By Jessie Taylor
The world is increasingly becoming more connected and digitally-led – a fact that has been brought into sharp relief by the pandemic, which has seen almost all businesses developing their digital strategies to cope with remote working and new consumer behaviours.
But to keep pace with this digital transformation, the workforce also needs to acquire new skills and competencies. This is why the education sector is moving to teach learners and students digital skills that will prepare them for future workplaces.
A new digital perspective
Minister of Higher Education and Technology Blade Nzimande has said that the pandemic has shown the education sector that it needs to support augmented and remote learning. Not only has this allowed for basic and higher education to continue during various levels of lockdown regulations, but it has also seen the sector move towards embracing the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).
He adds that the education sector needs to move towards preparing students and learners for emerging, new and innovative business models.
“At the core of it all – we need education – education and training that keeps pace with the 4IR”, said Nzimande.
Just some of the future jobs youths will take up include data analysts and scientists, AI and machine learning specialists, big data specialists, new technology specialists, and software and applications developers and analysts.
“However, alongside robotics specialists and engineers you will find jobs like people and culture specialists, client information and customer service workers, and client information and customer service workers” – Minister Nzimande commented.
“We have to fill the whole spectrum of the job market – we are not going to replace people with machines, we are going to make people better workers using innovative technologies.”
Driving competitive edge
Digital skills are driving competitiveness in today’s economy, and students who possess them will be more in demand in the workplace. Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges are ideally placed to impart these skills with their focus on preparing students to become functional workers.
Imparting these digital skills is already underway in many TVET colleges. Recently, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and industrial manufacturing company Siemens South Africa entered into a partnership to empower the country’s students with digital skills, working through TVET colleges. This will equip students with critical technical and digital skills, making them more employable, with a focus on data science and advanced IT skills in artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Another similar partnership – between Microsoft, the Public Service Sector Education and Training Authority (PSETA), and Afrika Tikkun Services – promises to provide online opportunities for 20 000 young people under the Microsoft Global Skills Initiative.
The initiative has helped over 30 million people in 249 countries and territories, and nearly 300 000 in South Africa, to gain access to digital skills. The programme aims to build digital skills capabilities in South Africa and to improve the employability of the country’s youth in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) industry.
Going beyond basics
For South Africa to have the skills it needs to compete in an increasingly digital world, technology-focused training needs to be carried through to all education sectors.
To this end, the Department of Basic Education is moving ahead with the introduction of coding and robotics at South African schools as of next year under the new Coding and Robotics Curriculum.
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga says that the subjects would form part of the curriculum at different school levels from Grade R to Grade 9.
The new curriculum will be introduced through a pilot project with Grades R to 3 in 200 schools across all provinces. Around 1000 schools will pilot the Grade 7 curriculum.
The subjects introduced will include pattern recognition, algorithms and coding, robotics skills, internet and e-communicating and application skills.
The subjects are aimed at preparing learners to solve problems, think critically, work collaboratively and creatively, and function in a digital and information-driven world, says Hon. Motshekga.
“The subjects aim at equipping learners to contribute in a meaningful and successful way in a rapidly changing and transforming society,” – Minister Motshekga.
The new curriculum has had the full support of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who says building the e-skilled economy as envisaged in the National Development Plan hinges on making changes at the basic education level, especially as studies have shown that the country lags behind in the information technology skills needed for the digital revolution.
Focusing on the school curriculum on the 4IR will ensure that learners have the best possible chance at succeeding in a fast-changing global environment.
“The Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the digital divide in society, particularly with regards to the adoption of technologies for learning and teaching. It underscores the need to intensify efforts to ensure connectivity and equitable access to data,” – President Ramaphosa.
“This calls for stronger public-private partnerships to ensure that we mobilise the necessary resources to help our learners. One of the key focus areas of the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan is boosting education and skills development.”
A new workforce
Rolling out this new curriculum is a vital step in securing future economic growth. Research has shown that the most critical future skills that businesses will require in the next five years are all digital, with data analysts, data scientists and machine learning specialists topping the list of the most in-demand roles. This need will only increase over the next few decades.
Already, more than 40% of businesses in the country say they struggle to find employees with the required digital skills. And this is likely to soar, with more than two-thirds of businesses predicting they will be hiring into more positions that require deep technology skills over the next couple of years.
South Africa’s youth have borne the brunt of the economic downturn, with around the demographic carrying the highest rate of unemployed. If the country can meet the need for digital skills among employees in the market, there is great potential for increasing employment among youth and growing economic activity, which in turn will reduce the inequality gap.
The world as we know it continues to rapidly change due to technology, and the careers of the future are more and more relying on computer-based skills. The education system, both at a basic and higher level, has both the responsibility and opportunity to equip learners for this ever-increasingly digital world.
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