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4IR and the SA education system

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) offers opportunities for countries to advance their economic prospects through innovative technology that drive growth. South Africa is part of this change. This revolution is changing how people interact and how businesses operate. The recent reports of job losses at Standard Bank, MultiChoice, etc., that are attributed to digitisation, is an example of how technology is affecting the labour market.

It is however not all doom and gloom, as this disruption does offer opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship. The critical question for South Africa is what is the state of our readiness to exploit the opportunities touted at a faster speed?
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Image source: Gallo/Getty

But first, what is this 4IR?

The fourth industrial revolution builds on the third revolution but combines multiple technologies from the digital, physical and biological worlds. The two were preceded by the 1st industrial revolution which saw the invention of the steam engine and second revolution which saw the invention of the internal combustion engine.

According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new jobs that don't exist yet. This reality poses a serious threat to readiness for 4IR.

The fourth is a fusion of technological advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials, 3D printing, quantum computing, Blockchain, 5G and other technologies.

It is evident that operating in the current industrial revolution requires higher education levels and cognitive skills. If the 4IR is really to deliver on the promise of economic growth, job creation due to innovation, improved safety and security, better education and skills transfer, South Africa has to rapidly and immediately change its education focus and delivery model to be responsive.

According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new jobs that don't exist yet. This reality poses a serious threat to readiness for 4IR.

A critical evaluation of SA’s education system points to the following challenges relating to readiness for 4IR:

• Current school curriculum does not equip learners with the right skills or education for the 4IR.

• Computer science skills are at the centre of this revolution, however, very few primary and high school learners have access to computers. Some learners reach Grade 12 without ever interacting with a computer.

• Access to fast and reliable internet is a national problem, while for those who can access the internet, this is a costly exercise.

• Coding an important technical skill for future jobs is not part of the curriculum. This is an important skill even for students who take up non-technical subjects.

Teachers at both primary and high school level are not being provided with training and development to capacitate them to teach a 4IR geared education to their learners. The disparity between urban, rural as well as township and suburban schools exacerbates the situation.

The resourced schools have the advantage of better equipping their learners for 4IR while rural and township schools are at a disadvantage.

Opening up new opportunities


4IR will require schools to properly prepare learners with the right tools to come up with new and innovative solutions to today and tomorrow’s problems facing society. This revolution can lead to greater inequality if the right skills are not taught to every learner. With the right skills, all learners will have a better chance of succeeding whether it be in the job market or as entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship in the 4IR will open up new opportunities that don't yet exist, it is important that the education that learners receive equips them with the necessary skills to succeed as entrepreneurs. Creativity, problem-solving, critical analysis, independent thinking and analytical skills are some of the skills needed to exploit opportunities presented by the 4IR.

As such, teacher competency and reskilling is necessary. Educators must possess skills and tools necessary to prepare learners for opportunities in the 4IR. A revised curriculum that includes new topics and subjects such as coding, data analysis, and robotics must be introduced at school level.

Accelerating efforts and interventions


The government as an important stakeholder must accelerate efforts and interventions that see access to internet/broadband to learners or society.

Access to free internet and lowering the cost of data will be the basis for skilling learners for jobs and businesses of the 4IR. This entails approving regulations and policies, which are friendly and embrace the 4IR across the wide spectrum not just in education. It is however clear, given the various competing demands of the government, in the face of shrinking economic growth and the erosion of the state’s revenue base, that the state cannot do this alone.

To succeed in preparing the country’s learners for the world of 4IR it will take an investment partnership between government, private sector and civil society.

About the author

Ramukumba Khathu is the Chief Executive Officer of the Chemicals Industries Sector Education and Training Authority, he writes in his personal capacity.

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