Enabling effective education and the development of foundational, specialist and new skills that are needed across industries and societies – in part through adopting digital education tools – requires a broad partnership among civil, commercial, educational and governmental organisations, a range of educational and commercial companies’ representatives aver.
Access to high-quality education underpins economic growth and social wellbeing – nowhere more so than on the African continent, says telecommunications and digital services multinational Liquid Intelligent Technologies (LIT) group chief technology and innovation officer Ben Roberts.
“The challenges accentuated by the pandemic have not only made businesses accelerate their digital transformation efforts; they have also pushed schools and universities to do the same, often almost overnight. African businesses must look at new ways to partner with schools, tertiary organisations and governments to ensure future generations will ultimately benefit,” he says.
Online learning and training are on the rise. Globally, the number of individuals seeking out opportunities for learning online through their own initiative is up fourfold, fivefold for employer-provisioned learning opportunities and a ninefold increase for learners accessing online learning through government programmes, notes information technology multinational IBM Southern Africa GM Hamilton Ratshefola.
“Education as an industry and the educational professionals within it are being challenged by the storms of digital disruption to prove their relevance, to maximise value for stakeholders and find ways to reinvent,” he emphasises.
“Digital education is relatively new and we are still learning the best way to deliver it. For example, simply moving a lecture from a physical space to a virtual one is not the best way to leverage the opportunity and possibility that a digital space provides. We need to clearly define the pedagogy for learning in a digital space and use that to ensure we develop the most effective learning possible for students,” states data sciences and digital skills education company Explore Data Science Academy founder and CEO Shaun Dipnall.
In a digital education model, educators spend more time on content development and quality, and ensuring that learners engage with the material as they are intended to. The educator spends less time teaching and more time troubleshooting and guiding. She or he is better able to help learners with specifics rather than conveying high-level and general concepts, as the learners can engage with this independently, he says.
“Educators can also facilitate far bigger classes online than in a physical classroom space, with the onus shifting to teaching concepts and ideas,” he says.
When applied to the correct activity, digital education can improve outcomes when used in conjunction with traditional teaching methods. The balancing act is determining what aspects of education can be better presented in a digital format, says digital solutions company Nextec knowledge process outsourcing manager Tobie Oosthuizen.
“Over the past few decades, the role of technology in education has continually evolved. In classrooms and lecture halls, lessons have increasingly been complemented by digital tools and platforms which typically vary in scope and sophistication,” says Ratshefola.
“Students’ appetite for digital tools across the whole gamut of education is strong. This fosters a learning environment that is more engaging, more hands-on, meaningful and memorable, and creates better learning outcomes. This is putting pressure on education professionals as they seek to meet the growing demands of ‘digital natives’,” he says.
“Deeply immersive interactive experiences with intelligent tutoring systems will transform how we learn and improve the impact of educators. A digital platform model can enable organisations to accelerate time to skill in many ways, accelerating impact and broadening reach,” says Ratshefola.
The important question to ask is: What aspects of education should be digitalised? All administrative matters present quick wins – from pre-registration communication to dissemination of content and the distribution of results, all can be digitalised quickly with no negative impact on the quality of learning, says Oosthuizen.
“Different modes of instruction suit different students better, depending on their priorities, background, current situation and personality. We expect to see growth in exclusively digital education, but also in blended education, and we expect that both will fulfil specific needs in the future,” highlights Dipnall.
Digital education is no different from more traditional training practices, and learning is generally best achieved through incremental exposure to increasingly complex subject matter, says South African software training academy WeThinkCode CEO Nyari Samushonga.
Skills and Opportunities
As observed in other industries, as new digital tools gain traction, this eventually leads to a tipping point of mass adoption and disruption is caused when the value proposition becomes so overwhelming it displaces the status quo. Ultimately, this culminates in the balance of power shifting to the end-user, which, in this case, is the learner, highlights Ratshefola.
“The pandemic has forced a complete shift to virtual interactions. Our students have struggled with this format and it has revealed the importance of social interaction in shared spaces as a part of the learning process and management of an individual’s motivation,” says Samushonga.
“I think we will see a blended learning model emerge. Taking away the ability to talk spontaneously, gather around whiteboards and sketch out ideas has made it more difficult to grapple with and grasp certain complex concepts. A hybrid approach will allow us to leverage the best of both worlds,” she says.
New digital tools, coupled with advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) systems, will eventually facilitate the utopia of teaching, namely personalised learning, states Ratshefola.
“If more students had access to adaptive curriculum material, it would make a tremendous difference in solving problems of high drop-out rates and create better engagement in the classroom. If students were always learning within their level of proximal development, if they were always at the right level, you would have greater success.”
“Digital is merely a medium through which learning takes place. The quality of the content and the rigour of the training still requires effective accreditation of course content. The challenge is that the regulators are under-resourced and not always able to set the bar for accreditation. Getting this right will credentialise holders of certain certificates and open up opportunities for economic participation in the global technology sector,” Samushonga adds.
Skills-orientated online training programmes are key and can empower students of various backgrounds with the skills needed to excel in the high-demand job market. With emerging technology tracks, students can leverage industry use cases and encourage experimenting with big ideas. Students must also be enabled to earn digital badges that lead to immediate job opportunities, concurs Ratshefola.
While digital skills may not be a hard requirement for most companies, in the near future, those that have such skills will be able to do their jobs at a higher quality with less effort and will likely distinguish themselves in the workplace. Many companies are prioritising digital transformation and are actively upskilling their employees, which is an indicator that industries are recognising and prioritising these skills, confirms Dipnall.
However, despite overwhelming public focus on disruptive technological skills, diverse skill sets will be in demand in the future. While disruptive technology skills such as data science and AI skills will certainly be critical to the future of the workplace, so will care-giving, leadership and the ability to provide learning and development, Ratshefola highlights.
“As lines blur between conventional business roles and technology functions, there is a coming together of digital and human tasks best tackled by people with a broader, more holistic mindset. This shift and the varying needs accompanying it mean all stakeholders have a key role to play in digital education,” he emphasises.
However, blended learning and flipped classrooms simply cannot be implemented if students do not have Internet access at home, and this is not just a developing world challenge, says Ratshefola, summarising the problem.
The pandemic has only intensified access challenges and shone the spotlight on a longstanding digital divide, says Roberts.
“In particular, this is owing to limited access to high-speed Internet, smart devices and even electricity, which hampers educational institutions’ ability to deliver at-home online learning to students at a time when in-classroom teaching is not an option,” he says.
“Now more than ever before, we need to make sure that public–private partnerships are used strategically to ensure that we create an environment that helps overcome the digital divide. At LIT, we are continually exploring such partnerships to improve the state of education,” says Roberts.
“Collaboration and ecosystem are key. We have to reach students in different environments and fully leverage the education ecosystem,” states Ratshefola.
The issue of access is an incredibly complex concept that is closely tied to South Africa’s extreme income inequality and high levels of poverty. For comprehensive learning to take place, access to equipment like computers and tablets is only one piece of the puzzle, states Samushonga.
“Many of the WeThinkCode students come from low-income backgrounds and they require access to campuses, as these are the only quiet spaces that are conducive to learning,” she illustrates.
“There is no part of the world today that is not somehow affected by digitalisation. The sooner children are exposed to digital tools, the better. It is a foundational life skill that now ranks up there with literacy and numeracy. The role that digital tools play will differ from one domain of learning to another, and where the subject matter requires physical training, such as for a surgeon or an artisan, the role of digital tools will take a different form,” she concludes.