Education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

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This month, Rhodes University’s former vice-chancellor Professor Saleem Badat responding to my article stated that engineers and technologists should not be the only people leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) conversations, but also those in the social sciences and humanities. As he puts it “4IR is viewed as an entirely scientific and technological matter, not as a social or human matter.”

Yet, it is just that; it is a human matter. If we are to define the 4IR, it encompasses advancements in artificial intelligence, internet of things, blockchain and robotics. Like the industrial revolutions that have preceded it, the 4IR will change every facet of our society from the way we interact, to how our industries operate to the way we consume. It is fundamentally a paradigm shift. 

To understand this shift, it is imperative to trace back the previous three industrial revolutions. In brief, the first industrial revolution introduced mechanisation through the introduction of water and steam power, replacing cottage industries and manual labour. The second industrial revolution saw the introduction of electricity and mass production and changed the scale and speed of manufacturing significantly. The third industrial revolution saw increasingly optimised and automated production lines through electronics and electricity. 

With electricity, each machine could be powered individually with its electric motor and with electronics each machine could be automated. What then is the 4IR? Is it merely the adoption of new technology? It is mesh of the physical, digital and biological spheres through the technologies mentioned above, with a particular emphasis on a confluence of many developments and technologies. 

There are many merits in adapting to the 4IR, yet I would be remiss not to add that they are coupled with warnings of its potential to exacerbate many of our existing challenges, particularly around inequality, disparity and even concerns around privacy. However, it is essential to note that regardless of how we respond, it will permeate our lives. 

The challenge, of course, is to harness it positively. Excluding the social scientists from these debates is counterproductive, as the impact of 4IR on society is pervasive, deep and disruptive.
 
In particular, Professor Badat’s messaging on the importance of the humanities alongside science and technology, and for hard questions on what is the new normal and to pose difficult questions, is just. The British literary theorist Terry Eagleton once said, “What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future. 

We will not change this simply by increasing state funding of the humanities as opposed to slashing it to nothing. We will change it by insisting that a critical reflection on human values and principles should be central to everything that goes on in universities, not just to the study of Rembrandt or Rimbaud.” To illustrate, if we look at the education sector, this is the crux of much of the shift we are seeing. Universities are being redefined once again. 

The opportunity presents itself, requiring deep introspection on the purpose of higher education, how it can continue to contribute to the public good and interrogating our core functions of teaching, learning, research and community engagement. It has been argued that to contend with the disruptions of the 4IR, universities need to be imaginative, inventive, agile, flexible and adaptive. Universities which have seen the writing on the wall, are looking forward, and in the moment, in the process of responding. 

Just like Covid-19 has forced universities to continue with its functions, albeit remotely, so has the advent of the 4IR propelled universities to rise to the challenges.  The premise of education under the 4IR is a shift from learning being self-focused to being ‘for others.’ Universities play a fundamental role in developing skills for future generations, with academia navigating technological changes. 

In 2017, alongside Bo Xing, I wrote about the implications of the 4IR on higher education. As we put it at the time, “Higher education in the fourth industrial is a complex, dialectical and exciting opportunity which can potentially transform society for the better”. The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have hastened many of the shifts we would have seen with the 4IR. As the University of Johannesburg (UJ) shifts towards remote and online methods of teaching and learning, much of what we have learnt could remain in place long after the lockdown levels have lifted. 

To a large extent, the necessary move to online modes of teaching and learning at this time has revealed what works and where we need to refocus our efforts. Given the history of our country, a blended model is appropriate as it takes into account the unique circumstances of the learner. Over the last few months, our students have access to platforms such as Blackboard and uLink, which are valuable resources for both staff and students for teaching and learning remotely. 

Our academics have disseminated short videos, Zoom calls and WhatsApp communication with our students, for instance. Yet, this has not been without challenges. Data, Wi-Fi and access to devices at the very least are necessities for a complete transition to online learning. However, this sadly is not a reality for many students who are often the first in their families to go to university and face other economic challenges. 

While this has been addressed in the short-term, albeit with hiccups such as ransomware attacks on Telkom that saw a delay in the distribution of data, there needs to be a view towards long-term solutions. This, of course, is not to say that institutions will fade into oblivion with the shift online. Many universities opt for both contact and online learning. The hybrid model uses technology and also makes provision for physical contact.  Especially in fields such as science, while one can use augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), there is a place for actual laboratory work. 

Universities always have to be agile and responsive cognisant of their roles as thought leaders, knowledge producers and hubs of intellectual activity. Higher education institutions will remain pivotal for engaging in meaningful action to contribute towards local, national and global debate. Like other higher education institutions, universities have to continually revisit their strategic plans to ensure constructive alignment with a rapidly changing society. It is not merely an adoption of technologies at universities that we are seeing. Proponents of the 4IR will tell you that the world of work is shifting, whether we are ready and equipped for that change or not. Universities have to be agile in their response to this. 

There is a shift towards new flexible, often multidisciplinary curricula that moves away from the traditional focus on predefined categories and types of learning. This requires strong and robust conversations on research. As the World Economic Forum has iterated, there is a shift towards a focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). But just as Prof Badat has rightly emphasised, there is also a fundamental need for a focus on human and social sciences subjects which provide the kind of perspective needed to embrace the 4IR. 

In effect, what this may entail is the repackaging of knowledge and the repackaging of qualifications. It is also an encouragement for people to revisit their skills. If the 4IR is to be meaningful and bring about positive change, part of the solution then is to shift the focus from teaching to learning, with emphasis on real-world problem-solving abilities and a multidisciplinary approach to curriculum that is more interactive. In tandem with traditional classroom learning, there is a need to move towards including student engagement through peer-to-peer interaction and one-on-one counselling, which holds great promise for students.

As we continue to navigate the coronavirus and its implications for society, work and education, we must acknowledge the lessons learnt and identify the gaps that will need to be addressed. This is vital, as we move towards integrating the technologies of the 4IR into our spaces. The certainty is that the 4IR has arrived – the debates lie in how we respond to it. The coronavirus pandemic has been, in a sense, a purveyor of truth in terms of our preparedness for the 4IR.

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.  He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.