New e-skills network launched

Minister of Communications Dina Pule last week launched a government institution that is designed to build e-readiness throughout South Africa.

The new e-skills knowledge creation and transfer network, which is yet to be formally named, merges these separate institutions in the department of communications : the e-Skills Institute, the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa and the Institute for Satellite and Software Applications. The institutution is headed by director general Dr Harold Wesso.

Pule said that the institution will establish an e-readiness flagship programme and fund. The fund will allow businesses, the government, the education sector, civil society and organised labour to contribute funds, resources and skills. These stakeholders will have a direct say in setting the agenda and implementing the programme. The institution has three kinds of centres: a national coordination centre, provincial co-ordination centres, and many local “smart centres”.

Smart centres provide access to courses that meet business and social needs identified by a university research collaborative, The National Research Network for e-Skills (ResNES). Professor Roy Marcus, board member and chairperson of the academic committee Nemisa, was on the team that conceptualised the merger. He said that the minister had inspired the team to find “an elegant and cost-effective solution in a very short space of time”.

“This is the foundation of academic collaboration. South African academic institutions who have unique characteristics and unique offerings working together to respond to the minister’s challenge, you will see that this is not a pipe dream. There is already material available through this system to start our journey on e-skills,” he said.

Improving our e-readiness ranking

South Africa’s global e-readiness ranking dropped from 47th in 2007 to 70th in the 2013 World Economic Forum report. Pule noted that the report shows South Africa to be well ahead of its peers in the categories of political, regulatory, business and innovation environments, infrastructure and digital content, and in business usage.

She said that the country is about equal with its peers in terms of the economic impact of e-skills development. However, South Africa lags in the categories of affordability, skills, government usage, individual usage and social impacts. A key objective of the new institution is to address these problem areas. Pule said that the department, its partners and South Africans need to build a culture of embracing, using and sharing information and communications technology in everyday life.

Sharing between businesses and community groups would ensure that “one person’s knowledge becomes the community’s knowledge”. Dr Zoran Mitrovic from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) is the lead author of the 2013 National e-Skills Plan of Action, which will be used as a road map for the new institution. The plan is based on the input of 300 delegates from 55 countries at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Human Capacity Development Forum. It has been approved by the ITU.

The social impact of tech

ResNES works with the new institute to address the issue of the social impact of information and communication technology. Wesso said: “We have to move beyond technology dumping and then walking away. We are aiming for new distance-education models, new ways to develop curricula, new ways of learning and teaching.

“We have to do all these things through collaboration. It is easy to deal with a digital divide: you distribute computers. The problem we face is a knowledge divide, so we need to convert information into knowledge and then apply that knowledge.”

The chief director of the former e-Skills Institute, Maymoena Sharif, said that “all courses offered by the institute will be targeted for each area and community and for the country”. “The research centres send in information about what is needed.

“There is a need for regular environmental scans because technology and business needs change so fast. We must bring the two together to respond to the need.”

Professor Olu Olugbara from the Durban University of Technology is designing programmes for training in e-skills. The national goal is to e-skill 10-million people. He said that so far there were good results in terms of the impact that the programme has had on society.

Representatives at the launch said the work done so far has created a “knowledge cloud” through collaboration. The knowledge cloud includes content on thematic areas aligned with national policy, such as creating an active citizenry, building an inclusive economy, developing leadership, and building local capabilities.

This virtual architecture for knowledge creation would be maintained and developed by the new institution. Brahima Sanou, director at the ITU, said that the focus of e-skills was on “people and how they can realise the full potential in whatever they do”.

“It addresses the challenges on how entities, institutions, organisations, and nations can add value to people’s knowledge, skills and abilities in the fast evolving environment. Developing national e-skills for ICT is the bedrock for the survival for any nation,” he said. “The issue of e-skilling is very important because it is foreseen that in the near future 95% of jobs in the world will require ICT skills.”

Uplifting lives

The institute’s three types of centres — national co-ordination, provincial co-ordination and local “smart centres” — provide access to courses that meet business and social needs identified by ResNES and other stakeholders.

People will use the local centres to access ICT and learn skills to improve their lives, their communities and the economic environment. People will integrate technology into their lives in a way that benefits them, helps them to find employment and address social issues in their communities. The research centres track the impact of the e-skills on communities and the skills shortages in specific communities.

The goal of these centres is to reach 10-million South Africans and create an e-literate society. The institution provides the technology to support the e-skills cloud. This includes video conferencing, access to a learning management system, collaboration tools, internet access, and a web portal.

Some “smart centres” and provincial centres have already been set up. They are the result of a collaboration between the e-Skills Centre, Telkom, Cisco Systems, various universities, BlackBerry, the International Computer Drivers’ Licence and the department of rural development. Mitrovic said that smart centre managers had face-to-face training, followed by ongoing training using the ICT network.

The people that they assist can then “begin to work together and teach one another,” he said. The national co-ordinating centre manages a central portal that integrates input from the provincial and smart centres. Sharif said: “There will be nine provincial hubs and 250 smart centres. The central portal is not just geared to your business community or investors, it is also geared to thought leaders and others.

“Anyone who wants to have information or wants to know what e-skills are all about will find this information on the web portal.” Pule said that the provincial coordination laboratories aim to “coordinate government, business, education and civil society across provinces, develop relevant e-skills curricula, establish a base for monitoring and evaluation and act as a focal point for local, national and international praxis. “They will integrate efforts across sectors, including the government, business, education, civil society, organised labour and the international community.”

e-Skills will give access to all

People will be able to download lectures, interact with other students and call co-ordination laboratories to learn how to access specific courses. “You can bring in any of your own devices and come in and connect. We have technology that will allow people to interact and collaborate. The will have an IP phone that has a video console, which transmits across the network. You can do media conferencing from the centre,” Sharif said.

Sharif said courses had been developed according to the national e-skills framework. “Anyone in the community will be able to access the course content. Baseline computer literacy is free. Other courses will be offered in collaboration with private companies and educational institutions.”

Micovich said that smart centre managers are trained volunteers who may leave for better paid employment. “Now we are concentrating on sustainability so that people stay and spread the skills. We have already skilled about 60 people in centres.”

How people can develop e-skills

Mitrovic said that the idea is not just to give people simple access. “That does not work. We have to use three steps. First is access. Second is appropriation, when we teach them how to use and then spread their skills. Third is innovation. “These are the benefits from using the skills in your business processes. Much of that learning happens when individuals explore the devices for themselves.”

Wesso said that people would start at different levels. “First, a person needs to learn to use the device. Then they need to differentiate between computer skills (using a device), and computer literacy (using software).

And then they need e-skills, which is using the technology to search and understand information.” Strategic understanding is the next level. He said that people need to understand where government is going, how to communicate, and how to work in remote teams.

“How do we deepen the skills to access information, understand developmental problems, and use ICT to address those problems? We need to create new solutions, new knowledge and new applications. Application knowledge is innovation and this will differentiate nations. Applications can generate wealth.”

How the institute can help graduates

Olugbara said that so far the DUT’s research had “reached quite a lot of people. From the research point of view we have produced some master’s graduates and we have around 100 research students.

“We use students at degree level, as well as honours and master’s students at the lab, so they are getting hands-on experience. “Our lab is responsible for the e-voting project in South Africa. We have a Phd student who is working on mobile internet voting, and we will try to launch that for the country in the next three years.”

Mitrovic said that UWC provided an eight-month postgraduate diploma in ICT skills for unemployed graduates from various disciplines. “They change profession and I think the employment rate for those people is 98%. They were not ICT people and they now do programming for a living,” he said.

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