Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 15 April 2020

Covid-19 shows we are not ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

While we have the time to reflect, will we consider anew how we can give the impoverished child in South Africa access to the wonder of the 4IR?

We stand at the dawn of a technological revolution which will fundamentally change the way we live and work. It will take place at a scale which will be greater and more extensive than anything we have experienced before. The impact is already felt worldwide and is seen in practically every sphere of society.

The first industrial revolution used water and steam to mechanise production. Here we think of the steam engines of locomotives and steamships. The second revolution used electricity to effect mass production. It was the century of giant factories.

The third revolution used electronics and information skills to automate production. It was the century of the internet, email communication and automatic banks. Information technology became a compulsory subject, everyone acquired computers and your wallet was full of cards instead of money.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) builds on the third revolution and is characterised by a combination of technologies which cause the boundaries between the physical, biological and digital to disappear. The user is not always sure whether he is talking on the phone to a human or a machine. The physical workplace has been replaced by virtual spaces. People don’t need an office or a physical classroom any more. Meetings are held in cyberspace. The possibilities are unlimited.

Breakthroughs in the field of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, 3D-printing and robotics are going to profoundly change the lives of billions of people all over the world. Think for a moment how technology has changed your life: when last did you write a letter by hand or go into the bank to draw money? Think of Takealot, Amazon and audiobooks. Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world, more than a billion students worldwide have continued their studies online.

In South Africa, the picture looks different. A concerning aspect of the matric results is the poor performance in maths and physical science, the two subjects required for the 4IR. Those learners will struggle with e-learning which has already changed the traditional methods of instruction.  Think at this time of students who have to download notes from websites.

At some schools, teachers use Google classrooms and meetings are held with Google Meeting or Zoom. Teachers have launched WhatsApp groups and are in regular contact with their learners. Those who can afford access to the digital world will benefit from 4IR the most. The Department of Education currently offers tuition packages and programmes for learners on its website and on TV. Many learners and teachers welcome this. But not everybody is so lucky. Fewer than 30% of learners countrywide have access to these facilities.

I was heartsore when recently on TV news I heard a matric student from the Eastern Cape say that he had heard that the notes were available on the internet but how could one get the information in the remote rural areas or in the townships? Covid-19 has revealed the inequality among schools.

The basic goal of any education system is to equip its youth with suitable skills. It is my wish that, while we have the time to reflect, we will consider anew how we can give the impoverished child in South Africa access to the wonder of the 4IR.

If we don’t do this, children like the Eastern Cape matriculant will just fall further behind.

Our country can ill afford this. DM

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