COVID-19: The 4IR catapult

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When Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chair of the World Economic Forum, coined the phrase: “Fourth Industrial Revolution” (4IR), he argued it would happen at an exponential pace and that new technologies would change society in unpredictable ways.

Central to this would be artificial intelligence (AI) driven machines becoming more efficient than humans in some fields: medical diagnosis can be made more precisely and cars can be manufactured faster. There are also other benefits, including autonomous vehicles, smart homes, vertical farms, fuel efficiency and more accurate prediction of natural disasters.

However, cautions computing sciences associate professor at the Nelson Mandela University (NMU) Jean Greyling: “Within all of this excitement is anxiety.

“It’s obvious that many jobs are at risk of disappearing, while millions of people could find themselves with unusable skills. In 2019, I was at Unesco’s Mobile Learning Week, in Paris, where this challenge was discussed by the president of the World Labour Organisation, Guy Ryder.

“I remember how proud I was when president Cyril Ramaphosa was mentioned as one of the leading statesmen who understands the opportunities and challenges of the 4IR. His leadership in this field has been visible, as government has been actively promoting coding and robotics as a subject in schools – from as young as Grade R.”

One thousand schools were identified for the pilot, meant to start last year, "then came the curveball – COVID-19. It put a hold on the coding and robotics roll-out," says Greyling.

“But with all its negative effects, COVID-19 has catapulted many societies into the 4IR. Millions of people across the world had to suddenly adjust to virtual meetings and increased online activity that requires technological support such as cloud computing. Before the pandemic, software development was one of the scarcest skills in the country and most of the world; and as more economies became dependent on software, companies are becoming more desperate to find qualified graduates.

“This takes us back to coding and robotics in schools… Over many years, students of mine from disadvantaged communities have encouraged me to visit their former schools to make pupils aware of careers in software development, as their schools do not have computers, leaving pupils unaware of the lucrative careers in computing.”

Of the 25 000 schools in the country, 16 000 do not have computer labs. “It’s estimated that it will cost about R1 million each to provide those schools with Internet-connected labs. This becomes even more of a challenge if one considers the shortage of teachers who would teach coding and robotics, as well as staff who could maintain the computer labs.”

Going back to basics

In 2017, NMU computing sciences student Byron Batteson designed a coding app named Tanks for his honour's project. Says Greyling: “This innovative tool set us on an exciting journey. We were teaching pupils to code without the need for computers or a R1 million computer lab.”

Using cellphones and customised puzzle pieces, Tanks has introduced about 30 000 pupils to coding concepts being taught at a first-year level. The project falls within the broader discipline of “unplugged coding", aimed at introducing learners to coding without a computer, often only on paper. “Over the past month, NMU’s computing sciences department has presented unplugged coding workshops on Zoomas, part of the YEEES project, in partnership with colleagues from Namibia, Mozambique and Germany.” YEEES is sponsored by DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

“South Africa needs to make this investment in our future. Every week I see initiatives springing up in schools and communities across SA making use of our apps and other resources we developed. And, as COVID-19 has put a severe strain on the Department of Basic Education’s finances, industry remains an important partner in this endeavour.

“We’re grateful to our many industry sponsors and partners who have made it possible to make a difference in the career aspirations of pupils,” he concludes.

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