Johannesburg - Nelson Mandela University’s pioneering initiative, the Tangible Africa programme, which began as a mobile app developed by Byron Batteson for his honours project in computer science, is transforming the educational landscape, while empowering disadvantaged students, visually impaired learners, and those with special needs for successful careers in coding.
In today's increasingly digital world, coding plays a central role in our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of software development as the demand for online solutions, applications, and digital innovations skyrocketed.
Software development ranks as the second most critical skill on the South African Government Gazette list.
Professor Jean Greyling, head of the Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University and the Tangible Africa Programme founder, says: “While technologies like Chat GPT and AI are enhancing productivity, they will never replace the problem-solving abilities of skilled software developers. Software development offers lucrative careers, with graduates in high demand in South Africa, Europe, and North America. It's a field where entrepreneurial opportunities abound, and even students in their second and third years can start their own businesses.”
Coding skills are not limited to software developers. Greyling says people in any discipline can benefit from a basic understanding of coding, as it enhances efficiency and creativity in their work. Software development is essential for a nation's innovation capacity, with many South African software companies exporting their products to Europe and America.
However, South Africa faces several challenges in promoting coding education. Over 16 000 schools lack computer laboratories, and many of the existing labs are non-functional. The shortage of qualified coding teachers compounds the issue, and there is a diminishing pool of matric learners with strong mathematical abilities – a prerequisite for coding.
Becoming a software developer typically requires a degree in computer science, information systems, or computer engineering, along with strong problem-solving skills. The demand for software developers continues to rise, and graduates enjoy a high employment rate.
Nelson Mandela University, through its Tangible Africa Programme, is addressing these challenges head-on. Launched in 2017, this initiative uses innovative methods to teach coding concepts, even in settings without access to computers, the internet, or electricity. Learners work collaboratively, solving challenges using physical puzzle pieces, thereby developing critical problem-solving skills.
The programme provides coding kits and training to teachers from disadvantaged schools, with over 100 000 learners benefiting from the programme.
A collaboration between Nelson Mandela University and the Leva Foundation, a non-profit organisation, has turned Tangible Africa into a global project that not only addresses educational gaps but also fosters job creation and entrepreneurship.
“We are changing the African narrative. A product made in Africa for Africa is now being used in Africa and beyond,” says Greyling.