Opinionista Stephen Grootes 27 June 2019

To help fix the jobs crisis, bring on smartphone app-renticeships

Imagine this scenario for our Wakanda-in-the-making: Freely available to all, a series of apps designed for South Africans. The apps can range from an introduction to maths to geography to aeronautical engineering courses. They would be free to download and use – and they would not be boring.

In a country with politics as diverse and fraught as ours, there is probably one thing on which representatives of every constituency agree: unemployment is the problem we most urgently need to solve. At least six million people don’t have jobs (although the real figure appears to be much higher) and more than half of our young people are not formally employed. On current trends, those numbers will only rise.

At the same time, ministers and other leaders attempt to talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the internet and information technology will have a greater impact on our lives. Yet there seems to be a huge disjuncture in our conversation around this.

However, there is at least one simple thing that can be done, almost at no cost, that could improve the lives of millions of people. We just need to implement it.

Every year there is an argument about our matric results. Officials and politicians proclaim victory, experts lament the fact that around half of the children who enter Grade 1 don’t actually finish matric. These are the people who have been betrayed by our education system. They do not have qualifications, and they have no employment experience despite the willingness to work.

To make matters worse, the world of work is moving away from them. Skills, experience and critical thinking are becoming increasingly important. The introduction of new services, the app economy, and the way the world works makes it less likely they will be able to get a job. The 18% of our workforce in the retail sector is at immediate risk. In some places supermarkets have done away with cashiers, using a combination of technology and store design.

These forces are unstoppable. As the Luddites from Britain’s Industrial Revolution could explain to metered taxi drivers, you simply cannot stop Uber.

What must be done?

It is clear that those young people betrayed by our education system need another chance at education. And we, as a society, owe them this chance.

These people have very little, many will live in shacks with hardly any infrastructure. A paraffin stove and a tap 100m away may be all they have.

But many millions do have smartphones, which have become increasingly cheaper and more powerful, with more functions and apps.

It seems obvious that some of these apps should be devoted to education programs.

Millions of children are taught in the same way their parents and grandparents were taught, by a teacher in front of a blackboard. It is an old-fashioned (and boring) way to impart communication. This needs to change, particularly for those who have a 21st-century blackboard in their pocket (and if they don’t have a smartphone, someone in their community almost certainly will).

But what is missing is a formal system of using smartphones for education, and crucially, a set of qualifications.

Imagine this scenario for our Wakanda-in-the-making:

Freely available to anyone who wants to use them, is a series of apps designed specifically for South Africans. There is no limit to what can be done: the apps can range from an introduction to maths to geography to the aeronautical engineering courses on offer at specialised schools in Gauteng. They would be free to download and use, and, importantly, would not be boring.

The apps would lead up to a series of qualifications. First, you take the test using the app itself (it could set a time limit for questions and make sure you can’t leave the app to get the answer on another one. The only thing it could not control would be whether you use another phone, or a friend, to cheat). Then, once confident, or having gone through a series of levels, you go to a testing centre to be examined under invigilation (police stations should be able to do this; you don’t need a hall, just someone to ensure there is no cheating).

Once you have passed a certain grade, you go on to the next and so on.

The data to do this could easily be made free of charge. No cellphone network would be able to resist the demand to make access to these apps and the information they use free (if they do prove to be difficult, it can be included in their terms of service by Icasa).

A page can be taken from the civil society groups who helped to organise people living with HIV in the early days of ARVs. Then, it was vitally important to take the pills at the same time every day. This is not easy when you don’t have a clock (this was before the cellphone era). People arranged themselves in blocks or groups, and a person, or perhaps a block captain, would go around every morning to make sure people had taken their pills.

The same strategy can be used here. Tutors, people who are simply one or two levels above their peers in the same geographical area, can provide help and inspiration. As anyone who has been formally educated will tell you, it’s more fun to learn with someone than to learn alone.

Other countries have harnessed the power of cellphones in new and interesting ways. The Economist recently reported that in India, nearly half of all internet searches on phones are conducted by voice. You press a button, speak, and the responses come back to you. These are people who cannot read, surfing the information superhighway. And they are doing it in many different languages.

The question is: Would those who are unemployed do this?

Aspiration is a powerful force. It can easily be made cool to study. No PSL football match should be allowed to start without a player being shown on their cellphone, studying. For many with nothing to do, torn between the temptations of drugs and alcohol, this would be better than whiling away the day. Many millions of people around the world spend much of their time on “self-improvement”. There is no reason to think South Africans are any different.

What must be done now?

Firstly, there are probably organisations who have tried these programmes before. Their wisdom needs to be tapped. What worked, what didn’t, what lessons do they hold? Then the qualifications need to be developed, and the programmes worked out. Then, the police or other invigilators need to be brought on board. Cellphone networks need to be cajoled, the apps need to be written and rolled out. And finally, the publicity needs to start.

But, there must not be a political fight, where everyone tries to gain an advantage. There is no need for tenders, the educational information is surely public domain, and writing the apps is not difficult (although presenting the information in a non-boring way might be). There is no need for different departments to bicker or negotiate, or for consultation with unions, or for any other kind of hindrance.

Instead, there needs to be a single focus on building a good product and making it accessible.

Finally, will this lead to more economic activity, will it create jobs?

This may depend on the courses offered, but it would seem the more that people know, the more they can do, the more options they will have. Certainly, the more employable they will be. For those who have been unemployed for years (having dropped out of school in their early teens and not been able to work since then), just completing the course-work should prove to employers they have the ability to see things through.

But, perhaps more important, this will give people without formal education the tools to start up their own businesses or enterprises. The education possibilities are unlimited, from changing a lightbulb to cooking on a budget to using a paraffin stove safely.

It is obvious that the more educated a country’s people, the better its economic prospects. This will not solve all of our problems. But it should improve the lives of millions. And that is something worth aiming for. DM


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