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Change the world

24/04/2024

The rapid rise of disruptive technologies is changing the way that we live, work, communicate and relate to each other – but how is South Africa shaping up in this brave new world?

 

A model to assess the population’s digital competence was the focus of entrepreneur and technology expert Dr Creswell du Preez, whose thesis earned him a PhD in Information Technology from Nelson Mandela University this month.

Owner of DPCS (Pty) Ltd, the experienced ICT advisor works in the higher education sector and assists universities with their digital transformation and IT governance.

A father of three, married to Rene, Dr Du Preez was born in Gqeberha, attending Triomf Primary and Westville High before graduating from the then Port Elizabeth Technikon with a National Diploma in computer data processing, a Management Development Programme qualification from the then University of Port Elizabeth and an MTech postgraduate degree in business information systems from Nelson Mandela University.

He worked at Mandela University for 24 years, spending one year at Microsoft and then starting his own consulting company in 2019.

His study, “A model to measure the digital competence of South African citizens”, set out to answer the question: What exactly is required to measure digital competence in a local context?

It then suitably adapted a framework from which a South African Digital Competence Assessment Model was developed and outlined the consequent implementation strategies and resources.

“The world is changing at an alarming rate, and the risks and opportunities imposed by disruptive technologies and global changes, pandemics and volatile economies will require new levels of digital citizenship,” Dr Du Preez said.

The problem in South Africa, though, is that we rank 95th out of 139 countries on the skills pillar, due to poor education quality and infrastructure.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the gap between current online digital skills training programmes and citizens’ ability to participate in them. Digital competence is not a nice-to-have but a necessity to function in the modern world and to contribute to the knowledge society.”

Mind the gap

In modern society, we rely increasingly on technology to transact digitally, Dr Du Preez explained – and this means that we need to keep up.

“We use online banking, do our e-filing online, shop online, participate in online training courses and attend university or school classes online.

“Digital competence comprises those underlying skills that are required to participate digitally. In other words, the skills needed to learn other digital skills.”

A simple, but important example, he said, was the ability to create a secure username and password on a website, and then ensure that it was changed regularly for security reasons.

Other subtle aspects of digital understanding included knowing how to reference digital content, to avoid plagiarism, being able to solve problems digitally, and competently communicating and collaborating online.

“In the South African context, the digital divide is real – and citizens don’t all have access to devices and good connectivity in order to participate in more than just social media.”

The study, a first for Africa, took these factors into account, aiming to identify digital competence gaps through the model.

“The model aims to provide guidance for skills assessors to develop instruments to measure digital competence as defined by the study.”

It was hoped, said Dr Du Preez, that his work would contribute to a growth in more digitally competent citizens in the next few years.

Unpacking buzzwords

The terms “digital competence” and “disruptive technologies” need to be adequately understood to foster an uptick in South Africa’s skills set in the technology area, Dr Du Preez said.

The study defined digital competence as including the knowledge to understand the aptness of digital technologies, the know-how to acquire and develop necessary digital skills for application in real-life situations, and the attitude to use those skills to transact actively, ethically, responsibly, safely and efficiently in the information and knowledge society.

The presence of disruptive technologies also cannot be underestimated, he explained, and include Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and various other tech inventions that literally disrupt the way that we do things.

“For example: 3D printing has disrupted the manufacturing sector to such a degree that parts are now printed instead of being machined. The opportunity this provides to somebody owning a car mechanic shop in a rural setting is that they’d be able to print the parts – plastics for now, maybe – for which they’d typically have to wait weeks.

“Another example is how robotics and autonomous (self-driving) cars are changing the ways we engage with our vehicles. Most modern cars now come with the ability to park themselves. This will disrupt the mining industry, where driverless tractors can go where people cannot.”

Professor Darelle van Greunen, Director of Mandela University’s Centre for Community Technologies and supervisor of Dr Du Preez’s thesis, together with co-supervisor, Emeritus Professor Cheryl Foxcroft, said that in the greater African context, it was important to consider the critical role of digital competence in various sectors.

“These include, but are not limited to, education, the economy, governance, health care and even social inclusion.

“As part of the University’s future work, we are exploring ways of working with a number of countries on the continent, including the African Union, as to how we can use this digital competence framework to harness the full potential of the digital revolution on the continent.”

The road ahead

Dr Du Preez’s model does not currently exist in any form in either a South African or African context. Its aim is to align with a service-to-society trajectory, providing industry, government players, and the higher and further education sector with a Digital Competence Assessment Model, which includes a Digital Competence Assessment Grid and example questionnaire, and contributing to advancing digital competence assessment in the country.

This would guide development programmes and generate competence profiles for future skills required to fulfil 4th Industrial Revolution employment opportunities.  It also aligns well with the focus on digital competence development that fosters inclusivity and future skills development, which is the core purpose of the recently established Virtual Academy at Nelson Mandela University.

How, though, does the digital age face off with the stark reality of economic challenges in a country where basic skills and aiming to live above the breadline are survival priorities?

“Digital skills will filter into everything that we do,” explained Dr Du Preez. “It is like an unstoppable train. Smart farming technologies, for instance, will impact the way food is farmed and grown, which may in turn assist third world countries to push past the breadline – if there is a will to do so.”

Dr Du Preez was excited about future possibilities in his industry, and how it could positively influence ordinary men and women.

“This is such an extremely focused area – and it gives me great joy to see successful change.”

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Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057
debbie.derry@mandela.ac.za