With the emergence of AI, machine learning and robotics, big data is transforming industries, businesses and the way work. Disruption in the labour market will be on an unprecedented scale as automatization spreads across all sectors – and, like all disruption, its impact may be threatening, hugely positive, or both. The ecosystem of the 4thindustrial revolution could be game-changing, as moderator Cosmas Zavazava, Chief, Projects and Knowledge Management, ITU, noted, but we must take action now to avoid leaving anyone behind, deepening the digital divide into a data one.
Connectivity is fundamental, of course, but to be meaningful and effective, it must be accompanied by digital literacy, data skills and a new concept of and approach to education for the workplace.
Drawing a distinction between learning and education, Anir Chowdhury, Policy Adviser at a21 in Bangladesh, pointed out that learning has changed irreversibly over the past ten or twenty years, but education has not. Education and learning should converge as the digital classroom – and the AI/IoT-facilitated virtual world – replace the physical classroom. We have to move fast to maintain our human advantage over rapidly-developing machines, he said, recommending five key areas of action: taking personal responsibility as a learner; developing a personalised education system; learning how to learn; rapid curriculum change driven by the learner rather than more conservatively-paced experts; and introducing workspace apprenticeships.
For Kirsty Chadwick, Group CEO, The Training Room Online, enabling technology can change the landscape of education and learning. Offline design is key to providing access to learning solutions with digital technology in areas where connectivity is challenging.
There is currently a strong disconnect throughout the different sectors of education from early years to secondary education, universities and then the world of work. “We need to create and use technology to apply to the deep-rooted and systemic challenges that education faces both here and globally,” she said. Strong political leadership and vision is vital to keep up with the rapid pace of adoption of powerful, transformational technology – and adapting or updating the regulatory framework which is holding back change in Africa.
The difficulty is in balancing the reality of connectivity paucity now with future needs. Gisa Fuatai Purcell, Acting Secretary General of CTO, highlighted the difficulty of brining IoT and AI to Least Developed Countries, Small Island Developing States and landlocked countries, where cable may have to be brought through several other sovereign territories or undersea, at tremendous expense. Leapfrogging will to more advanced technologies will be challenging, she said, but worth the investment.
Lifelong learning meansnot just getting children into tech and AI, but also bringing on board the older people, too, Sunil Geness,Group Corporate Affairs Manager at SAP, Africa, reminded the panel. For children, the focus should be on learning through play, sparking an interest in, and familiarity with, technology that may translate into the future workplace.
Brian Armstrong, Adjunct Professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, concurred. “Digital familiarity and digital literacy can start with games, social media and YouTube to drive access, and then move to transactional use, learning and the higher order usage that we all seek. Start with entertainment as the way into the door.”
“Learning for the future starts with re-equipping educators,” he continued. “The key intervention is with the educational community and educators,” who are often more traditionalist.
For Geness, new modes of teaching should blend technology and human-facilitated learning, encouraging children to become the teachers, and moving towards collaborative and creative thinking.
Chadwick called for a humanistic engagement, where learners are supported by parents, the community, educators and learning and development professionals at all levels, “to deliver learning in a different way, as part of an ecosystem, just putting sticking plasters on the a fundamentally broken system is not the way forward to make children relevant in the world of work.”
The panellists agreed that future-proofing education and preparing for new workforce realities in the age of AI need a tripartite approach bringing together government, labour and employees – as well as the SMEs and entrepreneurs creating jobs in South Africa, the continent and the world.