Home » Business Monthly » Why all children must learn code

Why all children must learn code

Across the world, the con- version of information into a digital format – also called “digitalisation” – has increased productivity in the public and private sectors. As a result, vir- tually every country in the world is working towards a digital economy.
As this new economy evolves, special skills like computer program- ming are needed. This is like a lan- guage of numbers, known as code, which allows people to write instruc- tions that are executed by comput- ers. The goal is to create something: from a web page, to an image, to a piece of software.
Early coding languages emerged in the 1940s. These were basic in what they could do but complex to learn and needed an advanced understanding of maths. By the
1990s – when universities, busi- nesses and people started to con- nect over the internet – computing speed and memory improved to use high-level coding languages. These became widely available on open source platforms and online tutori- als made it possible for many people to learn and continue advancing the languages so that they became sim- pler. Today languages like Javascript can easily be learnt by children.
Nobody can escape the touch of digital technologies. It’s used in fields as diverse as hospital equip- ment, remote education delivery, marketing creative art pieces or improving agricultural productivi- ty. Coding language develops the software that can effectively deal with problems and challenges – for instance, because of coding, people who couldn’t get a bank account can now keep, send and borrow money using mobile phones. It’s an import- ant skill to have as countries develop.
In the past four decades, several studies have assessed the effect of learning code on primary school chil- dren – usually between the ages of six and 13. In each case, the findings show that it is beneficial to children, irrespective of their career path later on in life.

Computer language

Coding is just another language, and children are known to learn new lan- guages faster than older people. So, starting young is a good idea.
Several countries – including Australia, Finland, Italy and England
– have developed coding curriculum for children between the ages of five and 16 years.
Coding language works with zeros (0s) and ones (1s) and strings of these numbers represent an alpha- bet. These then translate into words and sentences which triggers the computer or processor to initiate specific tasks. For example, print an image on a screen, open a document that is saved in a computer or play some music.
There are various coding lan- guages. Some are so easy to under- stand and work with that even chil- dren can learn them.
-Visual programming languages
– like Scratch – have been developed to help children learn code using images, signs and diagrams. Other programming languages that chil- dren can use include Python, Ruby and Go.
Most of these languages can be used to write a series of commands or to develop web applications.

Benefits of coding

Aside from giving them a head start for the future of work, compared to other forms of numeric sciences, learning code can enhance children’s creativity.
For instance, much of teaching math in Africa is still done through rote learning, a pedagogical method that is outdated and discourages creativity in children. Rote learning is based on memorisation of infor- mation and repetition,“parroting” so to speak. Research shows that rote learning isn’t effective because the learner rarely gets to understand the application of what they have learnt.
By comparison, coding builds such as computers and smart phones
– are key tools for learning how to code. Access and affordability of these is essential. Governments must invest in broadband so that high quantities of data can be transmitted at high speeds.
They should also provide subsidies, or at least not tax information and communications technology (ICT) tools, so that more children can learn coding at home or at school.
Many African countries, like Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana and Rwanda, have taken steps to reform the ICT sector and expand broad- band capacity.
In Kenya the government is
aware of the need for ICT education and has started to integrate ICT in the curriculum. The government also rolled out an ambitious Digital Literacy Program which would bring broadband to schools and try to integrate technology into learning.
But it may take some time to cover the entire country until there’s enough resources to integrate it into all schools. In many African coun- tries, even the more developed ones like Kenya, there are still basic chal- lenges to address.
For instance, a lack of infrastruc- ture – like electricity – resources, computers and teachers who know how to use the technology.
Fortunately, there are informal ways in which children can learn to code. These include boot camps, codelabs, holiday coding camps and after school coding groups. In Kenya, independent modular cod- ing programmes exist for children. There are also many free online learning tools that children can use such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare and Codecademy.
Coding is no longer the preserve of computer scientists. Every pro- fession in some way needs it. Like other subjects, it is always better introduced at an early age.

Building monopolies

During World War Two, South Africa’s position changed from an importer to an exporter of many industrial and consumer goods. Its normal trading partners –England and Germany – were obviously preoccupied with supporting their own wartime needs. In fact, England called on South Africa to provide goods from bullets to blankets to help the Allied effort. The intensified local manufacture of so many goods placed pressure on Eskom and Iscor, but also provided great opportunities for expansion.
In Eskom’s case, the greediness of the private Victoria Fall Power Company throughout the war per- suaded private capitalists that a partnership with the state would be beneficial. Electricity demand from the mines and also the wartime fac- tories on the Witwatersrand (Rand) skyrocketed during the war.The cost of electricity to the mines rose by
10%. By the end of the war, Eskom posted a loss for the first time in its history while the Victoria Fall Power Company earned handsome profits.
By 1948, Eskom had succeeded in expropriating the private company with assistance from the largest min- ing company in the country – Anglo- American Corporation – which pro- vided money for the buy-out. Eskom then linked all power stations in the country into a national grid allowing for cheaper production of electricity and lower prices to its customers.
Similarly, Iscor was able to eliminate competition through part- nerships with the Anglo American Corporation. Iscor needed to find local engineering firms that would process its raw steel into war mate- riel. Many were either foreign or were owned by the Lewis and Marks investment company that also oper- ated a competing steel company, Union Steel.
In 1945, Anglo American – which became Iscor’s partner in all of the major engineering firms
– bought out the company. Since Anglo was principally a customer for their goods, it was interested in low prices and not in reaping profits through steel manufacture.

An Apartheid model

The change of government in 1948 led to a brief change in policies toward the state corporations. The Nationalist government, wary of foreign and even local capital and suspicious of the state corporations’ ties to Anglo American, initially refused to provide the funds for further expansion of either Iscor’s or Eskom’s facilities. Partnerships with the local engineering firms were likewise ditched.
But by the early 1950s, realis- ing the advantages to such arrange- ments, the government relented and the old ties were renewed, leading to massive increases in production by both firms.
In addition, the government looked the other way as it became apparent that black workers were being used extensively at both firms
– and even as semi-skilled workers at Iscor – yielding a wage bill that was less than a quarter what it was for whites.
Ultimately, the early state corporations could only survive by relying heavily on support from private cap- ital in the form of partnerships and outright financial support, and the extensive use of disenfranchised and thus lower cost labour to insure low charges to its customers.
Yet this structure could not sur- vive the flight of capital and the enfranchisement of the workforce that followed the democratic transi- tion of the 1990s.
Iscor’s former partners fled to more lucrative parts of the world and the steel corporation was sold to private interests; and Eskom faced an expanding demand for residential electricity without the financial and marketing support of the mining houses.
Their survival now depends on adapting to the dramatic changes in South Africa’s post-apartheid econo- my rather than relying on their old strategies.

This article is based on a book – Manufacturing Apartheid: State Corporations in South Africa – written by Nancy L Clark. Published in 1994, it is now out of print.