From the classroom to the global stage: How one Eastern Cape education NPO is catching the world’s attention

An award-winning game that was developed to teach primary school kids in South Africa how to code – without using a computer – has gone global, thanks to the power of partnerships and thinking bigger.

Picture this: a group of slightly anxious business students playing computer games. Why anxious? Because the game in question is taking them on a journey into the murky worlds of coding and big data – as anxiety provoking to MBA students as it is to just about everyone who isn’t a computer programmer it seems.

But in a digital era, everybody needs to have at least a grasp of these critical skills, right? It was this thought in fact that drove Byron Batterson, then an honours student in computer science at the Nelson Mandela University (NMU), now a programmer at Amazon, to develop the game the students are playing in the first place.

Initially called TANKS, the game started out life as a class project and is elegant in its simplicity; a cardboard puzzle paired with a phone app that can run on even basic smartphones. The idea was that it could be used to teach primary schools kids in low-resource settings the fundamentals of coding. No electricity is required to play the game, and the app, once downloaded, does not need to be connected to the internet, which makes it ideal for schools in poorer and more remote areas.

And that’s where it might have ended, but NMU’s Professor Jean Greyling spotted the game’s potential and worked with Batteson to develop it further. Then they joined forces with the Leva Foundation in Gqeberha, that stepped up as the implementation partner and helped fund the rollout of TANKS under an umbrella programme named Tangible Africa.

Fast forward a few years and several awards later, and Tangible Africa has since expanded into the rest of Africa. This month it will debut in Dublin and Oldenburg (Germany), in August in Rotterdam and in September has been invited to share its story at the UNESCO digital learning week in Paris. 

“This is an amazing tale of a local South African impact project, developed in response to a local challenge, which has been recognised as having a global application,” says Ryan le Roux, CEO of the Leva Foundation.

The original TANKS version of the game has evolved into two separate games: RANGERS and BOATS, dropping the uneasy military references. RANGERS introduces Grade 8 learners to the fundamentals of coding, while BOATS teaches intermediate coding skills to learners from Grades 4 to 7. Learners use puzzle pieces to build a code in the form of a QR code, a picture of which is then uploaded onto the phone app. This allows them to move a ranger or boat through the game’s levels. In doing so, they are taught coding principles such as ‘for loop’ and optimisation, concepts typically taught to first-year computer science students.

Prof Greyling believes that the games serve two purposes. First to address the shortage of software developers and programmers – identified as a critical skill by the Department of Home Affairs. Second, it opens the door to new and lucrative career opportunities to learners who otherwise may be excluded from the tech sector because the vast majority attend schools where there is no access to computers.

According to a 2020 National Education Infrastructure Management System report, an average of more than 63% of public schools in South Africa do not have computer centres. In the Eastern Cape, that figure stands at over 87%.

Le Roux has seen the game pass on additional benefits. Leva has established numerous Tangible Academies around the country, where some tutors are employed to offer additional maths and language lessons to standout learners. “We’ve seen kids’ marks go up significantly,” he reports.

In addition, the learners pick up some essential soft skills that prepare them for later work life. “We realised after a few workshops that a lot of 21st century skills are in the game; things like creative, conceptual thinking and teamwork, for instance,” he adds.

Tangible Africa has now worked with close to 100,000 learners across some 600 South African schools. In addition, around 2,000 teachers have been trained to oversee its use in classrooms, with the training accredited by the Department of Basic Education in partnership with unions SADTU, SAOU and NATU.

And it seems that it’s not just school kids that can benefit from the games. MBA students at the Nelson Mandela University Business School were given a chance to try it out, and in May 2023, following a successful pilot earlier in the year, it was the turn of students on executive education programmes at Henley Business School Africa be put through their paces. Leva and Henley co-created a module called ‘big data and coding’ to help corporate middle managers studying at Henley understand the value of big data.

Le Roux, who is himself a graduate of Henley Business School, having done the MBA there in 2018/19, says that if school learners need to be prepared for work in the tech sector, then adults, and especially business students need to learn to overcome their apprehensions too.

“Too many adults switch off at the sight of anything to do with big data, stats, technology, digital citizenship or themes like that,” he notes. “But the game can teach those fundamentals in an engaging way that takes the intimidation factor out of the process.”

Le Roux also credits his time at Henley Africa as giving him the confidence and knowledge he needed to push for Tangible’s global expansion.

“We would never have thought or had the knowledge to launch internationally had I not been exposed to the rooms I was in while completing my MBA,” he says. “It helped me to think bigger and gave me the confidence to believe in our ability to have an impact on the NPO sector.”

“Imagination is an unsung superpower of a leader,” comments Jon Foster-Pedley, Dean and Director of Henley Africa.

“At Henley Africa our mission is to build the people, who build the businesses, that build Africa and one of the ways we do this is by helping our students to see that the capacity to innovate and build a scalable evolution for their company often depends on their capacity to imagine that future. Tangible Africa and the Leva Foundation are showing us how it’s done, and their expanding impact speaks for itself.”

In 2022, the Leva Foundation was first runner up in the African Union award for innovation in education, and also won a grant from Henley Business School’s Innovation Fund that invests in early-stage alumni innovations which allowed it to start its expansion into Africa. In 2023, a three-way partnership with the Leva Foundation, NMU and 1Billion Africa enabled Tangible to continue this expansion into Ghana. And later this year, they’ll be debuting on the world stage.

“It’s been quite the journey, says Jackson Tshabalala, Engagement Manager at Leva Foundation, who has just been named as one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young Africans 2023 and is also a graduate of the Henley Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice.

“Breaking the barriers to coding and helping to bridge the digital divide has been a huge privilege. Africa is the world's next big growth market and I believe that the key to investing in Africa is investing in its human capital. With a solutions mindset and by taking joint action with a whole host of partners including Henley Business School and NMU, we are showing that it is possible to build a better future for our children through innovative learning.”

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