In the year 2025; the future of technology and learning

Published On: 5 October 2019|

Utopia or dystopia

Prof Paul Prinsloo, Research Professor: Department of Business Management at the University of South Africa (UNISA), led delegates through a rapid-fire presentation that was as optimistic about the future as it was disturbing. It can be summed up in his opening comments: “I am interested in the duality that has sprung up about robots being smart, how they can speed up repetitive tasks and do away with mundane ones and then the dystopian version of a robotic future”.

As an academic, Prof Prinsloo questioned the notion of progress which, he argued, was unthinkingly understood as something ‘good’. But he went further to ask questions like “good for who and why”. Similarly, the question of growth was also under interrogation because we cannot continue growing, it’s unsustainable. “We need to degrow,” he quipped. Progress, he argued, especially through technology, could be a curse as much as it could be a blessing; it could be used to alleviate pain at the same time as it was being used to wage war.

Captions: Prof Paul Prinsloo, Research Professor: Department of Business Management at UNISA.

He quoted Neil Selwyn, a professor from Monash as stating that educational technology “needs to be understood as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts.” For Prof Prinsloo, that was problematic when added to a space like a university. “Technology realigns existing power relations and structures creating a more complex, knotty, inter-generational asymmetry. You add artificial intelligence (AI) to a country that is as unequal as South Africa, what happens?”

Robots don’t have unions (yet)

The underlying questions here, according to Prof Prinsloo, were: what should robots be allowed to do, what should they not do; and what should they not be allowed to do. There was, he said, a sense that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) would solve everything when applied to a country that was the most unequal in the world. While admitting that it would impact all aspects of our society, it would not do so equally. Some might benefit, but some might be more disadvantaged, he noted.

He followed up with a Google trend analysis to find out when the 4IR entered the South African vocabulary. It had been introduced on 14 January 2016 by Klaus Schwab. He then charted how and where the term had been used in the national discourse. Quoting the Mail and Guardian he then examined the way the 4IR had been used by South Africa’s politicians and in what context. What emerged was that the educational references to the 4IR were in the lead.

Offering a fresh reading of the four revolutions, Prof Prinsloo, pondered on questions like when was slavery abolished (bridging the first and second phases), when did colonisation reach its peak (second). His answer was that with the greater mechanisation, machines could now do what people had done previously. Colonisation had coincided with the increased need for access to natural resources in other countries. “So what makes you think the 4IR will be any different,” he asks. The question that needed to be considered, he argued, was who stood to benefit from this revolution and who was going to be excluded. Quoting the Reserve Bank Governor Lesetja Kganyago, he pointed to the impossible position that faced the labour unions: “One of the biggest challenges in South Africa’s transition into the Fourth Industrial Revolution is organised labour’s pleas to protect jobs, which cannot be done,” says Governor Kganyago. Unless we understood the economic lessons from the past revolutions, we would simply replicate them, Prof Prinsloo submitted.

Offering high praise for Tim Unwin’s article “Why the notion of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is so problematic“, Prof Prinsloo summarised the essential points. Technology served specific interests, he said, and, it was these interests, not technology, that changed the world. Those interests, bent on reducing labour costs and expanding the market, had remained the same for a long time. Quoting Tim Unwin, he pointed out “to change the global balance of power, there needs to be a history that focuses on the lives of the poorest and most marginalised, rather than one that glorifies élites in the interests of maintaining their hold over power”. But, Prof Prinsloo argued, those in power were élites, mostly men (and white) and were not necessarily interested in creating an equal society. Instead, they were interested in shaping the world according to their wealthy, élite, male imaginations.

Smart cities, smart campuses, smart lecturers

The benevolent reading of the smart city was that it was intricately connected, to the extent that it could use daily information to shape services and delivery, offered Prof Prinsloo. However, he continued, this was not the case. The smart city offered increasingly detailed ways in which the Internet of Things (IoT) could be used for citizen surveillance. Although he said that many were pushing back at the notion of the smart city, it was already up and running at the smart campus. Here, for those using IoT, it was able to track and correlate a student’s consumption of espresso with their Marketing I scores, to tell where they accessed WiFi, who they engaged with and whether they were engaged students.

But it went even further, according to Prof Prinsloo. At the business end there were platforms that tracked student’s Gmail accounts, social media and movement to be able to provide a composite report on the student. Quoting David Beer, he observed that Data analytics were presented as “speedy, accessible, revealing, panoramic, prophetic and smart.” While most of these were understandable, prophetic was even more disturbing because it meant data analytics could foresee and predict future behavior.

“It’s not all negative,” Prof Prinsloo asserted in conclusion. “With 14,000 students in Economics 1, I cannot achieve the interactive engagement that would usually exist in a physical class. But I can use an algorithm that will alert me if a student hasn’t logged on to the system and that algorithm can enquire if all is fine with the student. I can work with the algorithm to aim for success. Or I can write an algorithm that I can oversee. It’s when the algorithm acts by itself, that’s when we enter the scary black hole”.

