Guest Column

The future won’t wait

2017-07-23 06:05

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Tebogo Khaas

The influence and impact technology has on how we do things is immense, inevitable and irreversible.

The fourth industrial revolution compels us to think creatively about our future including, of course, our education systems.

It enjoins us to overhaul archaic pedagogical models and strategically use the “internet of things” to prepare the future workforce for the, mainly unknown, challenges that lie ahead.

Let me explain.

The boundaries between the internet, the physical world and its more than 7 billion inhabitants are becoming increasingly blurry.

Terminology such as “robotics”, “artificial intelligence”, “autonomous vehicles”, “mobile computing”, “smartphone”, “virtual reality”, “internet of things”, “3-D printing”, “analytics”, “clean energy” and other disruptive technologies and applications are at the centre of what is conceived to be the fourth industrial revolution.

The most efficient and biggest taxi-hailing service in the world, Uber, doesn’t own any taxis, while the largest online hospitality service in the world, Airbnb, doesn’t own any properties.

Amazon, the third largest retailer in the world, and Alibaba are fast closing in on Walmart and CVS.

These companies are reaping the rewards of adopting disruptive technologies and applications that radically change industries.

It is, therefore, not inconceivable for the world’s largest, most efficient and accessible education institution of the future to be technology-driven and disruptive.

The glaring disconnect between our content-driven education model – largely developed in the nineteenth century – and future demands by a skills-based, technology-driven economy can only be ignored at our peril.

Lack of urgency and coherence

It is not surprising, although perturbing, that our primary education system was rated 126th out of 138 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2016/17 Global Competitiveness Report, while our higher education and training system was ranked 134th.

What is startling, however, is the apparent lack of urgency and coherence in policy formulation and implementation by our government in order to radically transform our archaic 19th century education model to one that will best prepare young people to adapt to the demands of the future economy.

It is also telling that the 2017 ANC policy discussion document on education doesn’t mention the fourth industrial revolution at all, while this phrase only appears once, and in general terms, in its economic policy discussion document.

Interestingly, the National Development Plan: Vision 2030 also doesn’t mention the fourth industrial revolution.

It does, however, make reference to some elements associated with disruptive technologies without delving much into these or offering cogent proposals for the future economy and education systems.

The omission of a discussion on this subject by the recent ANC policy conference, and in the National Development Plan, is of grave concern given that as the incumbent governing party, ANC policies end up being adopted government policies.

World-renowned British author and international adviser on education Sir Ken Robinson says: “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed.

"The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

Disruptive innovation awareness must, therefore, be the guiding principle behind a new education paradigm as we ensure our adaptability to the demands of a changing world.

A new public pedagogical model that fuses elements of Montessori, project/inquiry-based learning, green schools, interdisciplinary learning collaborative, Stem and language immersion career/technical education systems is desired.

Working models such as those offered by Sizwe Nxasana’s Future Nation and Spark private schools, with the latter using a blended online and conventional system, allow for high-quality education at a lower cost than that of public education.

An interesting example of successful application of disruptive technologies in the education system can be found at the Higher Colleges of Technology in Abu Dhabi, that invested in a wireless notebook platform for students.

Locally, the Gauteng department of education is investing heavily in digital devices and future classrooms.

These approaches will make it possible for education departments to offer open online content through technology as traditional brick-and-mortar schools become increasingly irrelevant.

The fourth industrial revolution will impact both low- and high-skilled jobs.

This technology-driven revolution will likely further polarise the labour market as low-skill and, progressively, middle class jobs.

Unprepared

A recent brief conversation with a learned senior counsel friend of mine on the potential impact technology will have on most professions helped reveal just how unprepared most of us may still be.

After all, as he asserts, “robots cannot litigate”.

My retort was: “Wait until Mr Robot SC enters a courtroom of the future and successfully argues case law based on nothing but artificial intelligence.”

The IBM Watson AI Ross platform is already stealing lunch from some US lawyers through its cognitive platform-based legal abilities.

From contact centre call agents, junior lawyers, healthcare professionals, to insurance and stock brokers, advances in the mining and application of metadata, analytics and artificial intelligence could render humans performing these tasks redundant.

New labour opportunities will, however, emerge, requiring new skills.

Massive reskilling would thus be required in order to allow affected workers the opportunity to acquire new and highly sought-after skills in the new economy.

The key to any successful intervention by government will entail massive investment in the early childhood and foundation phases of education in order to ensure that our young are geared for the future economy.

Learners, educators and communities also need to inculcate and value intrinsic motivation for education as part of our culture.

This can heighten performance expectations (and outcomes) and minimise drop-out and failure rates, particularly in our public school system.

Also, in future politicians could find it compelling to lessen government’s role in the delivery of education content.

They could, for instance, limit government’s role to policy formulation, regulation and provisioning of an enabling environment for successful public-private sector partnerships.

Robert Shiller, 2013 Nobel prize winner in Economics, recently said:

“We cannot wait until there are massive dislocations in our society to prepare for the fourth industrial revolution.”

The R2bn question is:

Will South Africa wait until there are massive socioeconomic dislocations before she responds to the challenges and opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution?

I’ll listen on the wireless.

Khaas is an IT engineer, businessman and chief executive of Digital IQ, which specialises in information technology security

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