The future is becoming increasingly difficult to think about, let alone plan for. The vital need for education systems in South Africa to improve and meet the pressing needs of society and our economy only compound this difficulty. The rate at which technology is developing is approaching warp-like speed and yet somehow, we have yet to find a point of confluence between the future, our socio-economic needs and technology. Dr Shahiem Patel, the Dean of Regent Business School, explores the transformative role of emerging technologies which are shaping the future of education in our country.
2023 was a year that seemingly changed the way we live our lives, in that Artificial Intelligence (AI) became accessible to the general public (noting that the vast majority of South Africans cannot access AI solutions), in ways that were unimaginable in just 12 months earlier. However, it is still doubtful that 2024 would be substantially different to 2023 insofar as South African education is concerned. Despite ChatGPT (the free and the premium options), Midjourney, Dall-E and countless other AI applications, it would appear that students at all levels of education in South Africa will still experience teaching, learning and assessments in a very ‘traditional’ way. In this context, ‘traditional’ implies that someone stands at the front of a class or via a device and dispenses information that is vital for a student to be successful in an assessment.
This implication is perhaps not universally applicable in South Africa education but is more than likely going to be a truth for the vast majority of South African students, given the imbalance in access to technology and the increasing inequality gap that exists in the country. If we are to challenge this reality, two important changes need to be seen in 2024.
Firstly, educators and leaders in education need to take bold and brave decisions in how to harness technologies like AI and offer solutions that might be so far from the expected norms of education, that it will to a degree, frighten students, regulators, employers alike. Frighten might be a dramatic term, but at the very least, these stakeholders need to be guided towards being comfortable with being uncomfortable in relation to education solutions offered by institutions. Students must get comfortable with education that is not geared towards “knowing what to expect in an assessment” and be comfortable being prepared for assessments that are based on the student’s innate ability to apply knowledge, solve problems, to adapt and to innovate. The implications of assessment regimes based on these ideas are huge. It would require a rethink of the role of the lecturer, the content being shared in class, how the content is shared, among other considerations.
The brief summary of this point is that educators and leaders in education must have a seismic shift in mindset before curricula and student journeys can transform. The magnitude of this change at scale cannot be overstated. I would argue that if every educator and every leader in education were to transform their thinking by the end of 2024, the vast majority of students in South Africa would not yet have enjoyed or experienced a fundamental shift in the student journey and experience by this time. The shift in educator mindset is only a prelude to changing the remaining constituent parts of the education system.
This brings me to the second change that needs to be seen in 2024: The timely accessibility of resources and innovations in education at scale. The term “at scale” is perhaps overused in education circles so it is important to define what is meant by this term. Scale in this context means everybody. Simply put, every student in South Africa should have access to the same resources and the same innovation, at the same speed, as any other student would in the country, regardless of your location, background, current socio-economic status, or any other reality facing you.
This lofty ideal seems unimaginable, but in the same way as the massification of AI was unimaginable in 2022 yet it became a reality in 2023, we must believe that this ideal is achievable early in 2024. It is important for this to materialise because it will be the platform from which we position South Africa’s future. If we fail to do this, not only will our global relevance be placed at risk, but our domestic prosperity will be further jeopardised. As a nation, we can ill-afford to allow another generation of post-democratic students to be deprived of quality education that is equally accessible.
The role of technology in the future of South African education is simple to define but it is not easy to envisage. Technology will be the enabler of progress and prosperity, whilst leaders will be the drivers thereof. In fact, a large part of our collective hope for the education system’s future is already possible with the technology that is available today. Future technologies will only serve to make things easier. However, if mindset shifts and access to these technologies are not prioritised, the future beyond 2024 will be restricted to ideas, thoughts and hopes. We must ensure that the education is underscored by South African students and graduates of the near-future that are global problem solvers, innovators and trendsetters because of the way that technology is presented to them during their studies. Even if it means that they do not see the link between technology and their future roles during their studies and only in the years following their graduation, this leap of faith is characteristic of “graduates of the future”.