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4IR: Preparing for the revolution

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We’re living through a time of amazing technological change. So amazing, in fact, that it’s been called a revolution — the fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR, to be exact. It’s a revolution that is already changing everything: the way we work, the way we create and consume entertainment, our concepts of privacy, medical practice, functional technologies for the disabled, grocery buying and perhaps most importantly, the ways we teach and learn.

“Schools can do three things when it comes to 4IR,” says Professor Kerry Kennedy, a distinguished visiting professor at UJ. “They can teach learners about 4IR, they can teach using 4IR technologies and they can prepare learners for 4IR in the future.” Learners are going to enter a world defined by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and they’re going to have to have the tools to tackle it.

Teaching learners about 4IR

Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics all have 4IR relevance, and studying them will help learners understand the world around them. Learners need to realise that 4IR isn’t just about technology, but about the arts as well, and subjects in the social sciences and the humanities shouldn’t be forgotten.

4IR also has a strong social element: at its heart, it’s about bettering humanity and creating a safe, fair and just world.

Learners 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 of these technologies. Gene editing, robotic workforces and 3D-printed automatic weapons raise important and complicated ethical questions. The next generation needs to know how to think about them.

Teaching with 4IR technologies

4IR not only affects what children learn, but also how they learn. Robots in classrooms are becoming commonplace in some parts of the world; AI is able to provide useful feedback to learners on how their studies are progressing, and VR is helping to make teaching more exciting to improve learning. 4IR technologies can also help learners to access information and move forward at their own pace.

Engaging with these technologies means that they become more familiar to learners, who are bound to engage with them again (or more advanced versions, at least) down the line.

Preparing Learners for 4IR

“The key skills and values required by 4IR are creativity, critical thinking and problem solving,” says Kennedy. “There should be nothing in the school curriculum that doesn’t facilitate them.”

Many people advocate computer coding as a component of the 4IR curriculum, he goes on to say, but this misses the point. If coding leads to innovative, creative and critical thinking then it has a role to play. If it is just about applying rules repeatedly then it does not.

A robot can apply rules: if the coding learners do is going to be relevant in the 4IR space, it must make use of both technical and human skills.

Schools must be equipped to teach about and with 4IR

The message here is for politicians and policymakers. Schools, teachers and learners need to be provided with the resources and opportunities they need. And if those in a position to influence these decisions don’t act on them, they’re not only letting down young learners and the next generation of 4IR leaders, but the country’s future development, too.

4IR is taking us into a new future, unimagined until just a few short years ago. If you want to have a say in what that future is going to look like, and to ensure that your voice and your views are based in confidence and knowledge, then the place to start is with the imagination. That’s why, at UJ, as a 4IR thought-leader in Africa, we haven’t just looked at the future, we think about it constantly, because we believe that the future belongs to those who reimagine it.

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