Honoured by the Presidency for “his excellent contribution to astronomy and dedication in putting South Africa on the map with the SKA Project,” keynote speaker and Cornerstone Board member, Dr Berni Fanaroff, provided a springboard for the evening’s dialogue on The 4IR: Implications for Higher Education. Fanaroff took the audience through his extensive career within the science sector, and gave a brief outline of the digital economy, new technologies and their possible implications, linking these to the South African context and issues of socio-economic inequalities and education. 

Professor Kethamonie Naidoo was first to respond, stating the urgent need for collective strategic responses to the digital economy (4IR) within the SA higher education sector. From the perspective of the Council on Higher Education (CHE), in their role as a quality assurance body, relevant and appropriate higher education has many facets including – technology, lecturers, students/graduates and curricula. Strategic responses should therefore ideally not be imposed but rather happen organically, resulting in communities of practice. Naidoo also expressed a concern that appropriate mechanisms should be put in place to ensure that the digital economy does not exacerbate inequalities within the higher education sector, but should rather aim to take everyone along on the wave of progress, and for this to happen a systemic approach and collective mobilisation is needed. 

Next, Professor Bruce Bassett drew on an analogy to compare the 3rd and 4th Industrial Revolutions. Bassett stated that the three most integral elements of the 3IR were oil, the combustion engine and roads, whereas for the 4IR these elements are data/information, artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms and computing infrastructure. Specifically, in relation to SA higher education, Bassett also noted that the topic at hand had two questions within it, how can the 4IR improve higher education? and how should higher education adapt to prepare young people for the future? with the first question being somewhat easier to address than the first because no-one has any idea of what the world is going to look like in 25 years. A key concern as we enter the 4IR continues to be the issue of job losses or job gains, particularly the type of work available within the “gig economy”. However, for Bassett, a huge positive is that artificial intelligence and algorithms being developed have universal implications, and holds great potential for the personalisation of higher education (adaptive curricula).

The last respondent, Professor Laura Czerniewicz, referred to the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (Shoshana Zuboff, 2019) to contextualise her thoughts on the implications of the 4IR, particularly noting how a new form of capitalism is being enabled by digital platforms that turn human experiences/behaviour into data for marketing. Czerniewicz expressed concern that these platforms are largely unregulated but noted that SA may have an advantage in our conscious consideration of social justice and inequality within our policy frameworks that could influence regulation in the future. Particularly for higher education, the 4IR has played a big role in the marketisation of higher education (edu-tech businesses, online tutoring, adaptive and personalised learning) and this has knock-on effects on inequality in terms of who has access to these resources. Considerable risks stated by Czerniewicz included lagging policy regulation, the bias in algorithms and AI (gender, race, class), lack of experimentation (pedagogy), downfalls of too much personalisation (steering behaviour), and innovations just serving profit motives. For Czerniewicz, in agreement with Naidoo, a move toward collective approaches to the 4IR by universities should be prioritised rather than the current climate that promotes competitive attitudes. Ultimately, we should be coming up with new interdisciplinary research into this 4IR that does not downplay the contribution of the humanities and social sciences and establishing organisations and governance structures for the ethical use of digital platforms and educational technology. These inputs were followed by lively questions from the audience and a closing poem by Zenariah Barends from the Cape Cultural Collective.

Please join us for our next Critical Dialogue on Thursday 4 July 2019: “Religion, Spirituality and Social Justice: Considerations for Ethical Leadership” with Dr Darlene Miller (Wits School of Governance) and Rev Berry Behr (Interfaith Initiative Cape Town), chaired by Prof Gertrude Fester (Centre for African Studies UCT).