He concluded by emphasising that we need to get out of thinking about AI as taking over our roles as humans and think of AI as the difference between a submarine and fish: “both live in the water and swim but the two are not the same thing.”

4IR in Africa

Prof Willie Chinyamurindi, Associate Professor: Department of Business Management, University of Fort Hare was the first respondent to Prof Prinsloo. Invoking the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, he drew a comparison between the adoption of the 4IR and AI leading the children into a bleak future. The assumption that the 4IR would be enacted off an equal playing field was erroneous, he posited. Referring to the socio-economic inequality that characterised South Africa, especially in rural areas, he said it may well be that these populations would be further disadvantaged. Prof Chinyamurindi was particularly interested in the way that the 4IR had an uneven impact on the poor and that its ramifications in Africa might be that its benefits would bypass the already marginalised.

Prof Willie Chinyamurindi, Associate Professor: Department of Business Management, University of Fort Hare. Prof Chinyamurindi went on to question knowledge; the importance we placed (operationally and through budgets) on it and the perceived value we attributed types of knowledges. He used the notion of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) as a knowledge formation that arose from the everyday lived experience of a local community. While online knowledge was attracting the headlines, IKS was arguably as valuable and perhaps more so in our context. He then raised the complex but necessary process of establishing a dialogue between IKS and the 4IR to see who decided what kind of knowledge mattered and took precedence into the future.

Caption: Prof Willie Chinyamurindi, Associate Professor: Department of Business Management, University of Fort Hare.

The dream of guided learning

“Who owns the algorithm, why was it built and why aren’t our universities building more algorithms? These are the questions that underpin the 4IR,” says Mr Mike Swanepoel, Coordinator: Interdisciplinary Studies & Lecturer: Graphic Design, Department of Applied Design, Nelson Mandela University. For him, at the heart of the issue were a series of ethical problems about knowledge. Prinsloo quoted a study that found that the algorithms built by Deloittes to speed up the hiring and screening process found that there was an inherent bias against women. “Why? Because the data shows that traditionally men had been hired. The same applies for salaries.” Swanepoel continued by focussing on the car industry in Port Elizabeth. As large as it was, what, he asked, is going to happen when more and more people go for electric cars? What happens to the 427 people working in Volkswagen’s engine section? “Or more importantly,” he says, “what happens to Port Elizabeth when 50,000 people find themselves unemployed?”

He then turned to higher education. “I’ve been teaching for 22 years and in that time, nothing has changed in my mode of delivery as a teacher. Where else in the world can something remain so stagnant? We have to reskill over the next 10 years towards facilitation, interaction design, content curation, design thinking, design processes, game design and digital competence.” He quoted the futurist Thomas Frey as saying that by 2030, 50% of the world’s colleges and universities would not exist. Even if he was 10% accurate this meant that three of our universities would be gone.

Captions: Mr Mike Swanepoel, Coordinator: Interdisciplinary Studies & Lecturer: Graphic Design, Department of Applied Design, Nelson Mandela University.

“We’re not understanding fully what online learning means,” Swanepoel continued. “It’s about a learning management system (LMS) that will allow me to pinpoint exactly where a student might be having difficulties. An LMS is able to provide a personalised learning experience even if there are 100 million taking the course.” In his rebuttal of Swanepoel, Prinsloo raised a caveat. While he agreed that there was potential value, he cautioned that the system could only learn from itself, and that it tended to discriminate — based on past data.

Unintended consequences

Ms Hentie Wilson, Curriculum and Course Design Developer at UNISA spoke about the change from postal delivery of materials to going online. “A huge unintended consequence was the massive printing house that UNISA no longer required. People were retrenched and not reskilled. Now, this pressure is going to impact on larger and larger parts of the university.”

Ms Joyce Chappel, a Dublin-based consultant wanted to understand the appetite for this engagement with AI upskilling on the part of staff, especially when the existing platforms are so USA and European centred. Prof Prinsloo responded by using his institution as an example. “When we moved from a postal system to an online system, it was built based on existing international models. The real problem arose because the unions demanded a change in their conditions of employment. It became political rather than technological.” Prof Chinyamurindi, for his part, quoted a paper recently published by himself that had examined why people were resistant to online learning. “What I found was that students were downloading articles and, for me, that’s not online learning. I want to see more guided learning of the kind that Mike is advocating.”

Prof Cheryl Foxcroft, Executive Dean: Teaching and Learning, Higher Education Access and Development Services, Nelson Mandela University wrapped up the session by using the example of her relationship with her Fitbit watch. “It’s a wonderful motivator and has, since wearing it, got me intimately involved with exercise by nudging me. The same needs to happen to online students. They need to have a living, motivated relationship with learning and the acquisition of knowledge.”

Caption: Prof Cheryl Foxcroft, Executive Dean: Teaching and Learning, Higher Education Access and Development Services at Nelson Mandela University.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.