Digital learning in South Africa

With 40% of South Africa’s 20.4 million young people (between the ages of 15 to 34) currently unemployed, this poses one of the most significant challenges to the country. At the same time, businesses find it challenging to find employees with the requisite skills. In the 2019 ICT Skills Survey, despite the high overall unemployment rate, the category of Critical Skills Visa as a recruitment source is growing. This means that the local workforce can’t adequately fill the ICT-related vacancies and enterprises are recruiting these abroad. 

Over the years, this survey has repeatedly highlighted the poor state of education in South Africa and in particular the meagre number of learners achieving competence in STEM subjects. Many initiatives are attempting to address this issue. Still, they tend to be in relatively small pockets and are not resolving the underlying lack of appropriate curriculum, relevant teaching materials and skilled teachers. 

State of the Nation

President Ramaphosa addressed this in last week’s State of the Nation (SONA) address, promising to build cutting-edge solutions to reskill these unemployed youth, “to increase their employability and match themselves to (available) opportunities … fundamentally changing how we prepare young people for the future of work, providing shorter and more flexible courses in specific skills that employers in fast-growing sectors need”.

Mobile Learning in South Africa

How might this look?

Like in the rest of the world, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is hyped in South Africa. It is, however, a useful frame to look at the future of work Ramaphosa speaks of, and the skills required.

Although many organisations and people believe the 4IR could create new jobs and business opportunities, seizing these opportunities would require new approaches to education and workplace skills development. There is an awareness that to grasp the opportunities fully, parties need to work together across business, academia and civil society. Taking cognisance of this, in April 2019 President Ramaphosa established the Presidential Committee on 4IR which will assist the government in taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution. The task of the Commission, which will be chaired by the President, is to identify relevant policies, strategies and action plans that will position South Africa as a competitive global player.

The Future of Work

Every industrial revolution brings about fears around job security and job loss because of new ways of working and different skills requirement. The previous industrial revolutions have shown increases in employment since human beings showed that they could adapt and remain active participants in the advancements that the revolutions brought. Technology revolutions did create significant shifts in work, but the increased productivity it ushers in generally creates many more jobs. For example, the introduction of personal computers from the 1980s destroyed an estimated 3.5 million jobs in the USA (for instance, among typists), but created 19 million new jobs right across the economy.

The 2019 World Development Report, The Changing Nature of Workfinds that fears that robots will take away jobs from people on balance appear to be unfounded. Work is constantly reshaped by technological progress. Firms adopt new ways of production, markets expand, and societies evolve. Overall, technology brings opportunity, paving the way to create new jobs, increase productivity, and deliver effective public services. 

However, we should be aware that the new jobs will probably high levels of expertise and not necessarily solve the problem of unskilled or low skilled labourers. 

Because several conditions are different in Sub-Saharan African, a separate report has been published to accompany The Changing Nature of Work report called The Future of Work in Africa; Harnessing the Potential of Digital Technologies for All. The different underlying conditions include persistently low levels of human capital, an unusually large informal sector, and insufficient and inefficient social protection systems. Against this backdrop, the adoption of digital technologies has the potential to have a better impact on lower-skilled and lower-educated workers in Sub-Saharan Africa than it does in higher-income regions. 

While 4IR may be disruptive to many occupations, it is also projected to create a wide range of new jobs in fields such as STEM, data analysis, computer science and engineering. There will be strong demand for professionals who can blend digital and STEM skills with traditional subject expertise – such as digital-mechanical engineers and business operations data analysts – and who combine in-depth knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to adapt business strategies quickly. There will also be more demand for user interface experts, who can facilitate seamless human-machine interaction. For Sub-Saharan Africa, the most significant long-term benefits of such jobs are likely to be found in the promotion of home-grown African digital creators, designers and makers, not just digital deliverers.

McKinsey estimates that in South Africa digitisation, machine learning and automation have the potential to create 1.8 million new jobs purely as a result of improved productivity. In turn, this could increase income levels, consumer spending, investment in construction and infrastructure, and spending on education and health care. The additional potential of 1.2 million new jobs could be created in as-yet-unknown occupations created thanks to technology advancement. 

