For many South Africans, the Covid-19 pandemic set into motion a radical paradigm shift that would bring us firmly into the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR). However, without proactive intervention to promote access to digital technology and information literacy, we run the risk of entrenching inequality, improving the lives of those who are already digitally connected and leaving behind those who are not.
Among the many activities that have had to pivot into the digital realm, is education. Having mostly abandoned face-to-face teaching in favour of online remote-access learning models, many tertiary institutions have grappled with issues of equitable access to technology and the ‘digital divide’.
Set against a backdrop of frequent student protests – often over financial concerns – and an embattled National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the rapid swing towards online learning comes at an already tumultuous time for students in the country.
Leana de Beer, Chief Executive Officer of student crowdfunding platform Feenix, believes that, as a nation beleaguered by chronic inequality, South Africa is now poised at a critical juncture.
On the one hand the accelerated pace of digitisation could serve as a democratising factor, leveling the playing fields and exposing the disenfranchised to the myriad opportunities presented by the new digital economy. On the other hand, it threatens to exacerbate inequality and entrench the digital divide, further excluding those who lack access to technology and other resources from meaningful empowerment.
With the current youth unemployment rate sitting at a staggering 32.5%, there is a clear need for increased computer literacy in order for young people to participate in the new digital economy.
“Successful interventions will involve holistic cross-sector collaboration, as well as campaigns and incentives to promote digital literacy. These efforts will ultimately reap cascading benefits as more young people are empowered to participate in the new world of the digitised economy,” she suggests.
A research report commissioned by Feenix in 2020 reveals that 46% of student respondents do not have access to a computer. Even at historically advantaged tertiary institutions, 10 – 30% of students lack access to the resources they need to succeed.
The levels of access at less affluent universities may therefore be worryingly low. While only a few universities offer students laptops for their studies at this time, it would be ideal that all students are offered devices of their own with which to fully engage in the project of digital learning.
“The issue of connectivity is paramount to the debate,” says De Beer. “Student respondents in the study unanimously feel that data and connectivity are essential to succeeding academically.”
Even with offline courses and modules, many students utilise resources like YouTube to augment their learning. However, like with other commodities such as electricity, data costs tend to be scaled in favour of the already privileged: smaller amounts of data are charged at much higher rates than bulk data deals. This means that data costs are often prohibitive for those who can ill-afford constant or uncapped connectivity.
Although the 4IR may offer an array of opportunities for employment, entrepreneurship, and inclusion into the new digital economy, this is highly dependent on the levels of digital fluency that students possess. If institutions are to fulfil their mandates to equip our youth for the working world of today, it is clear that digital literacy and equitable access must be emphasised as an integral feature of a relevant education.
“Prioritising digital inclusivity will result in increased employment, a more equitable society and financial inclusion for generations to come,” concludes de Beer.