Disruption in education – are South African schools ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution?

As a developing country still dependant on labour-intensive industries such as mining and agriculture, South Africa is at a risk of not optimally taking advantage of the 4th Industrial Revolution, 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’.

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.

A digital resource centre in a school library in Soweto

In education, the challenge is to equip learners in South Africa to function effectively in the 21st Century, and use technology to innovate, collaborate and create.

Skills for the 21st Century

The digital revolution has changed the way we live, work and interact with one another. The skills that are considered most necessary for the 21st Century focus on how best to navigate this digital environment. These skills are divided into learning and innovation skills information, media and technology skills, and life and career skills. These skills can broadly be categorised into cognitive skills and practical skills.

21st Century skills: the three Ls

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning divides 21st Century skills into three categories: life, learning and literacy skills.

Learning skills such as critical and creative thinking as well as the arts of collaboration and communication are more important than ever. Global trade and industry and the global dissemination of information means that learners are emerging into multilingual and multidisciplinary work environments. As Thoughtful Learning says:

‘To hold information-age jobs … students also need to think deeply about issues, solve problems creatively, work in teams, communicate clearly in many media, learn ever-changing technologies, and deal with a flood of information.’

The growth of digital technologies and the extent to which we rely on them in the workplace means that learners need to acquire not only information and media literacy but technology literacy too.

Crucial 21st Century life skills include flexibility and social awareness as well as leadership skills and the ability to be productive and proactive.

Education experts in several countries are finding that there is a mismatch between the skills learners acquire in the course of ordinary school learning and the kinds of versatility and varied literacies employers require.

The importance of 21st Century skills

In today’s job market, an understanding of how to use digital tools effectively, while working collaboratively and across multiple disciplines is vital. In order to teach these skills at school, a new learning framework is required that embeds these 21st Century Skills in the curriculum, imparting subject knowledge while developing the required practical and cognitive skills.

So how can South Africa prepare its’s learners for this new world of work?

Cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity are currently covered by the South African curriculum. However, digital tools can enhance and extend this while at the same time providing learners with exposure to digital technology. Key amongst these are:

  • Personalised learning – Learners progress at an individual pace. The challenge of offline/non-digitised learning is that learners are expected to keep up with (or slow down to) the majority of the class. Digital education enables teachers to pace learning according to individual needs. In this way, it facilitates the acquisition of cognitive skills at the level of each learner’s ability, allowing some learners opportunities to practise more and others to go ahead when they are ready to do so.
  • Expanded learning – Expanded learning refers to additional learning opportunities outside of the usual classroom teaching and learning scenario. Digital education is able to offer learners across the ability spectrum additional opportunities to either extend their knowledge and skills by having access to extension materials or to consolidate and/or improve their knowledge and skills through doing support activities and by practising similar tasks.
  • Increased engagement – Learner motivation is key to engagement and hence learning. Digital education methodologies such as game-based learning offer opportunities for teachers to increase learner engagement with the subject matter and thereby improve learners’ performance. In addition, access to varied and current content online allows learners to not only enhance their knowledge but also to develop their ability to engage critically with information.
  • Collaborative learning – Digital education makes collaborative learning easy to implement. Digital platforms allow for three key things: teachers can set group tasks; learners can collaborate with one another to complete tasks; teachers can monitor learners’ individual contributions and progress towards completion. In addition, collaborative learning scenarios give learners invaluable opportunities to critically evaluate one another’s inputs and to communicate with one another in order to solve problems through teamwork.
  • Assessment for learning – Digital education enhances the teacher’s capacity to assess learners both diagnostically and formatively in order to accurately identify the cognitive skills that are lacking. In so doing, digital assessment programs enable teachers to offer personalised learning opportunities that are appropriate and effective. Further, game-based learning programs assess learners in a way that makes the assessment process invisible to learners who experience each task as yet another challenge in a competitive environment.

5 thoughts on “Disruption in education – are South African schools ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution?”

  1. Schools in rural areas lacking necessary resources and even skills to comply with the use of technology are facing a dilemma with 4IR.

  2. That’s true Ncamzo, but it is these very schools that the DBE has decided to target in digital roll-out! It will be interesting to see the success of this strategy

  3. Hi, I am looking for formal academic literature (scientific books, academic articles, official policies) on the following two topics:

    1) Is the South African curriculum promoting 21st century skills (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration and communication)?
    2) Are South African classrooms advancing with fast changing technologies of the 4th (and upcoming 5th) industrial revolution ?

    What academic resources would you recommend? I am doing research on these two topics and will be writing literature reviews about them.


Leave a Reply