For the past few years, the 4th Industrial Revolution (or Industry 4.0) was billed as a looming technological event that would change the landscape for several industries the world over. Now it’s nearing ever closer, and in some cases is already at our doorstep.

How then can South Africans prepare for the challenges, as well as tap into the promise that advanced technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and bionics hold?

According to Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala, academic director at Pearson South Africa, the answer lies in coding, and more specifically ensuring that more learners are engaging with coding at a younger age and being taught the value that understanding the subject matter will bring.

Charged with ensuring the curriculum development at Pearson SA is forward-thinking enough to tackle the requirements of the workplace of the future, coding and the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) are things that are front of mind for Dr. Thwala at present.

We recently chatted to him about how coding as a subject and coding-focused initiatives should be more ubiquitous locally if South Africa does not want to be left behind by Industry 4.0. If South Africa is to succeed in the era of Industry 4.0, it will need to cater to the new skills required. Why do you think understanding these skills will be important?

Dr. Thwala: I think the most important aspect, while looking at it from an educational perspective, is how we can equip the young generation of students to deal with things like automation and the IT-rich environment in which they will live.

One of the significant factors in such an environment is having an understanding of how machines work, and the language that machines use.

If we’re going to be able to interact fruitfully with machines and understand elements like algorithms, learners will need to know how these things work and how they are created.

We [Pearson SA] think that if we equip students with the skills that come with coding and programming, they’ll be in a better position to understand what the 4th Industrial Revolution means and what impact the Internet of Things will have on their lives. Where would such a process of teaching and understanding start. Primary, secondary or tertiary level?

Dr. Thwala: My view is that the sooner you start the better.

I take my own daughter as an example. She started off with a game like Minecraft, and where able to move on to other programming-specific applications from there.

As a child develops in age, you can make the learning process a bit more complex.

Our view then is to start with children, teaching them the basics as to how programming works. By the time they get to university level, they have a well-rounded understanding of all the applications that can be developed with programming. Starting such a process in schools brings with it several challenges. Can a private and public school get the same level of teaching for example?

Dr. Thwala: I think there is a lot of value in experimentation to find the best way of handling such an issue.

It would be worthwhile to begin a pilot program, at a very basic level, at a school in both an upmarket and rural area.

From there you can better gauge what works and what does not in terms of teaching methods and the tools required to conduct programming classes.

I don’t believe that the concepts of coding need only be taught in urban areas, it can be taught in rural areas as well. Particularly at the early stages of school.

As the learner progresses, however, more computing power will be required. At those later stages is when real computing can be brought in.

My ideal scenario would be one where the infrastructure is in place where needed, allowing children from whatever background to have access to it.

Unfortunately this isn’t feasible at the moment, and it is indeed something that must be addressed. Do you think we’ll get to the stage where coding is as common in school curriculums as maths and science?

Dr. Thwala: Yes! That’s exactly what I’m calling for.

I would say that coding should be the 12th national language.

It’s important to teach our children coding as it’s the language used to communicate with machines.

If you look at some of the former model C and private schools, they’re already offering coding as apart of the syllabus.

These are only elements of coding, and not complete yet, but could soon be.

Just like several aspects of education, there are certain schools that have access and others that do not. What we’re advocating for is the adoption of a stance on coding for the entire country. If we are indeed to get coding to be the country’s 12th official language as you phrase it, what are the first few steps that need to happen?

Dr. Thwala: One of the first things we should be doing is lowering access to computing. If people are not able to interact with computers and see what they’re capable of doing, they will not know why coding and programming is important.

The next step is ensuring that training is in place. Currently the country is struggling to find enough people to help teach languages. Therefore training a large number of people who are then able to teach coding and programming would go a long way into addressing our needs.

Lastly, there should be more local competitions and initiatives in place where young people have an incentive for learning how to code. If you have competitions where the best codes are recognised region by region, that will certainly help generate greater interest. As far as government’s preparedness for 4IR is concerned, do you think they are ready or doing enough?

Dr. Thwala: I think government in general needs to follow what people want.

I’m aware that the current minister of education [Naledi Pandor] is very much interested in this field, and in particular anything that can help South Africa’s children be better equipped for the workplace.

What I’m less certain of is whether they have the means to do so. How then does Pearson SA fit into the picture?

Dr. Thwala: Pearson is already publishing a number of resources that can help young people learn how to code.

In some of our online platforms where we teach mathematics and IT, we add the basics of how to code.

Also in terms of our own company profile, we believe that teaching and learning can be enhanced by technology, and we’re prepared to develop avenues for young people and adults to learn how to programme. Are there any success stories this early in the process?

Dr. Thwala: We’re at the elementary stages at the moment.

In our own institutions we’ve planned that by 2020 , all Pearson SA students will have the opportunity to take an optional course in coding.

In future years will be introducing it as a mandatory course. If there is one thing about coding and its possibilities for the country, what would it be?

Dr. Thwala: I think it’s important to start a debate.

If we can begin debating the merits of embracing these computer skills, it could truly help us understand what the 4th Industrial Revolution means, what drives it and why coding lies at the core of unlocking its potential.

[Image – CC0 Pixabay]