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“If you are left behind in the digital era, you will never catch up.”
These were the thoughts shared by Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko at the much-hyped BCX Disrupt Summit held in Johannesburg earlier this month.
The summit brought together thought-leaders from a range of disciplines presenting on some of the hottest topics associated with disruptive innovation.
While there were some contrarian views (such as, is this really the 4th industrial revolution?), one thread running more-or-less consistently through the discussions was grappling with South Africa and Africa’s readiness for this innovation age.
As Maseko grimly pointed out, while Africa had been left behind in developing a manufacturing economy, this would be different. Countries not able to ride the cusp of this current wave of innovation would likely never catch up.
So what could readiness look like?
Get basics right
A Special Report on Technology in Africa released earlier this month by The Economist raises the critical requirements that are needed at a foundation stage and that underpin any hopes of Africa utilising technology in order to “leap-frog” into the innovation era.
While the report is optimistic overall — highlighting the many successful examples of improvements in education, health care and access to electricity that technology has enabled — the continent still struggles with an unstable electricity supply, low mobile phone penetration and insufficient road networks to reach more remote areas.
While technology can overcome some of these obstacles, certain basic infrastructure requirements such as ports, roads and railways cannot be bypassed by technology. Without this basic infrastructure in place, it is difficult to forge ahead.
Beyond infrastructure, a deeper exploration of the role of education in the broadest sense is absolutely critical in any conversation around Africa as an innovation leader –or at least a participant. Many countries are embracing education technology (edtech) as the tool through which structural and infrastructural barriers can be overcome.
Not just about coding, soft skills
Speakers at the summit noted how technology is “changing” the face of education — specifically not only in how it is consumed, but also in how it is delivered.
Similarly, The Economist report lists a number of what the publication deems to be exciting examples of how technology is being adopted in African classrooms — teachers relying on scripted lessons on tablets and students revising work and completing mock tests on mobile phones.
Most mainstream discussions around the impact of technology on education end here: encouraging the use of technology to support our youth in coming to grips with the content of our current education curriculum within our current education system.
Students navigating the existing education system need to be given absolutely every tool at their disposal to succeed, when the odds are well and truly stacked against them.
What it takes for the average South African to successfully get through their basic education career (let alone any post-school training) is beyond the comprehension of many.
If technology can improve access to content, remove geographic constraints, present content in a more digestible way, overcome language barriers and provide input from live remote tutors (to name a few applications of technology in the education sphere), then progress has certainly been made.
But there is also a more encompassing conversation that needs to happen, one that questions the very paradigm within which most edtech innovations are being created.
Those who see technology as some sort of panacea for education are running the risk of missing the point entirely. Some of the most important innovations in education have very little to do with technology on the face of it.
And these innovations go to the heart of any conversation around our readiness as a continent, focusing on one important question — what are children are actually learning.
What we need to be discussing is how to adequately develop the skills that really matter.
And while every individual promoting their own company’s examples of edtech and innovation assures us that they are very consciously preparing students for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a way that marries a science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) focus with “the 4Cs of 21st century skills” – coding and a soft skills course alone does not a 21st century-worker make.
Radical re-imagining required
Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith’s 2016 book Most Likely to Succeed is a scathing critique of the American education system’s ability to adequately prepare young Americans for the innovation age.
While the state of the American education system is very different to the state of ours, the weaknesses in the system are globally cross-cutting.
The research the two authors cite highlights how few companies actually believe that a university qualification adequately prepares students for the real world.
This, they say, emphasises how the need for content knowledge has been replaced by the need “to be able to ask great questions, critically analyse information, form independent opinions, collaborate, and communicate effectively” (the afore-mentioned 4Cs).
This view has been repeated by research, experts (and, personally) in every conversation I’ve had with a company over the last six years.
It would be impossible to summarise the hard-hitting insights this book delivers.
But at the heart of it is a plea to recognise how the education system by its very nature remains deeply entrenched in what worked in the 1890s, and today (with a few exceptions) continues to kill any innate creativity, curiosity and critical thinking at a time when it can least afford to do so.
The two authors propose a radical re-imagining of education, with different outcomes that are evaluated differently all the while nurturing the skills that really matter.
While their proposed solutions are not easy to implement and require a revolution and revolutionaries, it’s the sober view that we need right now of what it may really take to effect a change, beyond any overly-idealised visions of what technology can offer.
If learning at educational institutions does not translate into skills that individuals can use to advance themselves in life, what learning has really taken place?
Link it to real-world application
The ability to code should be a ubiquitous skill, yes, but it is merely a tool through which to create something, a skill to apply to a given endeavour.
At the upper end of the academic pipeline we need to promote initiatives that link education to real-world application of these skills (and jobs!) and at both the upper and the lower end we need to enhance skills that will serve our youth later in life – ie the 4Cs and other innately human abilities.
Futurists convince us that these skills will ultimately be the one thing differentiating us from machines. But beyond that, forget Java, these are some of the skills that are in the most critical short supply right now.
Furthermore, we need to provide communities of support to those lobbying, and providing true innovations in the education innovation and technology landscape.
Is Africa Rising, as the BCX summit presenters would like to hope? Perhaps. If we are careful not to conflate “technology” with “innovation” in discussions around the future of education, we can block out the noise and focus on what is really needed to ensure that we aren’t left behind with no hope of ever catching up.
*Alethea Hagemann is the head of education and skills development at the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative, which houses the CapaCiTi Tech Job Readiness Programme as well as Injini, Africa’s first EdTech Incubator.
Featured image: Sasint via Pixabay