South Africa is reviewing its school curriculum to include subjects that will equip learners with the digital skills needed in the country. Telkom’s digital skills programme is an example of how these much in-demand skills can be taught quickly, exposing learners and teachers to the world of technology and equipping them with the skills they need in today’s world and workplace.
As Africa’s largest integrated telecommunications company, Telkom is acutely aware of how technology is reshaping the world – and how the world of work is changing rapidly. However, this new, bewildering landscape requires skills that many school-leavers simply do not have.
“We believe it is important for learners to develop the digital skills they will need,” said Sarah Mthintso, CEO of the Telkom Foundation. “Exposure to the curriculum, while important, does not help learners navigate the complex world of work. We set out to ask what else learners need to be exposed to, to prepare them and give them the skills to be able to participate meaningfully in the economy.”
The answer was technology and coding.
This was the impetus behind Telkom’s digital skills programme in high schools, intended to supplement the formal curriculum in schools. This programme was first launched in 2018.
Building coding competency through the digital skills programme
The aim was to provide 2 000 high-school learners from Telkom- supported schools in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape with key skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, design thinking, and also introducing them to tech skills. The programme is also intended to influence thinking among these young people in their future careers. The Foundation managed to reach 1 600 learners, with 330 chosen from that number to get more advanced digital skills recognised by global players such as Microsoft, IBM, and Google.
In 2019, Telkom took these learners into an in-depth programme where they learnt various coding languages and different types of technologies such as cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.
300 were learners who showed an interest in learning more, with 30 participants comprising teachers and local community members who volunteered to learn coding.
- Phase 1 of the programme was foundational and covered the basics of coding.
- Phase 2 covered coding in more depth in subjects such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and more advanced coding languages. The first two phases help participants understand the new technologies and how they might have an impact on the way things are done now and in the future.
- Phase 3 focuses on practical applications, with participants divided into three groups looking at blockchain, robotics and software development respectively. Participants complete practical projects where they identify a particular problem and find a technology-based solution that solves the problem.
These learners have between them received an average of eight badges each in coding and design thinking programmes such as Introduction to HTML, Java Script, Python, Cyber Security and Artificial Intelligence among others. These badges are accredited by IBM, Cybrary and Microsoft. The 30 additional beneficiaries have a few programmes earmarked for them to advance their skills even further as they are ready for the employment or entrepreneurship journey.
For most learners, it was the first time they had been exposed to technology and even computers. They rapidly developed their skills and were quickly able to build their own mobile and web applications as well as games. They also developed a different perspective on problem-solving using digital technology, finding solutions to challenges in their communities.
For example, one learner built a web application whereby their peers can play a game that assesses their mental wellbeing.
Each level of the game is designed to allow the player to freely express how they are feeling. The hope is that the game can one day be commercialised.
Learners are also able to use their digital skills to advance their own academic studies, using platforms such as YouTube to watch maths lessons.
Teachers who participate in the programme explore technology and its uses alongside learners. They show enormous interest and willingness to learn, according to Mthintso, and participate fully in the programme from phases 1 to 3. Teachers also help instructors encourage learners who are struggling with the programme’s concepts and content.
Programme successes – and lessons learnt
The programme will conclude its third year in early 2022 after which the Foundation will assess its impact and any learnings derived therefrom.
“We want to take a step back and see how we can use the learnings from this programme to formulate a concrete programme that canimpactmanymorelearners,”saidMthintso.“
Having trialled the teaching of digital skills, we can use these findings to inform a new strategy.”
Although the programme is still running, the team has already noted two highlights:
Children who are not performing well academically can and do perform well on the programme
Children who may have dropped out of school because they have not performed well in certain subjects have excelled in the digital skills programme, which may indicate where their interests and competencies lie.
In essence, the programme teaches critical thinking skills, allowing learners to innovate in the real world – something of more interest to them than academic textbook chapters.
Collaborative learning leads to better outcomes
When learners work collaboratively, they tend to achieve a lot more than when they work on their own. There is also more sharing of knowledge and ideas.
The Telkom Foundation takes a holistic approach to education and recognises that learners need more than just a computer and a coding course to learn digital skills.
“We cannot just walk into a community with a truck full of computers and expect children to learn digital skills. Technology on its own does not make a difference – the ground has to be fertile,” said Mthintso.
Understanding that many learners require support in different environments, the Foundation has ensured that the Childline online chat functionality has been zero-rated, allowing children to discretely discuss any problems they may experience in the home or classroom.
The Foundation also supports teachers to integrate technology in teaching and learning by providing ongoing training and technical support. Training is both general technology integration as well as subject-specific resources and pedagogy.
Changing the world
“When we started teaching digital skills, learners had no prior access to technology. If you asked them what they wanted to be, they would say a teacher, nurse or police officer,”Mthintso said.“T hey were limited in how they thought of their future. Nowhere did they think they would have the ability to disrupt the economy and markets.
Now, by exposing children to a world of technology, we ensure that they can see they have more options.”
By introducing learners to coding, the Foundation has provided them with an opportunity to learn vital, practical skills that will be of use in their schools and communities alike.
“We created the opportunity and the learners thrived,” said Mthintso.
– Sarah Mthintso , Head of Telkom Foundation , www.telkom.co.za