A new way of teaching. A new way to learn
Initially, it was a way to fight against the isolation caused by the confinement. A way for a few professors and senior students at the Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) to virtually come together and learn something new. It was a space for innovation and collaboration, and an antidote to those first months of loneliness and uncertainty induced by Covid.
But in no time at all, that evolved, and today the all-new UJ Scratch Coding Club is using technology to advance the careers of its student teachers and, in turn, the experiences of the young lives they will teach. It brings the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) into South African classrooms and into our collective future.
Scratch is a visual programming language that uses stories, games, and animation to help learners learn to experiment, think creatively, think critically, prototype, and work together. In the world of 4IR, each of these skills is essential.
The UJ Scratch Coding Club was developed to allow future teachers to be able to teach with this useful tool and also to pass this knowledge on to their learners.
“We chose Scratch because we like its approach,” says Linford Molaodi, professor in the UJ’s Department of Childhood Education, who runs the UJ Scratch Coding Club with his colleague, Kenneth Baloyi. “It’s not like other coding platforms, which can involve strict and complicated rules. We don’t focus on coding but on developing creative thinking, and Scratch is the perfect tool to help us develop this, both in our future teachers and in their future learners. “
While Scratch has been around for a while, it has evolved significantly since it was first developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab. UJ works closely with MIT as it rolls out the program among its students today.
During the initial lockdown, Molaodi started a coding club to introduce participating students to “Scratch”. At the time, the training offered no formal certification. Later in 2020, the Scratch Coding Club was formalized as a research project under the leadership of Professor Sarah Gravett. It has also been formalized to allow participating students to obtain a certificate based on a portfolio they submit.
‘A very exciting and stimulating journey’
“The experience has been amazing,” says Michelle Khumalo, fourth year education student and one of the club leaders. “At first, the program was a welcome distraction. With so much going on, both in our classes and in the world around us, the club has given us the opportunity to come together, experiment and be creative in a relaxed and comfortable environment. Very quickly, students who were initially rather shy came out of their shell.
Maeketsa Mofokeng, another host of the Scratch Coding Club who is currently doing his honors in the Department of Science and Technology Education, agrees. “The club has instilled new self-confidence in our comrades,” he says. “It gave all of us a new tool to use in our hands-on teaching sessions and in the actual classes we support, which we have found extremely stimulating.”
Hardly anyone in the club had used technology like Scratch before. Now, however, they attend weekly sessions (which are often shared with the hashtag #reascratcher, which means ‘we scratch’) in which they work with their teammates to develop and build various projects.
“Working with Scratch has taught us not to be afraid to try something new,” says Vuyisile Mashele, another fourth-year student and club leader. “We now know that things don’t have to be perfect the first time. We have learned to experiment, to see what is happening and to continually adjust our approach. It is a very exciting and challenging journey.
What this means for education in South Africa
With a growing number of schools using smart boards and many learners having access to laptops and tablets, it is important that UJ teachers are equipped to take advantage of their future work environments. “Scratch can be used to teach any subject, from early stage through high school,” adds Molaodi. “With the experience of Scratch under their belt, our students will be able to create Scratch content for everything from novice readers to learners of matrix math. “
“Many teachers don’t yet know how to incorporate technology into their lesson plans, or how to properly prepare learners with the 4IR skills they need to be successful,” says Khumalo. “Our club has taught us not to feel intimidated by coding and has endowed us with the digital literacy expertise that we need to pass on to our learners. You can’t not teach like that.
UJ’s Faculty of Education is probably the first to offer this type of training to its students, and it develops the essential 4IR skills of creative thinking, problem-solving, innovation and collaboration in the process. “The club made us realize how important it is that we continue to learn on our own – we have to be curious and creative all the time,” adds Mofokeng.
In 2021, the Scratch Coding Club will take place twice, once in the first semester and once in the second semester as part of the Faculty of Education program.
With Scratch, UJ teachers will be able to teach creative coding in tandem with the curriculum, thus arming their learners for a digital future that we cannot yet predict.
As a leader in academic thought and research in Africa, UJ has embraced the technology that is shaping our future, not only on our continent, but globally. We do this by applying it to both teaching and learning, using it to advance not only ideas, but also skills, expertise and capacity. People everywhere will be able to see real benefits and positive changes in their lives, both as developers and beneficiaries of all that 4IR has to offer.
Whether it’s teaching emergency rescue through state-of-the-art simulation, or collecting data to enable remote diagnostics with artificial intelligence (AI), or understanding and troubleshooting company with precise digital tools, UJ’s adoption of 4IR technology is impacting people’s lives. Find more stories here