Skills are the most critical element that needs to be talked about when discussing the South African labour market. So said Colin Thakur, ICT Professor at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), who is also InSETA Research Chair: Digitalisation and Director at NEMISA’s (National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa’s) e-Skills Colab at DUT.
He was introducing the topic: Entrepreneurship and modern technologies in the labour market – nexus between theory and practice during the third and final breakaway session of the World of Work Strategy Group (WSG) at the recent Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference. The aim of this, The Engaged University conference, was to stimulate thought leadership and debates on key higher education issues among stakeholders, and to enable them to devise solutions while creating transformed and responsive institutions of the future. This event was jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE).
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m counterintuitive – I do things backwards. So, starting backwards: this notion of the labour market that we are talking about – we [at USAf] look at everything with a skills matrix. Our lens is always tinted with skills.” The professor, who is an active member of USAf’s WSG, added that the Group’s focus and interest was in professional development, experiential learning, lifelong learning and workplace learning.
Pandemic “house arrest”
“Of course, that lens is augmented, and sometimes constrained, by the 4IR pandemic. We have literally been under house arrest – with a lack of physicality that is making our training delivery very difficult indeed.” He said his second point, going backwards, was the notion of modern technologies and asked: “What are the modern technologies out there that we can use to redress some of the challenges that are facing us?
“We know about skilling, up-skilling, reskilling, deskilling and cross-skilling. These words are familiar in our vocabulary.” When Frederick Taylor (the father of scientific management) started the idea of a factory, its units of labour and its impact on productivity, he said, it was obvious that that would happen. “There was also a race to the bottom in terms of some skills – hence the term deskilling. But in my world, in the digitalisation world, there’s a new trend to automate labour through robotic process automation.”
He said that today, robots are doing what Taylor did in terms of using science. Professor Thakur (right) described 4IR as being, by definition, a synergy of modern technologies – the cyber, the physical and the biotechnical. He asked how, in the skills space, the idea of 4IR could be reimagined.
“If we look at the world we now live in, our engagement is through Learning Management Systems (LMS) and e-Learning. We hope for this splendid thing, but where we are right now, it is not happening as much as it should. We yearn for this embedded, augmented immersive type of experience.
“This is where the problem comes in – we are looking at this intersection of innovation and the entrepreneurial: can we co-create content that will allow us to continue with this physicality; this distance that has been caused by CoViD-19?
Can we virtualise training using some innovative ways of doing things? I’m thinking of content co-creation using our retired staff, our current staff and our current and under-employed students that we have in this country.”
He said it should be assumed that we are in the new normal through which labour training had to be reimagined. The professor said that the claim is that CoViD-19 has transformed our lives while the reality is that CoViD-19 has digitised our lives. “I’m talking about taking technology, taking 4IR into those LMS / e-learning spaces. How is this going to impact the labour market?
“The technologies that we could use are all the same old things many of you would have heard of.” He listed them as onboarding, simulation, chat boxes, augmented and virtual reality, sandbox environment, animation and digital prints. He chose a few as examples to show scalable instances of where these are being used. Professor Thakur said his purpose and higher mission for being at this conference was to be a part of a Community of Practice that would drive workplace and experiential learning – through collaborative content co-creation.
He gave as a business case: If 100 000 students produced 3 minutes each in their portfolio using those technologies (some listed above) there would be 300 000 minutes of content – some bad.
“That’s about 500 hours of improvable content – it’s a beautiful way to fail forward,” he said. This, he added, could also be part of some universities’ use of community service learning to get the experiential learning going.
“This is where we can partner with our students and citizen development and Ubuntu starts coming in. If you had to look in the history of technology, all medium to large scale companies had a librarian and a webmaster, then a webmaster and a training manager… now I submit that every company, by definition, should have an instruction designer. If those 100 000 learners started doing some content co-creation they could have some vocation as an instructional designer so it is purposeful.”
Professor Thakur provided practical examples:
- Onboarding: Personal care company L’Oréal takes on 10 000 new staff every year across the world, in 11 different languages. “They inculcate into their staff the L’Oréal culture by giving them an app that onboards staff every year. It has a magnificent application across the world. We could learn from this: our country is similar in terms of 11 languages and the mix.”
- Simulation: “We all know the beautiful thing that happened in the Hudson River, right? (A pilot landed a plane saving all passengers). We also know about IPad simulation training. We know what to do and now we know what not to do. Simulation is a wonderful way of inculcating training, and students can create many simulation projects for new students.”
- Chatbox: “It’s not what you and I are thinking about: this is a Chatbox dedicated to a particular person who does not have any bias or preconceived notion of forgetfulness or tiredness or fatigue… this Chatbox will work with one person at a time, and work with that person’s strengths and weaknesses. So this is repurposing Chatbox from being service orientated to becoming a virtual citizen that will support a physical human being.”
- Virtual Reality: “This is absolutely necessary in our current training world because we can’t do things physically – we need to start training people virtually. Virtual Reality can be used in training people in conflict management and racial sensitising, that is what Walmart (American multinational retail chain) does.”
- Augmented Reality: “Otis, this is my favourite example, has 2-million lifts. So, they’ve given every one of their staff an Ipad with augmented reality capabilities. When a technician goes to a lift, he sees it for the first and probably the only time. He takes out his AR list, the system automatically determines the type of the lift, and it takes the technician step by step through the service maintenance or repair process. This is a type of reality and already being done with 68 000 workers across the world. These are the types of replication technologies we can bring to mitigate the physicality challenge we have.
“With Hyundai, if your car doesn’t work, you walk around it with your phone. Then you hold your phone over your dashboard and it will tell you how to check for errors or fix problems, or whether you need to call a repairman. It’s an idiot-proof way of helping. If Hyundai can do it under their bonnet, can’t we start training our students using similar technologies?” This, the professor said, was something universities need to work on, especially with health science and engineering students where it is necessary to teach the students finesse and the tactile sense of how to do things. “Because we are doing things virtually, we need to start looking at researching the use of haptic technology.” (Technology that includes the use of touch).
- Sandbox: “is a good way for students to experiment in real world situations with software but without causing any harm to the real world. So you imagine, you can simulate, you can practice scenarios without causing any damage. It allows for creativity, for flair.
Professor Thakur concluded by saying: “What I am advocating is that we take these scalable technologies that we are all familiar with – I’ve given examples of companies that are doing that – we should partner with these multinational companies. We should learn from them and take that technology back to our classrooms and our universities; we should start working with our students, letting students become part of the process of failing forward.”
Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.