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Coding: Future of jobs is in technology and Kenya got the memo

Coding is an essential skill since it’s an important part of digital transformation. [File, Standard]

The world is changing at a drastic pace, and all facets of life are being substantively revolutionised by technology.

Artificial intelligence has become the boon of the 21st century, and at the heart of it, is coding. Technological advancement is the new race to space. Just look at the 5G turf wars pitting the two superpowers in the mould of China and the US.

Whoever wins the technological race, runs the world. Simple. AI, data analytics, algorithms, robotics are the sound track of modernity, so to speak. The world’s very existence as we know it is premised on these. The future is predicated on these. That is just how important coding is.

And so the news that Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) just approved the first coding syllabus in primary and secondary schools is big and exciting. It is revolutionary.

So what exactly is coding? Computer coding is the use of computer programming languages to give computers and machines a set of instructions on what actions to perform. It’s how humans communicate with machines. It’s what allows us to create computer software like programmes, operating systems, and mobile applications. It’s different from the traditional ‘computer studies’ currently being offered in schools.

In the simplest terms, we can put it, computer science is studying what computers can do (usually taught at university or college) while coding is the practice of making computers do things (not requiring any actual formal education). One of the best parts about coding is the fact that it’s virtually open to anyone.

But why coding? Learning to code has vital benefits in the current age. It’s a skill that is highly valued in the workforce and jobs related to computer programming are growing exponentially. Beyond the computer, coding teaches critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity and resilience.

Coding is an essential skill in the future because it is an important part of the digital transformation. The number of jobs that require coding skills will grow exponentially because most services and products are being digitised. It means they will work on a virtual environment, and without coding skills, it would be hard to achieve this.

Coding enables computational thinking: a structured and proven method designed to identify problems regardless of age or computer literacy level. It helps develop critical thinking and focuses on helping students develop and employ strategies for understanding and solving problems.

It’s “cross-disciplinary” in nature, and it makes sense to start teaching it in elementary or even preschool. All the subjects are naturally blended for the students within the same environment. More than anything, computational thinking is an unbelievably valuable thinking tool - perhaps the thinking tool of the 21st century.

Coding nurtures creativity. Through coding, we enable our curious and imaginative children to be the creative and critical thinkers of the next generation.

Coding nurtures creativity. [iStock]

There are fundamental end products that the programme is looking to bring out of the learners. Well-roundedness, solving puzzles, love learning - technology is constantly changing, good communication skills (Working as a developer isn’t just about technology.

Developers need to talk with business users to understand what they need from the application), building confidence, be interested in the business (Businesses use technology to solve business problems), be a team player, understand the importance of deadlines, and being adaptable, and reliable.  

The role of coding in the global stage cannot be disregarded. Coding is an incredibly useful skill to have in the digital age, particularly for entrepreneurs, and for a variety of reasons. It lets you perform and understand a range of tasks and will aid you in making faster decisions and perhaps tackling certain issues hands-on by yourself.

Coding is a useful asset regardless of whether you run a software company, an e-commerce store, or a brick-and-mortar store. If your business has a website or any kind of online presence, it would be especially useful to learn how to code.

What does this mean to Kenya?

One area where we have got significantly better in the last few years is in our technological advancements, with Kenya amongst the countries showing the way for the rest of the continent.

Several barometers can be used in measuring the technological advancement in a country; some of the most important being density of high tech companies, productivity and diversity of tech products, level of technological research and development within the country, mobile penetration, internet accessibility and affordability, and financial inclusion.

Kenya has taken a leadership role in many of these facets, and is rated as one of the fastest-growing tech countries in the world. Kenya’s big technological strides has earned her the tag “Silicon Savannah”.

According to the 2021 Global Innovation Index, Kenya has the third most innovative economy in sub-Saharan Africa, behind Mauritius and South Africa; and ahead of Cape Verde and Tanzania. In the global charts, Kenya is ranked as the 85th most innovative economy. From greater mobile penetration to better financial inclusion, Kenya has become one of the most advanced tech nations on the continent. With the introduction of the ‘coding economy’, Kenya will be on the path to become a tech giant in Africa.

US tech firm Microsoft has opened a new Sh3 billion office and labs in Nairobi for its premier engineering hub, the African Development Centre (ADC), after three years of operation in Kenya.  The centre is one of the largest software engineering facilities in Africa and sets the standard for a new generation of technology hubs across the continent.

