Opinionista Kerry J Kennedy 25 February 2019

Another Industrial Revolution: What schools need to know

The Fourth Industrial Revolution questions what it means to be human in the 21st century. It is a question that demands a firm response not just from economists and business leaders, but also from schools and education authorities. Students in schools right now will graduate in the midst of 4IR and they need to be prepared.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is not something that is being predicted – it is happening right now, here in South Africa and across the globe. Even if there are aspects not happening locally, globalisation will ensure that significant changes over which we have no control will influence such diverse activities as manufacturing processes, service industries, energy development, medical procedures and weapons production. This will result in disruptions to areas such as the economy and labour markets, producing positive outcomes for some, and very negative outcomes for others.

There will be winners and losers from 4IR. Now is the time both to understand exactly what 4IR is and prepare to master its influences rather than be mastered by them.

Digital devices are now ubiquitous in modern societies, even though there is a significant digital divide both within and across societies. For those who have access to handphones, computers and portable/wearable devices of different kinds, daily living is constructed around these. Handphones, for example, now double as cameras, platforms for multiple applications including banking services, games, e-mail, methods of payment, social media etc.

This so-called “digital revolution” has changed people’s lives in many ways but the devices themselves support and supplement basic human functions. This digital revolution is sometimes referred to as the Third Industrial Revolution (3IR) and it is basically over. Even though phone companies continue to upgrade and refine their products – better cameras, better wearable devices and larger processing capacity catering for what often seems like an infinite number of applications – it is product enhancement rather than innovation.

The 4IR, on the other hand, is much more than the production of powerful devices. Like the digital revolution, 4IR relies on technologies, yet they are technologies that have the capacity to perform what have until now been considered human tasks. It might be robots capable of giving directions at a railway station, or assisting with medical procedures or interacting with autistic children in classrooms. It could be 3D printers capable of producing body parts, weapons or even houses. It might be driverless cars. It might be computers that do not need to be continuously programmed because they can re-programme themselves based on the data they collect. And, based on this data, they can make predictions about anything from identifying the optimal marketing strategy to who will win an election.

This kind of artificial intelligence (AI) is what drives social media such as Facebook, which relies on the data generated by its membership base not only to attract advertisers but also to on-sell it to whoever is in the business of making use of such “big data”.

What all of these examples have in common is that they demonstrate not just the development of new technologies, but the ways these technologies integrate human and technological capacities, often to perform tasks previously thought to be human.

The 4IR questions what it means to be human in the 21st century. It is a question that demands a firm response not just from economists and business leaders, but also from schools and education authorities. Students in schools right now will graduate in the midst of 4IR and they need to be prepared.

Schools can do three things when it comes to 4IR: They can teach about 4IR in their Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) classes. Students need to understand what is happening in the world around them, how it is happening and why it is happening. 4IR is not a mystery and its basic processes can be the subject of investigation, questioning and interrogation. As shown in the collection of subjects above, this is not just about technology but about the arts as well, and this includes social sciences, philosophy and humanities.

The 4IR technologies have significant social implications related to job creation, employment opportunities, equality, racialisation and the ongoing development of a fair and just society. Of course, students should be taught to understand the scientific basis of these new technologies, but equally, they should also learn about their social impacts. Students themselves should be taught to be innovative and creative when it comes to new technologies, but they should also be able to question the underlying values and what is right and wrong in the use of such technologies. Gene editing, roboticised workforces, 3D-printed automatic weapons are not only technological advances, they also raise important questions about human values and how they might be preserved in this brave new world.

Schools can also teach with 4IR technologies. Social robots have already been shown to be useful adjuncts in the teaching of students with certain special needs. A recent study identified over 300 academic papers that have explored the issue of robots in the classroom and educational contexts. AI can create databases of assessment items that can provide feedback to students on their learning progress. What is more, based on student responses, computers can generate new items that respond to a student’s level of learning. And 3D printers are already in some school systems, requiring design skills of a very high order to create new and innovative products. It is not too much to say that 3D printing has turned design education on its head.

Virtual Reality has been shown to work throughout different levels of schooling, heightening subject engagement, enlivening teaching and facilitating learning. It can provide for independent and personalised learning even though the curriculum itself might be common since students can dictate their own pace to move towards desired outcomes. Together, these 4IR technologies revolutionise what is meant by “school education” to make it not only engaging but relevant and linked to the real world.

Schools also have an important role in preparing students for 4IR. The key skills and values are creativity, critical thinking and problem solving – these have been widely endorsed and there should be nothing in the school curriculum that does not facilitate these skills and values. For example, many people advocate computer coding as a component of the 4IR curriculum, but this misses the point.

If computer coding leads to innovative, creative and critical thinking then it has a role to play, if it is about the routine application of rules then it does not. A robot can apply rules – computer coding must contain elements that use human skills as well as technical skills. This raises a key issue. Along with the skills and values referred to above, there must be one other key component: the curriculum must teach students what it means to be human. Many commentators have made the point that if a robot can do it, it’s not worth teaching. What makes humans human and how can they be more so: this is an essential complement to being a creative, critical problem solver.

But how are we to get there?

The message here is for politicians and policymakers. Schools must be equipped for teaching with and about 4IR. Nineteenth-century schools do not prepare students for the 21st century. Teachers must be prepared not with outdated teaching methods and approaches and a standardised curriculum that is relevant to no one.

Resources are needed to transform education so it can meet the needs of 4IR. There is little to be gained form crying poor when it comes to resourcing this kind of education. Without such resources, the challenges will not be met and this will be to the detriment of the whole of society. In particular, however, it will affect the most vulnerable in society and those for whom schools are the only social safety net to making them 4IR-ready. DM

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