4IR's impact on education calls for a rethink on current learning and teaching models

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Now and then, crises and developments emerge which remind us that we cannot easily escape our unresolved past. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the unresolved racial socio-economic inequalities into sharp relief. Unless resolved, the past will continue to weigh on the present.

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, Dr Blade Nzimande, captured this well when he observed that measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19 are “constrained by the very same challenges we seek to address, poverty inequality and unemployment. The very problems we seek to solve are the obstacles standing on our way”.

Resolving the historic fault lines should be part of the response to the pandemic. This will require forging “a compact for an equitable economic transformation that will ensure the advancement of the economic position of women, youth and persons with disabilities and that which promote localisation and industrialisation of our economy”.

Nzimande revisited the theme during the opening address of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Virtual Conference organised by Fuze Business Initiative. He said industrial revolutions had failed to reduce inequalities between and within countries.

According to Forbes Magazine 2018 for instance, three men - Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and investor Warren Buffet - held combined fortunes worth more than the total wealth of the poorest half of Americans. The richest 2% own more than half the wealth of the world’s population.

The 4IR can be a game-changer. It presents an opportunity to address inequality. Africans cannot afford to be mere consumers.

“We must also be innovators, creators of new technologies. The 4IR is not a social phenomenon with a predetermined trajectory the social effects of the 4IR will depend predominantly on how we, as South Africans, choose to harness it”, Nzimande said.

There is a case to be made that the higher education sector has not taken advantage of the new technologies to address the inequalities. Institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been at the forefront of sharing resources by publishing all its course material online.

Nothing prevents higher education institutions from doing the same. Joint appointments that enable professors to teach at different universities could be made. Instead of doing so, some of our institutions have turned the inequalities and privileges into a competitive advantage.

The emergence of Covid-19 has catapulted the higher education sector into the future. The sector has had to find innovative and creative ways of doing things differently. In less than three months, digital platforms have become the new normal.

Our approach should go beyond technologising it by simply focusing on smart gadgets and so on. We need to imagine new ways of using simulations, automation, machine learning and augmented reality in our teaching. Fortunately, technology has a way of permeating society in an unplanned and sustainable way.

Our fascination with advanced technologies must be balanced against sociological and cultural shifts. This includes cultural implications that result from the machine-human interface, the gig economy, work-based fragmentation, structural and technology-induced unemployment. Predictions are that 65% of children entering Grade R will be in jobs that do not yet exist.

New technologies do not necessarily replace all technologies. They build on them. The same applies to the type of learning and knowledge required.

Equally, while the breadth and pace of technology will move at great speed, and cause disruptions and discontinuities, there will be a need for employment in various sectors. We will have agriculture, manufacturing, construction and services. The challenge is how the new technologies can be harnessed in creating efficiencies in the various economic sectors.

Advances in technology will require new and different skills. This has implications for education. For centuries, education prepared learners for a future that was relatively known.

Trouble arises when faced with an environment characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. This calls for reimagining of how we approach curriculum. Education thus becomes a vehicle that ensures that human labour does not fall far behind the pace of technology.

The traditional packaging of knowledge, skills and competencies into modules and qualifications will prove to be inadequate.

The answer lies in focusing on disciplining the mind. It is about developing human qualities and dispositions that will enable learners to engage meaningfully with the ever-changing technological landscape.

Albert Einstein was arguably prophetic when he observed that “imagination is more important than knowledge. Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions”. He said education should not be about “learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think”.

We are not there yet.

* Professor Seepe is deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Zululand.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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A Grade 4 class at Future Nations Schools during a coding and robotic lesson to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillip/African News Agency (ANA)