How UWC fosters digital skills, entrepreneurship and innovation in its local communities

Digital inclusion (that is, open access to technology) is of critical importance to young South Africans, if they are to participate meaningfully in the digital economy. However, in South Africa, where resources are scarce, this is often difficult. Professor Mmaki Jantjies, who is an Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape, made this point at last week's Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Lekgotla. She said limited access to technology renders the playing field unequal.

At this event, themed #African Entrepreneurship through Technology, Professor Jantjies discussed Digital Inclusion in Education, Health and Small Businesses. Her pre-recorded input was broadcast to the 1221 delegates from at least three continents of Africa, Europe and the United States. The conference attendees comprised students, academics, senior university leaders and policy makers from the higher education sector.

She defined digital inclusion as access to digital platforms by all, in such a way that everyone fully benefits from digital products and services that are available in the market. She added that in a digitally inclusive environment, digital skills enable youngsters to aspire to careers and innovation within the field of technology.

"It is only through exposure to digital skills that children from all backgrounds, across all schooling platforms, begin to innovate within the new Fourth Industrial Revolution technology field." Professor Jantjies further said a fully digitised era unleashes education, business and health benefits, as society gets to access services in these sectors via digital platforms. "In essence, there would be a far greater reach to our community members within South Africa."

Professor Mmaki Jantjies, Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape, believes access to digital technology opens up young minds to technological innovation.
Professor Mmaki Jantjies
Professor Mmaki Jantjies, Associate Professor in Information Systems at the University of the Western Cape, believes access to digital technology opens up young minds to technological innovation.

Inequality hampers digital inclusion

Professor Jantjies said digital inequalities stood in the way of digital inclusion as there are variances in access to digital resources within different South African communities. "In one part of the country you'll have high-speed internet access where schools are equipped to give children the digital skills they require." In such places, community members highly benefit from digital platforms and resources because there is good connectivity.

"In other communities, there are no such opportunities to use digital resources or platforms because of bad connectivity and inadequate related infrastructure." This, she said, means that schools in those areas have little or no access to the internet and so, "offering any services from the business sector becomes difficult."

Furthermore, the fact that South Africa has some of the highest data costs in Africa, limits low-income-earning citizens from fully benefiting from digital platforms and technology as a whole. "Let's look at the South African context: 30% of youth are out of school and out of work. There is also a known unemployment figure of 31%. These create challenges for digital inclusion in that out-of-school, out-of-work youth may not be exposed to the benefits that come with having digital products."

She said youth excluded in that way may also be deprived of the type of education that could open locked doors for them to be able to innovate in the field of 4IR technology. "That is the group we need to consider when we think about digital inclusion. We need to consider the far-reaching consequences of having a huge group in the population not able to access digital platforms, services and products – and not able to benefit from the digital world."

Skills, skills and skills

She said it was therefore important that youth are able to gain digital skills throughout their school life.

"You might, for example, only want to register for a short course to learn more about artificial intelligence on EDX because you do not necessarily want to get a degree; you might want to be entrepreneurial in the area of drones... "

She said that the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering, listing demand, supply and scarcity, found that the skills most needed are software developers, computer systems engineers, programme analysts and database designers, tele-communications engineers and cyber security experts.

Small businesses have had to fight large organisations – who have greater financial muscle to pay better – for highly skilled technology and technical experts. "SMEs are having to be innovative as it is how they will sustain themselves and be competitive in the digital world." She said that skill sets are often imported. These reasons make skills development all the more critical in ensuring digital inclusion.

"We need to think beyond the brick and mortar of classrooms and see how we can leverage off online learning platforms. Covid-19 thrust us into having a greater appreciation of online learning platforms and places for young South Africans to be able to acquire the digital skills freely and be able to use them within their start-up enterprises."

UWC's contribution through technology clubs

Professor Jantjies then went on to narrate what the University of the Western Cape does, to promote digital skills development in its local communities.

"We focus on digital skills development from both teachers and young children's perspective. We run technology clubs in high schools where we teach teachers basic digital literacy skills and help them on innovation. We teach them how to incorporate the use of a range of technologies to support the children's learning process."

Learners attending  UWC-led skills development session
Learners attending one of the skills development training sessions led by UWC's postgraduate students.

She said the motivation behind these clubs was to build innovators and entrepreneurs; to build a pipeline of young people – whether they go to university or not – who can solve contextual problems using the skillset they have. UWC also has volunteer students, all graduates of information systems and computer science, who run the technology clubs within the schools.

"Only once you're exposed to the power of Artificial Intelligence, robotics or any of the new areas of technology, can you start thinking about the contextual problems of our community and society." She said students were encouraged to look at where they grew up to find ways to use the skills and the knowledge acquired to respond to local societal challenges.

Started in 2016, UWC realised that by waiting to introduce technological concepts at university, they would be missing opportunities to influence children at their young age. They would also be depriving the children of role models equipped with technological, innovative skills with potential to solve problems in their home localities.

The University implements this service through service learning programmes. "For example, in our project management class – using the principles of project management for information systems that they have learnt – students have to choose a social enterprise area within the community and work to support that community as they grow the enterprise."

On digital skills with potential to propel South Africa's development to the next level, Professor Jantjies listed the internet of things, the use of sensors, robotics, augmented and virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence - all considered the high end of technology in 4IR. She said these skills carry the potential to develop South Africans beyond being just consumers to become innovators, able to offer authentic South African innovations to the world.

Immersing students in augmented and virtual reality

UWC has introduced a post-graduate diploma aimed at addressing the skills shortage in the emerging area of augmented and virtual reality. She described augmented reality as a technology where "we use either our smart phone or head-mounted gear to overlay our real reality with 3D objects.

Ms Atoofah Gierdien
Ms Atoofah Gierdien demonstrating virtual reality gear at a local school technology club.

"Virtual reality is where we are completely immersed in a 3D world that is a simulation of a real world." She gave, as an example, use of the technology by online estate agents, which enable potential buyers to view houses-for-sale online. Another example was of physical trainers offering no physical contact sessions online, during lockdown. By use of this technology, sports people could also play with their teammates virtually.

She said at UWC, as part of their virtual and augmented reality in education initiative, they started a programme where students from various backgrounds such as graphic design and programming students work as a team to study a specific societal problem. They then put virtual or augmented reality innovation to use within that context.

Ms Atoofah Gierdien demonstrating virtual reality gear at a local school technology club.

Professor Jantjies said it had been a "great experience to see how young people have gone on to start their own businesses or work with organisations actually introducing this technology as a competitive edge. "We strive to ensure that children become innovators and not just consumers, particularly in the 4IR which is critical if we are going to have technology innovations that speak to our South African society."

The EDHE Programme is one of Universities South Africa's flagship projects funded largely by the Department of Higher Education and Training's University Capacity Development Programme. The annual EDHE Lekgotla, the fourth since 2016, is a premium event on the EDHE Programme calendar. Attendees at the Lekgotla 2020 comprised students, academics, senior university leaders and policy makers from the higher education sector.

The author, Charmain Naidoo, is an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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