World-class talent

The government has expressed optimism that the facility will bolster the government’s push to secure high-tech jobs in the digital space for the youth. “As a premier centre of research and development for Microsoft, we all remain confident that you – together with our young men and women – will build a local world-class talent and create innovative technological solutions that will yield global positive impacts’’, said President Uhuru Kenyatta on March 24.

Microsoft has also partnered with local universities and start-ups to provide training and skills to create job opportunities to over 200,000 young Kenyans in support of the digital economy. Uhuru cited the creation of full-time time jobs for Kenyans in the fields of software development, programme management, technical design, content writing, operations, research and applied sciences as part of the mutually beneficial partnership between the government and Microsoft.

Google is also investing in its first-ever Africa product development hub in Nairobi as part of the tech firm’s Sh115.5 billion investment on the continent over the next five years. This is part of its Africa digital transformation programme.

Coding enables computational thinking. [iStock]

The company announced that the new product development centre will help to create transformative products and services for people in Africa and around the world and will offer job opportunities to visionary engineers, product managers, UX designers and researchers to lay the foundation for significant growth in the coming years.

“Google’s mission in Africa is to make the Internet helpful to Africans and partner with African governments, policymakers, educators, entrepreneurs and businesses to shape the next wave of innovation in Africa,” Google vice president for products Suzanne Frey said.

After diligent study and research on this programme and the learning outcomes, KICD endorsed Kodris syllabus for use. Kodris is a platform established with the purpose of teaching children ages 7 to 16 how to code. The coding syllabus is in use in more than 2,000 schools across Europe and will first be offered in Africa, in Kenya.

KICD termed the Kodris syllabus a game changer since the future of work and new jobs will be in technology and digital space. “It is critical to introduce our children to coding now. The content is quality assured and approved. The conditions for utilisation will be included in the list of approved Digital Curriculum Support materials,” said KICD CEO Prof Charles Ong’ondo. 

Governments around the world believe coding is an essential skill. Since 2014, the principles of computer programming have featured on England’s curriculum for children from the age of five or six, when they start primary school.

In the US, former president Barack Obama launched Computer Science for All in January 2016, an initiative aimed at giving every pupil from kindergarten to high school programming and coding skills “that make them job-ready on day one”. He even took coding lessons himself. Obama’s initiative came about partly because up to 600,000 high-paying tech job vacancies across the US were not filled in 2014.

Let’s take lessons from the UK. A 2016-published study conducted by Andrew Csizmadia, senior lecturer in Computer Science Education, Newman University, and Susan Sentence, a  British computer scientist, educator and director of the Raspberry Pi Foundation Computing Education Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, aimed to shed light on computing in the UK curriculum.

The UK has seen fast-paced change in the area of computer science education in the last few years. The state of computer science education is different in the four parts of the UK, with England having just implemented an ambitious new curriculum in Computing, to be taught from ages 5–16, and with a strong focus on computational thinking.

This has been preceded by two years of preparation, as new qualifications were introduced and the draft curriculum proposed. Many schools and teachers in England had implemented elements of the Computing curriculum prior to the official starting date of the Computing Programme of Study in September 2014, as a void was left by the disapplication of the existing curriculum subject, Information and Communication Technology (ICT), in January 2012.

In the UK, there is a strong subject association for computer science teachers, computing at school. Through this grass-roots community of practice teachers are able to share resources, share experiences and attend local events. This programme is based on computational thinking principles, and thus teachers of computer science welcomed guidance on how to deliver computational thinking skills, which is beginning to emerge.

Digital divide

Some of the coding schemes used by these teachers include: robotics, scaffolding, tangible interfaces, team coding/pair programming, tutorials, unplugged strategies, use of videos, hands-on experiences, use of pseudocode, simple IDEs and visual prompts.

While this proposal has been fruitful in the UK, teachers have faced various challenges. Challenges of student differentiation, teaching approaches, students problem-solving, teachers and digital literacy, digital divide, teachers and funding, lack of training and subject knowledge in the field, large classes, lack of quality resources, physical computing issues, and technical problems. These could be the same challenges we could face in this implementation together with competent implementation technologically, sufficient/adequate devices, charging points and internet coverage et cetera.

The research by Andrew and Susan shows that teachers emphasised unplugged, hands-on, contextualised activities and the importance of lots of practice in overcoming student-related challenges.

The teachers, however, were working to improve on the challenges that they face that are intrinsic to them, for example, their own subject knowledge and teaching approaches, but were frustrated by the challenges over which they have less control, such as time in the curriculum or technical support.