In recent times there has been much talk of a ‘4th industrial revolution’, as the lines between physical and digital experiences blur more and more. What exactly is the 4th industrial revolution and what skills can edtech help learners develop?

What is the 4th industrial revolution?

It is the rapid advancement of new technologies that is building on the developments of the third industrial revolution (the advent of electronics and automated production). According to Klaus Schwab, the Founder and executive chairman of the WEF, the fourth industrial revolution ‘is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres’.

How is it changing the world of work?

The increasing intersection between physical and digital technologies is changing the world of work in several key ways. As Schwab says, ‘physical products and services … can now be enhanced with digital capabilities that increase their value’. Today’s worker needs to understand how digital and physical components can combine to create faster, more efficient and effective products and hybrid solutions.

How the 4th industrial revolution is changing the world of work: Uber as example

Take the ride-sharing app, Uber, for example. Its founders saw a gap in the market and combined traditional private transportation services with smartphone GPS capabilities. Using a simple user interface, this gave commuters an ‘always-available’ transport alternative to traditional taxi rides that require more planning and are more subject to availability.

Taxi associations have been understandably shaken due to the competitive element. It is extremely difficult for a taxi operator to compete with an app in which users can see the nearest available car as an overlay on a map of their local area. Proximity-based cab-hailing also meant Uber could have greater area coverage at lower costs since drivers don’t have to travel far to find their next passenger.

Today’s businesses – and, by extension, employees – thus have to be adaptable and conscious of the ways combining digital and physical resources can create solutions that surpass competitors’ limitations.

What are the skills needed to thrive in the 4th industrial revolution?

Collaborative and individual innovation are essential skills in the 4th industrial revolution. As technological advances emerge faster, education needs to equip learners to be able to assimilate new concepts and ideas quickly. In the modern workplace, many employees occupy multiple roles that require higher levels of critical thinking.

Alex Gray, writing for the World Economic Forum, predicts that by 2020 ‘the Fourth Industrial Revolution will have brought us advanced robotics and autonomous transport, artificial intelligence and machine learning.’ In the article, Gray predicts that critical thinking will be the second most important employee skill. The other top 10 essential skills predicted for 2020 are:

  • Complex problem-solving
  • Creativity
  • People management
  • Coordinating with others
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Judgment and decision-making
  • Service orientation
  • Negotiation
  • Cognitive flexibility

How can we use educational technology to teach learners these skills?

Educational technology can introduce learners to environments where problem solving combines digital and physical components. Co-operative elements that are the foundation of multiplayer video games can be introduced to the classroom using gamification. This is where elements of game mechanics (for example ‘unlocking’ content when prerequisite actions are complete) are used in education. The collaborative nature of gamification coordinating with others (one of Gray’s core skills) while also fostering deeper learner engagement.

Innovation in educational technology can provide learners with the materials they need to be literate in the physical sciences as well as the digital world. Much of South Africa’s education system still relies on rote learning. Learners parrot textbooks and are graded for how well they can remember material first and how well they can apply it second.

To truly equip learners to cope with the demands of the 4th industrial revolution, it’s necessary to teach critical thinking that asks learners to develop their understanding of physical as well as digital technologies and how the two increasingly intersect in all spheres of life.

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