Covid-19, 4IR and the breakneck pace at which higher education is evolving

Covid-19, 4IR and the breakneck pace at which higher education is evolving


Publishing Date: 10/8/2020 8:00 AM

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that featured in the Daily Maverick on 7 October, 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the Fourth Industrial Revolution have confronted us with a paradigm shift unlike any other seen before – not just on the future of education, but on the future of work. The 4IR is no longer an abstract concept that is somewhere in the future.

In recent years, conversations on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) have been coupled with debates around higher education. If all industries are fundamentally transforming, what does this mean for the education sector? While the debates raged on, we were confronted with a new global order, when Covid-19 began spreading through the globe. The impact was swift and arguably, quite harsh. As countries began locking down, economies came to a standstill. Schools, higher education institutions and the companies that could, shifted to remote methods of learning, teaching and working. Where the shift could not be made, jobs bled.

Universities serve as microcosms of a country, and in the case of South African society, the digital divide remains stark. For many, limited access to devices and data poses a serious challenge. We often take for granted that these resources that we perceive as necessities are not a reality for all. For some, difficult decisions have had to be taken about whether to forego other needs in favour of data bundles. While many universities were quick to respond to this by distributing devices and forging agreements with telecommunications companies to provide free data for this period, these are only short-term fixes. This has not been a perfect Band Aid.

While universities' websites have been zero-rated, learning management systems have not been zero-rated. Additionally, much of the data allocated by telecommunications companies are night owl bundles, which can only be used between midnight and 5am. The vexed issue of devices and data requires a national intervention. At the university level, there could be merit in exploring ways of utilising mobile technology to support teaching and learning. Then, of course, there is the challenge of context. Many of our students find themselves in settings that are not always conducive to learning. While we have continually tried to pivot solutions to these challenges, there needs to be a view towards developing long term plans.

While the pandemic has certainly shaken our way of operating and forced us to introspect, we are also faced with a paradigm shift like no other seen before. The 4IR is certainly here. No longer an abstract concept that could apply to the future, we are in the midst of this long-discussed transition. Unlike the pandemic, the paradigm shift that higher education needs to undergo in the 4IR stretches beyond just adoption of technology. Higher education has to respond to the shifting global context. Experts prophesise that workers in every industry will experience the transformation brought about by the 4IR. In fact, according to a 2018 World Economic Forum report, approximately 50% of companies worldwide predict that automation will trim their current full-time workforce by 2022.

The future of work is a vastly different landscape than our current conception. In a 2017 report, the World Economic Forum predicted that the 4IR will create massive job losses but will simultaneously pave the way for new occupations, especially in such areas as science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), data analysis, computer science and computer engineering. It is envisaged that the demand will be for professionals who have a blend of digital and STEM skills with traditional subject knowledge.

This is not all. There also needs to be a focus on human and social sciences subjects, which provide the kind of perspective needed to embrace the 4IR. According to the global consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, today's children will need to excel at social and emotional, technological, and higher cognitive skills to maximise their chances of getting work in the future. How do we respond to this as a sector? It is certainly not by merely adopting digital ways of teaching and learning as we have in the last few months.

Bo Xing and I detailed the changes that higher education institutions needed to adapt in order to keep up with the 4IR. What this initially takes is a stark and often difficult lesson on the current packaging of knowledge into modules and qualifications and the way this is both taught and learnt. This has to be revisited. In part, this is because we are preparing current students for a different work environment, but we are also a platform for people to revisit their skills.

In the 4IR, we envision that in tandem with traditional classroom learning, there will be a need to move towards including student engagement through peer-to-peer interaction and one-on-one counselling which holds great promise for students. Here the 4IR is directly injected into the learning processes through AI, learning analytics, and mobile-based learning platforms, which personalises the learning experience. For example, wearable technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), have the potential to simulate real-life experiences. AR can supplement reality via superimposing computer-generated information over the physical context in real-time which can facilitate results exploration and interpretation.

We have already seen the effectiveness of this during the lockdown. At the University of Johannesburg, we use Blackboard and all its affiliated features to support learning by allowing academics to monitor student progress in a holistic way. In some modules, podcasts of lectures are uploaded, and students find these beneficial as they can listen to these multiple times. In 2017, we launched an online campus which now has a total of 10 qualifications entirely online. We have also launched a series of short learning programmes which are entirely online for members of professions such as accounting.

In the Centre of Academic Technology Laboratory (CATLAB) and the library, we have designed a game in the style of a detective genre to teach plagiarism. In the last few months, our academics have disseminated short videos, held Zoom calls and communicated through WhatsApp with our students. If you consider that smartphone usage is increasing in the country, this counters the pitfall of apartheid spatial planning which makes it difficult for some potential students to access campuses. Let us also take into account calls for fee-free higher education.

While in mid-December 2017 it was announced that as from 2018 free higher education will be provided to all new first-year students from families earning less than R350,000 per year, there are budget constraints, faculty issues, and socioeconomic considerations. Do our universities have the capacity? The development of online educational resources is envisioned to make access to education easier. While formal education will not disappear, it can be supplemented by online courses as either a blended classroom experience or through completely online courses. For example, there are already a large number of free educational apps that have been developed for use on tablets.

With the demands and challenges of the 4IR, a move towards new flexible, often multidisciplinary curricula that move away from the traditional focus on predefined categories and types of learning is required. This requires strong and robust conversations on research – what are the questions that should keep us on edge, what are the focus areas for a university, how do we reorganise ourselves, for instance. We are essentially reimagining what the learner looks like. Traditionally, learners have been young, fresh out of high school and enrolled in on-campus, lecture-based programmes.

However, this is changing rapidly as we see an increase in the enrolment of older, working adults, who have unique learning requirements. It is common cause that to a large extent, graduates of the past were in most cases accidental products of the system unless preparing for a specific profession. This is not the case with the university of today and cannot be the case for the university of tomorrow. We also have new sets of tensions with the complexity of workplaces, and yet access to knowledge is easier and much quicker than before. Arguments are made for multidisciplinary curricula, but these cannot be dislocated from societal and economic needs.

How do we instill this in our universities, in our students? 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 curricula that is more interactive. These changes may seem daunting, but they are necessary. In South Africa, we are entrusted with the mammoth task of growing our flailing economy, battered by years of mismanagement while addressing the rising unemployment rate as we stand as one of the most unequal societies in the world.

To do this, we have to empower people, especially our youth, to be able to compete on the global stage with skills development, people development, and research and development being fundamental drivers. As the career landscape fundamentally changes, universities and researchers have a fundamental role to play. This is a pivotal moment for us to redefine our systems.

On our current trajectory, we risk deepening our digital divide and leaving the vast majority of our population behind. We have to rethink and redefine. Here, we are really on the precipice of change, and as educational institutions, we have a responsibility not only to prepare our students for these shifts but to map out how we heed the call for more inclusive systems. While perhaps a clichéd phrase in these times, we are certainly facing a new normal and amid this context, it cannot be business – or education – as usual.

We are very aware of the challenges we face, not only as institutions but as a society. As we test models and determine what is feasible, our view must now shift from the short-term towards the long term. When the pandemic eventually falls out of focus, we will still be confronted with a shifting context. Our responsibility now is to ensure that we are able to speak to this shift.

As the British historian, EP Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class: "The process of industrialisation is necessarily painful. It must involve the erosion of traditional patterns of life." 

* The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

Professor Marwala  is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. He can be followed on twitter at @txm1971.

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Prof Tshilidzi Marwala Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg