I am once more attending the EduTech Africa Conference and I like to try and distill from the presentations and conversations at the Conference a sense of where we are sitting with Educational Technology in South Africa. As usual there is a narrative, repeated almost like a mantra, around the desire that technology will transform educational practice and deliver a more student-centred curriculum and pedagogy. Margaret Powers delivered a powerful keynote which summed this up succinctly and persuasively. There was an air of optimism this year which replaced the more messianic tone of previous years. Maybe it’s a sense that that goal is a little nearer, a little more achievable. Or perhaps it’s just that there is generally a new optimism abroad, despite the election of Trump, a return to the politics of hope reflected in the rise of Corbyn and Sanders, a sense that no matter how massive the task, the monolith of schooling can be re-imagined and re-envisioned just as there is a sense that the bastions of the political establishment can be assaulted.
But the highlight of the day for me was Stephen Heppell’s address. Heppell’s work on re-imagining the architecture of the school through the design of learning spaces that offer affordances for the kinds of educational transformation the Conference is calling for, is legendary, but it found a particular resonance this year with the track that I followed, that to do with the rise of coding and robotics. This link between designing classroom spaces and coding may seem tenuous, but ultimately it is about the locus of agency. Heppell spoke about the need to give agency to students through the design of learning spaces, and coding and robotics gives the same agency over machines.
Technology may be considered hard or soft, and what I mean by this is the ability to be flexible. Hard technologies do not alter easily, they are solid and fixed. School buildings are hard technologies. You cannot just knock down a wall to accommodate extra students. Soft technologies are flexible and versatile, they can be re-imagined and re-purposed on the spot. Teacher’s pedagogies are soft technologies, in that they can be changed at a moment’s notice to suit what is happening in the classroom. This is why teachers normally change their pedagogies to suit the space they are in. Teach in a lecture theatre and anything but teacher-centred pedagogies are nigh on impossible! As a teacher I have twice been the incumbent computer teacher when the computer room was re-designed, and not once was I or my students consulted! I loved Heppell’s insistence on building learning spaces to children’s specifications!
To my mind what coding and robotics offers is a soft curriculum to replace a hard curriculum, a curriculum based on problems defined by the students themselves, to which solutions are sought collaboratively. Marina Myburgh’s presentation on her exploration of a coding and robotics syllabus at Crawford, Sandton defined for me the journey many schools will be taking over the next few years as we seek to replace our now out-of-date computer skills syllabi with a new curriculum which seeks to map out how computational and algorithmic thinking can enhance all learning. There was a remarkable sense of purpose in the coding and robotics round table discussion that allowing students to explore solutions to problems they define is the way forward. The task is now to research and explore the optimum learning paths to achieve this.
This will involve not only teachers of Computer Skills, for coding & robotics extends across the curriculum. The focus on STEAM and the Maker Movement emphasizes the extent to which we need to ensure that a future in which AI and robotics increasingly threatens our job security needs to be tempered by a concerted effort to ensure that we as human beings are able to retain some control, some agency in our lives. Coding and tinkering may be the most liberating and humanist of all the academic disciplines as the 21st Century starts to get a grip!