/ 30 May 2022

OPINION | Education must invest in technology to future-proof the workforce

(Fadel Senna/AFP)

As with all other facets of our lives, we are seeing the transformative use of digital tooling in the education sector. The classroom is being disrupted all the way from early childhood education right through to tertiary level. E-learning is not just replacing physical spaces with digital ones, it is also digitising textbooks, pencils, and notebooks. 

The use of technology in education, commonly referred to as EdTech, has fast become a necessity. As workplaces become increasingly digital, it is imperative that the learning environment mirrors this format. Whether one aspires to become a lawyer, accountant, doctor or teacher, digital literacy will be a required core competency and the classroom is where the journey to acquire it should begin.

Unfortunately, the adoption of educational technology has not been widespread. Although private and well-resourced schools have made the switch, most South African pupils are being left behind. When Covid-19 forced a rapid shift to remote learning, it exposed the extent of the digital divide. Lack of access to devices, data, and prior experience to an e-learning environment went from being a debate on privilege to a full barrier to learning.

If the benefits of EdTech are widely known and understood and recent events have exposed the urgent need for widespread adoption, why do we appear to be taking so long to adapt? 

The challenge, it seems, is that EdTech is woefully underfunded. This is evident when it is compared to the fast-growing world of financial technology.

KPMG estimates that investments in African financial technology companies doubled to $1.6-billion in 2021 compared with $800-million in 2020, mostly from foreign venture capital and private equity investors. 

What’s more, the investments include funding for financial technology companies geared towards financial inclusion. Start-ups such as Yoco, Fundrr and Pineapple are rapidly growing businesses that provide financial services to previously underserved segments of our society. 

EdTech, on the other hand, raised a total of $14-million in 2020, which is 1.75% of the quantum of investment in financial technology. 

FinTechs are cashing in on their ability to deliver direct and quick returns on investment, while the long plays for inclusive EdTech are not attractive to investors.

Although EdTech is underfunded, South Africa is a big investor in education. The government spent R27‑billion on education in 2021, up by 15% from 2020. The World Bank estimates that this spend is 6.8% of the country’s GDP, higher than developed countries such as the US (6.2%) and Britain (5.4%). 

With this high spend, however, the quality of education outcomes remains unsatisfactory. Data from the department of education shows that only 37% of those entering the education system matriculate and only 6% will end up with a university degree.

EdTech, with its cost savings, operational efficiencies, superior data collection and analysis and overall alignment to the future workplace, may well be an opportunity to revamp the education system and start to produce better returns on the existing levels of investment.

Viewed from this perspective, the underfunding of EdTech is less an issue of there not being enough money from the private sector and more a sign of the need to redirect existing government spending.

A core reason for the slow adoption of EdTech by the public sector is that education policy frameworks are highly regulated and the change process is slow and tedious. The government prefers to invest in proven models and is sceptical of sudden shifts. 

The critique of this is that although caution and pragmatism are hallmarks of sound public policy, where they are not moderated, they become a barrier to progress.

The future we speak of is upon us. The opportunity to leverage the qualities of digital platforms to address rampant unemployment and future-proof South Africa’s workforce beckons. Achieving this success at scale will require collaboration as well as updated policies that will allow EdTech investment to be directed towards learning models that are relevant in today’s digitalised world and achieve better outcomes to prepare learners for the future.

Nyari Samushonga is the chief executive of WeThinkCode.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.