do not have computer laboratories. Thanks to these workshops, learners are starting to dream about software developing as a future career, and schools have embraced the project since very little training is needed for teachers to roll it out.”

The roll outs are currently financed by corporate sponsors. A TANKS school kit includes eight game sets, lesson plans, instructional videos and a solution set. It costs R2 500 and it can accommodate 40 kids at a time. Over 150 of these school kits have been distributed nationally.

Leanda Oosthuizen, a Port Elizabeth-based teacher, considers the app an effortless teacher, said: “As an IT teacher, I am excited that all pupils can be exposed to computer programming in a creative way without the need of a computer or a teacher.The app motivates learners to acquire coding skills while helping them discover how to solve higher-order problems and develop critical thinking without even realising it.”

The coding project is not only being used in schools. COJ libraries have a mobile literacy programme that focuses on concepts such as gamification, and library staff members have been trained to use TANKS so that they can introduce it to children who visit the city’s 85 libraries.

Jeff Nyoka, e-learning manager at the City of Johannesburg (COJ) Library Services, says: “Of all the mobile literacy programmes, TANKS has been the most successful and impactful. We've hosted competitions for Joburg schools based on TANKS, and through these competitions and our library e-learning, we have reached more than 3 000 kids since we piloted the app in 2018.”

Close to 100 packs have been distributed throughout the COJ regions, some of which were donated by Greyling.

Inclusive education

As part of the plenary at MLW, experts will table joint action plans to help meet the United Nations’ fourth Sustainable Development Goal of inclusive and equitable education.

Greyling also participated in one the MLW’s breakaway sessions last year. 

“We were the only indigenous project from Africa. The other projects were implemented in Africa but did not originate here. The message I will be taking there again is that TANKS can impact not only our continent, but other countries around the world.”

“Within the context of the 4IR, and considering the fact that software development is one of the scarcest global skills, learners from schools with no computer science stand the real danger of being excluded from modern economic trends and benefits, and this is not limited to South Africa.”

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