No computer? No problem – visually impaired kids learn to code using old-fashioned puzzles

Confronted with a desperate need to introduce coding in schools that did not have computer la­­boratories, a professor and one of his honours students turned to the age-old craft of ­building puzzles.
From the man who figured out a way to teach children how to code without computers comes a new plan to make innovative coding puzzles accessible to the blind and the visually impaired.

Professor Jean Greyling launched the pilot project, Tangible Africa, in Gqeberha last week.

Tangible Africa, in partnership with the Bona uBuntu Programme, is an engagement project of Nelson Mandela University’s computing sciences department and the Leva Foundation.

Using cardboard puzzles and cellphones, Greyling’s original programme has helped to teach thousands of children across the continent since 2017.

When confronted with a desperate need to introduce coding in schools that did not have computer la­­boratories, Greyling and Byron Batteson, one of his honours students, turned to the age-old craft of ­building puzzles.

“For many years my students said we must do something to make children aware of software development,” said Greyling, who has been a lecturer at Nelson Mandela University since 1992.


Jackson Tshabalala, the operations manager at the Leva Foundation, said: “All that is needed to play these offline coding games spearheaded by Tangible Africa is a smartphone, a coding kit and eager learners.


“This partnership is called ‘Bona Africa, coding for VIPs [visually impaired people]’. The name is significant because we want to show Africa that we can develop homegrown solutions for our own people, to promote digital inclusivity in Africa.


“Many people are disconnected from the digital economy, especially visually impaired people, and we want to help reduce this with digital education.”


The pupils from Bona uBuntu were the first to try out the new games for visually impaired learners in Gqeberha last week.


“They had a lot of fun, and it was great to see that the same skills of teamwork and collaboration were used during their sessions.


“Our prototypes are basic for now, but we would love to design tools specifically for blind and visually impaired children to play the games, including adapting our existing apps or developing a specialised app,” Tshabalala said.

One of the pupils who tried out the games said: “This is the first step to get me ready for coding. I would love to be a software developer one day. It was hard at the beginning, but I practised a few levels and started to love it.”

Robyn Fick, Bona uBuntu’s programme coordinator, welcomed the coding classes and collaboration with Tangible Africa.

“Our focus is on inclusivity and accessibility for blind and visually impaired children, so we are very excited about the future opportunities that coding can offer our children,” she said.

Greyling said a crowdfunding page would be used to raise money to develop the apps even further – adding tactile elements, adding Braille to the game tokens and designing the app to have better contrast and audio.

“Two children have already told me that they would love to become software developers,” he said.

Tshabalala said: “We have a dedicated crowdfunding page for Bona Africa so anyone who would like to make a difference – from individuals to corporates – can support us.

“We also have a team of cyclists who were the first to come on board to support this cause.”
Greyling’s wife, Louise, will head a team of cyclists who will ride the Karoo to Coast Mountain Bike Challenge to raise funds for Bona Africa later this month. The race is a gruelling 100km off-road challenge from Uniondale to Knysna via Prince Alfred’s Pass.

She said: “We are practising hard and will be wearing the Bona Africa colours with pride. We are a group of about 27 cyclists who like to make a difference. I know the cause of introducing visually impaired learners to coding will give us that extra drive and energy to complete the race for a purpose.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.