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Coding, robots & the implication for SA's Higher Education

BY: Frik Landman|19 March 2019
BLOG| Evolving world of work

By 2030, could a five-year old whip up a working computer from scratch? Could a seven-year-old converse on the coding behind a self-driving car? What does this mean when they reach university-age?


The March 2019 announcement by minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga that coding and robotics would be introduced in the curricula for grades R-9 by 2020 is a positive step forward. However, for the ‘foundations for future work’ to really be instilled, we need to integrate this initiative across primary, secondary and tertiary education. For me, the role of higher education (HE) is of particular concern.


Our current education system was built for an economy that either doesn’t exist anymore or which is on its way out, fast. We must acknowledge the fact that technology has hurtled us into a different kind of society, where knowledge becomes a factor of labour, and capital follows knowledge. The immediate result is that we’re confronted with the need for skills that are substantively different from those that brought us success in the past.


Creating the space and opportunity for students to receive education on coding and robotics is a belated acknowledgement of this new reality. This has already been done by most countries in the EU. It is great that SA is coming on board. But, if this is our only activity and if we only consider going up to grade 9, it will not suffice given the demands of the 21st century.


We need to do more. Across all levels of education, with a collaborative approach from the public and private sector.


What future skills will we need?

We need to consider what we need to teach and why, in the context of our time. The new knowledge economy demands additional skills and competencies. We don’t know exactly what these will be, but we can offer possibilities based on our current insights.


According to “Literacy in the Digital Age” (EnGauge, 2003), everyone in education (student and teacher), needs to become literate in three areas:

1. Technological literacy:

Understand technological systems, the ethos behind the application of this technology, and how to use this technology to expand our communication and synthesize information from manifold sources

2. Information Literacy:

Identify sources of information (and their credibility), become proficient at information-gathering strategies and be purposive in dealing with information

3. Visual Literacy:

Understand the basics of visual design, the emotional and cognitive value of perceptions and produce visual information

How do we integrate this and its detailed consequences across primary, secondary and tertiary education? How will coding and robotics interact and influence all of this? What (and whose) ethos is carried into the coding process when the basic requirement is to ‘code first to do no harm’? This requires much research and conversation, not just among traditional public entities but the private sector and private HE institutes as well.


What this means for tertiary institutions?

For tertiary institutions, the challenge is much more than changing curricula. CISCO produced a document stipulating some of these changes:

  • Engender a culture of learning throughout life.
  • Take learning to the learner, seeing learning as an activity, not a place.
  • Believe that learning is for all, that no one should be excluded.
  • Recognise that people learn differently and strive to meet those needs.
  • Cultivate and embrace new learning providers, from the public, private, and NGO sectors.
  • Provide the universal infrastructure needed to succeed—still physical but increasingly virtual.


Could we need new kinds of universities?

Traditional HE institutions are confronted in this new economy on various fronts. In the report “An Avalanche is Coming, Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead” from the Institute for Public Policy Research, the authors ask “whether a university education is a good preparation for working life and citizenship in the 21st century or, more precisely, whether it will continue to be seen as good value, given the remorseless rise in the cost of a university education over recent decades?”.


This is a critical question to answer because the new economy does not seem to be creating jobs. Youth unemployment is growing. The anxiety of prospective students is real.


The document suggests HE institutions need to adapt to the new environment by not being all things to everyone but by “unbundling” and choosing a strategic niche and focus. They suggest five possible types of universities:

  1. The elite university
  2. The mass university (broad offer for the middle class)
  3. The niche university (content specialisation)
  4. The local university (specialising on the local challenges)
  5. The lifelong learning university


How will tertiary institutes instill skills like design- and critical thinking and collaboration?

Traditional universities are no strangers to critical thinking; it is part and consequence of liberation education. Design thinking is a different kettle of fish. For that, a decent understanding of systems thinking and holism (the idea the parts can’t exist independently to the whole) is required. So, the education and training of teachers will be a massive task and not a once-off event. This needs to happen online and not just in classrooms and labs.


How will schools/ tertiary institutes train up teachers and lecturers to be able to teach coding and other future-focused skills?

This is a crucial issue, because my experience is that in any change effort at a HE institution, the faculty and teachers are the last to adapt. In the minister’s communication, 72 000 teachers need to be trained. My first step would be to get these teachers to establish and buy into a collective ethos regarding this initiative.


Why is this training of teachers and educators so important? Because students need to go beyond learning the basics of coding and robotics. They must be enabled to align pedagogy with technology. They would need the teachers to be able to design and develop exciting collaborative learning opportunities that are adaptable, enjoyable, challenging and relevant to their lives and futures. What is assumed is that the institutions in which this education will take place have been provided with the required ICT infrastructure and tools befitting the task at hand.


Will the new subjects help equip our young people for the ubiquity of data and proliferation of demand for data scientists?

It is not enough, but it is a great step forward. We need to also look at creating new and innovative blends of content to try and navigate the new world of work. What is the principle here?


We need to help students to shape, tool and equip their minds (their minds being the interface between them and this ever-changing world) to empower them to use their power and responsibility to make decisions and deal with the consequences.


We cannot discuss coding without having this conversation. These students will not only navigate this world, but they will help shape it – hopefully for the better. So, bringing in these subjects is great and to be applauded. But they point to greater discussions we need to have.

In this new world, the question of ethics and morality will inevitably keep arising.

What other foundations need to be laid down for our young people to be future fit?

  • Personal mastery, which should include empathy and emotional intelligence
  • Ethics i.e. being of service to others
  • Resilience to act with sustained initiative in a world characterise by uncertainty and complexity
  • Leadership of a different kind but based on old principles

How are online institutes like Stellenbosch Graduate Institute adapting?

Learning machines have entered the learning space. These have an inevitable impact on human learners. Based on the notion of exponentiality, we shaped an approach, based on these principles:

  • To help a wider range of people have easy and fast access to relevant learning experiences in an inclusive way.
  • To design programmes to be flexible, bring added value and have a high retention level.
  • To ensure individualised attention is embedded in the scaling model. Students have to experience that “this was designed for me”.
  • To offer learning interventions that resonate with real world learning, that will enhance employability.
  • To make the learning platform and offerings available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • To position offerings on multiple platforms and through multiple channels.

What about subjects specialising in delivering in-demand data capabilities?

We are currently building significant products with international partners to deal with the “new gold” i.e. data. People who do this course will be not only well-equipped to navigate the world of data and data analytics, they will also be positioned for absorption into the labour market almost immediately. More than that, they will be globally competitive. Apart from that we look at the design of our ‘traditional’ programmes through the lenses of the new economy and shape content and process accordingly.


To conclude, we should be liberal in adopting ideas and conservative in acting on them.


What Kurzweil (Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Viking Press; ISBN: 0670033847) has to say, in principle, resonates with us: “Our intelligence will become increasingly non biological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality.”


Now is the time to work together to ready our young people for a future that, as yet, is largely unimaginable.


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