How do we get Africa's youth ready for the fourth industrial revolution?

Efforts by public and private sector to introduce technology into the learning experience will ultimately put students in the position to take advantage of work opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

Efforts by public and private sector to introduce technology into the learning experience will ultimately put students in the position to take advantage of work opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution. (Photo: Oupa Nkosi)

Several industrial revolutions have come and gone and with each that has passed, Africa has been exploited for the benefit of other continents.

The first industrial revolution focused on mechanisation of production and in turn led to the second industrial revolution, where the focus was on electricity and how it propelled mass production. In both cases, not only was Africa left behind, but the continent’s natural resources were also exploited and processed elsewhere, then sold at prices far higher than what it cost to extract them from the belly of Africa. This process ensured that others — not Africans — were well fed.

Then came the third industrial revolution: the rise of the “computer age” and the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) to automate almost everything in both our personal and business lives.

Some African countries are still battling with the mechanisation of production or even producing (manufacturing) anything at all. While the continent is still battling with first, second and third industrial revolution related matters, the fourth industrial revolution is already upon us and as was the case with the previous industrial revolutions, Africa (although not homogenous) is, in general, lagging. However, the fourth industrial revolution presents Africans with the opportunity to turn the fortunes of the continent around.

What is the fourth industrial revolution?

Loosely defined, the fourth industrial revolution is the “digital” revolution. It, as we are already experiencing, is building on the foundations set by the third industrial revolution and using ICT to not only automate processes and collect and provide data, but it blends various digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data into our lives in a manner that makes it impossible to differentiate where digital starts and where the physical world stops, in the process assisting us to improve our quality of life and helping us to make better decisions.

For Africa to benefit from the fourth industrial revolution, we have to start with the youth and specifically, the introduction of ICT technology in schools.

Technology and the classroom

There are two main categories in the use of technology in schools. The first is to do with assisting and supplementing the teaching process of any subject. The other is about introducing students to ICT, whether through computer literacy or “coding” (software programming) lessons.

Across the continent there are many commendable efforts by both the public and private sectors to introduce things smart electronic boards and tablets to pupils to improve the teaching the learning processes. These include projects such as such as Eneza Education in Kenya. Eneza Education provides education content and quizzes specially made for delivery on mobile devices. They have partnered with Kenya’s government as part of the country’s Digital Literacy program where over 12,000 digital learning devices were given to 150 public primary schools as part of the pilot. These devices, modified tablets, come preloaded with Eneza Education developed content for the specific grades the students are in. Also, as part of this program the teachers receive laptops preloaded with training curricula and this is all linked to the school server where all students progress and data is stored.

There are also various Massive Open Online Course (Mooc) projects being launched by African universities. One recent launch was by Nigeria’s University of Lagos, who in partnership with a Chinese education technology company launched a Mooc platform with mostly engineering related courses. All these efforts — whether Moocs, tablets or smart boards — still don’t address the problem of preparing the youth for the workplace of the future.

I argue though, that to propel Africa into the fourth industrial revolution and to prepare the future workforce, current youth, for the workplace of the future what we need more of is the second kind of technology in the classroom.

Back to basics

The skills that we need to be equipping the youth today with have to be digital skills, irrespective of their chosen career paths, as the fourth industrial revolution cuts across all industries. Whether it is the arts, music, finance, or even sports industries, all are increasingly becoming dependant on digital technologies, not only for automation but as a key part of how they function. From being able to market your music online to being able to use a wearable device to keep your fitness levels at optimum status as a sports person, the fourth industrial revolution affects all industries.

This is where, as a continent, we are lagging. Despite high levels of mobile technology adoption, such adoption is mostly based on consumption rather than creation, not to mention that the most popular mobile phone brands and apps are also not of African origin. This is why computer literacy and software programming education are key, not only for those interested in pursuing a career in computer science, but for nearly everyone.

Take South Africa as an example, where most youths encounter a computer for the first time only when they leave high school or at a tertiary institution, for many, this is also a hindrance for them being accepted into tertiary institutions or even getting employed. A 2008 research study by South Africa’s department of basic education revealed that over 90% of schools had no computers whatsoever for students to learn computer literacy from. This is disturbing considering that the fourth industrial revolution is already upon us. More concerning is that this number has not changed much in 2017, despite the department of basic education offering two computer science related subjects in high school, namely computer applications technology (CAT) and information technology (IT). Very few students sit down to write these exams in their final year of high school, as the subjects are cannot be offered at their schools due to a lack of computers.

The situation is not much different in other African countries, and does not bode well for our efforts to prepare the youth for the fourth industrial revolution. In Kenya for instance, Dr Chao Mbogho, who graduated with a PhD from the University of Cape Town, has developed a method of allowing her computer science students to learn and practise software programming from their mobile phones because they don’t have computers. This process could however be far quicker and easier learned if learners were using computers.

Instead of allocating large budgets to “smart classrooms” I would argue we need to go one step back and allocate such funds to establishing computer labs in schools. This will enable students, whether in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana or any other African country, be able to acquire at least the basic skills that will ensure they are in a position to grasp the opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution

Conclusion

It is for this reason that I believe efforts such as the “paperless classroom” and the One Laptop Per Child initiative, despite still taking time to spread across schools fast enough, are key. More important, and necessary, I think this is something that should be the main responsibility of every education department on the continent if we are to stop the cycle of Africa not only being exploited but also of being a consumer and not manufacturer of products.

Tefo Mohapi is the founder and chief executive of iAfrikan