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Tech advances must leave room for ancient truths 

We risk leaving talented youth behind in our quest to go fully digital, writes Nyari Samushonga, CEO of WeThinkCode

The world is undergoing change at a rapid pace, hurtling developed society into a more digitised future. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Some of the most prominent digital innovations display the magic that happens when modern digital platforms solve age-old problems by leveraging the power of tech. Think of Uber as a platform for taxi services, the Kindle as a digital library and the iPhone as a mobile music collection. These innovations did not invent the human needs that they solved for. Rather, they leveraged technology to deliver a far superior solution to what had previously been available. 

Tech is only as valuable as the convenience it delivers to the user. When the automobile was invented, we didn’t start driving to the kitchen. The invention of the aeroplane didn’t have us taking flights to the supermarket. Intuitively, we understood that these grand innovations had their place next to each other. It should be the same with digital technology.

In the ed-tech space an e-learning environment allows us to extend our reach while simultaneously reducing our training costs. The benefits of remote work augment but do not supplant the virtues of face-to-face interactions with like-minded peers. The real question is how do we know which is the right tool for which job?

To be clear, WeThinkCode_ believes, unequivocally, in the power of digital technology to improve the world. We have staked our very credibility on the promise that coding has the power to improve the lives of our graduates and the communities that will consume their work output. We however, see no contradiction in pointing out the fact that training youth and especially those from underserved communities, is not an enterprise that is ready to completely move across to remote learning platforms. With South Africa’s extreme inequality that condemns many of its citizens to precarious housing, unreliable electricity supply, prohibitively high costs of data and major learning gaps from the primary and secondary education systems, we need to take a pragmatic approach that begins at the station of our present constraints and gradually moves us to a utopian world of universal adoption of remote learning.

A Turbulent Transition to Remote Learning

When we switched to remote learning under the government mandated lockdown, student performance dropped by 22 percent between January and April 2020. Students from households with incomes of less than R 350 000 p/a were disproportionately affected. The devil was in the details.

Firstly, the quality of infrastructure sets the stage for an optimal learning environment. Despite our efforts to provide laptops and data, we could not solve for unreliable electricity and connectivity. A campus levels the playing field by providing equal access to good quality infrastructure.

Secondly, a quiet and safe space to study is a privilege that many of our low-income students don’t not have. The campus environment plays a critical role in providing this.

Finally, the power of collaboration and spontaneous engagements when peers are in the same room is significantly compromised by remote learning. Alumni consistently name the peer-to-peer environment as the highlight of the student experience. They get to collaborate and leverage one another’s knowledge. This is particularly true for students that have no coding experience prior to joining the academy.

As soon as it was safe and legal to do so, we started reopening the campuses. Academic performance rapidly improved. We have come to appreciate our campuses as more than just brick and mortar. They are crucial spaces that provide needed infrastructure that many cannot access; conducive study spaces that are otherwise only available to a privileged few and a community of vibrant young minds that ignites innovation.

For those young people that most need an intervention like WeThinkCode_, a physical learning environment is critical to their success.

Creating Alternatives While Bridging the Gap

The pandemic showed the power of technology to drive access, but it also held a magnifying glass over the cracks in our society. Exposing how our society’s structural inequalities are hard barriers to inclusive digital transformation. Much like walking, cars and aeroplanes, we see the hybrid of remote and contact learning as complementary solutions that can and should be used together for optimal outcomes.

Technology provides an opportunity to level the playing field but we must meet talented young people from Khayelitsha, Kwa-Thema and Umlazi at the point of their need to ensure that they have what’s required to succeed.

Our march towards a digital utopia must make a critical stop at the station of inclusion and close structural gaps if it is to ever realise equitable transformation. In educating youth from underserved communities, that means providing safe spaces equipped with the necessary physical infrastructure and social support to enable them to unleash their full potential.

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