Digital skills needed in South Africa

Various reports indicate that it is difficult to get a full picture of Africa’s skills gap because there is a corresponding data gap. There is hardly any primary data on the number of existing jobs and of newly created jobs in specific sectors or on the number of unfilled vacancies. This makes it hard to identify actual gaps and define measures to address these. Through alternative research methods (including a collaboration with LinkedIn) the World Economic Forum (WEF) concludes that African employers seek both a higher-skilled workforce (tertiary education) and more adequately skilled employees. The latter means that although the employees might be higher skilled, they are not proficient in the disciplines that employers require. This calls for closer dialogue between education providers and industry to align and optimise the region’s demand and supply of skills. 

The WEF recommendations for strategic focus areas for Sub-Saharan Africa (and indications which gaps need to be filled) are:

  • Providing robust and respected technical and vocational education and training (TVET) (formal enrolment across the region stands at 6%)
  • Creating a culture of lifelong learning (encouraging more workplace learning and greater private sector involvement)
  • Ensuring the ‘future-readiness’ of curricula (A particular strategic focus for the region should entail updating the quality of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at the secondary level and through technical and vocational and tertiary education to develop a workforce capable of competing in technology-driven economies. Currently, African university graduates with a STEM degree represent a mere two per cent of the continent’s total university-age population. 

The exponential pace of technology developments and the pervasiveness of information create what some call a VUCA (Volatile Unpredictable Complex Ambiguous) world and require advanced cognitive, socio-behavioural and adaptive skills as well as the accelerated acquisition of digital and STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) skills. The superior cognitive, socio-behavioural and adaptive skills are often referred to as 21st Century skills and vary from the 4Cs to the 6Cs and include Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Character and Citizenship. These are often more difficult to teach than basic digital skills

Online courses already exist – Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

The South African government does not need to develop learning platforms from scratch. There are many high-quality courses available online, many of them at no cost. Various organisations offer advanced online learning platforms to education institutions to offer their courses to a global audience. Learners can follow the courses they select on PC, laptops and portable devices. The platform subscribes the learners and arranges for a certification facility. Learners can choose whether they follow a course at their own pace or follow a timeline that allows them to be in a virtual classroom with other learners from all over the world and take part in discussion platforms and communities of practice. For many of these courses, you’ll only pay when you choose the certified option. 

As a first step, the South African government could audit the existing MOOCs available against the skills required in the country. Many of these are available under Creative Commons licenses so content could be remixed or adapted as needed. A curriculum could be set up, highlighting what courses unemployed young people could complete to ready themselves for particular kinds of work.


Nationwide (broadband) connectivity and coverage are needed to bring the benefits of this approach to all who need it. Although smartphone penetration continues to grow in the country, ubiquitous coverage of high-speed, broadband connectivity at affordable prices is still just a vision. 

The ICT Skills Study laments the failure of SA Connect to reach its objectives of providing universal broadband access. The Vodacom Business CEO sounds more positive when he talks about the principal activity at the telecommunications regulator ICASA to make spectrum available for the mobile operators to offer 5G. 

The recently published Competition Commission report on their data market enquiry provides an interesting insight into the current state of national data connectivity and pricing. One of the long-anticipated outcomes is that Vodacom and MTN will have to drop their data rates with 30-50%.  

In the report, the Commission uncovers a host of initiatives in the provision of alternative WiFi and local wireless data network services to lower-income and rural communities including free WiFi programmes such as in the City of Tshwane, local WiFi community projects and Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) connecting smaller towns and wealthier rural farming towns. Also, there are increasing initiatives by online companies such as Google (unfortunately coming to an end) and Facebook to experiment with services in lower-income areas. 

Both the connectivity and content issues are relatively quick and easy for the South African government to resolve, given enough political will. Still to be considered, and perhaps more difficult would be whether businesses would be willing to hire these recently skilled and for the most part un-credentialed young people, but this could be solved through incentives offered by the government.

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