Change the world

09/03/2021

When Klaus Schwab, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, coined the phrase ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (4IR), he argued that this new industrial revolution would happen at an exponential pace, and that new technologies would change society in unpredictable ways. 

Centre to this would be Artificial Intelligence (AI) driving machines becoming more efficient than humans: medical diagnosis done faster and more precise than a radiologist can or cars being manufactured faster than any assembly line workers can. Then we have autonomous vehicles, smart homes, vertical farms, fuel efficiency, prediction of natural disasters and so forth.

Within all of this excitement lies the anxiety referred to in my heading. It is a no-brainer  that many jobs are at risk of disappearing, while millions of people could find themselves with unusable skills. In 2019, I was at UNESCO’s  Mobile Learning Week in Paris, where this challenge was discussed in a presentation by the President of the World Labour Organisation. I remember my pride, when our own President Cyril Ramaphosa was mentioned as one of the leading World Statesmen who understood the opportunities and challenges of the 4IR.

And his leadership in this field has been visible in our country. At the Department of Computing Sciences at Nelson Mandela University, we were proud when one of our Masters graduates, Baxolile Mabinya, was appointed as a member of the President’s Fourth Industrial Revolution Commission. This was led by another daughter of the Eastern Cape, Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

Understanding the importance of education within the 4IR, government has been actively promoting Coding and Robotics as a subject in schools already from as young as Grade R. One thousand pilot schools were identified where this would be rolled out in 2020. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which dealt us all a curve ball, and clearly put a hold on the rolling out of Coding and Robotics in schools.

COVID-19, with all its negative impact, has literally leapfrogged many societies into the 4IR. Millions of normal citizens across the world suddenly had to make peace with virtual meetings, which became as common as making toast. Behind the scenes, these activities increased the need of technology support such as cloud computing. it is therefore no surprise that the Technology sector has been one of few sectors that benefitted from COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, software development was one of the scarce skills in our country, and most of the world. Most economies were developing in such a way that they became more and more dependent on software. It is no surprise that a company like S4 Integration here in Port Elizabeth has been acknowledged as Exporter of the Year more than once – mainly for the software they implement for foreign clients. Companies were desperate to find qualified graduates. This desperation has now intensified as a result of the growth of importance of technology during 2020.

Which brings us back to Coding and Robotics in schools. Over many years, my students from disadvantaged communities would encourage me to go back to their schools to make them aware of careers in software development. They would argue that their school did not have computers, and therefore the majority of those learners were unaware of the lucrative careers in computing. Their plight highlighted a serious challenge: of the 25 000 schools in our country, 16 000 do not have laboratories. It is estimated that it would cost on average R1-Million to provide those 16 000 schools with internet connected labs. This becomes even more of a challenge if one considers the shortage of teachers who could teach coding and robotics, as well as staff who could maintain the computer labs.

Imagine the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) or pure anxiety amongst learners, staff and headmasters of those schools every time they hear a news bulletin or read a newspaper article talking about the new opportunities related to 4IR? So how do we offer them hope? How do we empower teachers without needing a computer laboratory worth R1-million?

In 2017, Nelson Mandela University Computing Sciences student, Byron Batteson, designed a coding app named TANKS for his honours project. This brilliant innovative tool set us on an exciting journey, as we started reaching learners with coding, without the need of computers. With standard mobile phones and customized puzzle pieces, we have introduced nearly 30 000 learners across the country to the coding concepts being taught during a first-year programming module. We are already seeing learners’ career dreams being changed, with them now pursuing studies towards becoming software developers.

This project falls within the broader discipline of Unplugged Coding, which basically refers to coding without a computer, often only on paper. Over the past month, Mandela University’s Computing Sciences department, as part of a project in partnership with colleagues from Namibia, Mozambique and Germany, has presented CODING UNPLUGGED workshops on Zoom. Educators who are active in unplugged coding activities in schools and NGO’s presented at the workshops from experience. The response has been overwhelming, with over 500 registrations from all nine provinces, as well as other countries.

Last week I was in Mthatha, training Educational Specialists and teachers from that region, on how to roll out Unplugged Coding activities. We were mainly using our locally developed apps (TANKS, RANGERS and BOATS), but also other unplugged tools. This event confirmed the desperate need for teachers to be empowered, as well as the huge impact Unplugged Coding tools can make. Within five hours, those present had lost the “fear of the unknown” and were actively participating in various coding challenges. All those present agreed that the activities went way further than coding, since life skills such as problem solving, logical thinking, group management and strategy were all taught. Every week, I see initiatives springing up in schools and communities across the country, making use of our apps and the additional resources we developed.

An important partner in this endeavour remains industry. COVID-19 has put severe strain on the finances of the Department of Basic Education. We are deeply grateful to many sponsoring partners from industry who have made it possible to make a difference in the career aspirations of learners, and would encourage more CSI spending towards this goal. Our country needs to make this investment in our future – transforming Anxiety into Hope.

This article appeared in The Herald of 9 March 2021, written by Prof Jean Greyling, an Associate Professor in Nelson Mandela University’s Computing Sciences Department.

Contact information
Prof. Jean Greyling
Associate Professor
Tel: 27 41 504 2081
jean.greyling@mandela.ac.za