The Digital Workplace: Preparing Students for an Online World

South Africa desperately needs technical and digital-literacy skills in the digital workplace. How do we make this happen, and whose responsibility is it?

Last week Thursday I attended EiffelCorp’s second influencer session at the Syrene Hotel in Rivonia. EiffelCorp, an educational technology and training solutions company, had brought together some professionals involved in technology and education to discuss how best to prepare the South African workforce for the digital workplace.

Why?

South Africa has a major unemployment problem and a large part of this is our lack of skilled workers. Engineers, technicians, IT personnel – these are the jobs South Africa desperately needs and is struggling to fill.

This problem is made more serious by the fact that many South Africans are not prepared for how digital the workplace has become. If you’re a skilled worker today, chances are you work on a computer rather than in a factory. Getting a good job these days requires that you are able to work online, which is something that many people are just not equipped to do.

How do we address this?

EiffelCorp hosted a panel discussion to answer just that question, entitled Digital Refugees to Digital Citizens: Whose job is it to prepare the workforce for the workplace? The panel included Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of The Independent Institute of Education (IIE) & Group Academic Director for ADvTECH, Tim Genders, Managing Director and founder: Airband (PTY) Ltd, Dr Eva Sujee, Deputy Director: Research South African Qualifications Authority, Irene Lubbe, Head Education Consultant, Department for Education Innovation for University of Pretoria, Stefan du Plessis, Commercial Director for Eiffel Corp and Arye Kellman, Broadcaster & Creative Director for Touch Central.

This is what they discussed.

1. How do all critical stakeholders work together to create a country that produces the skilled workers the country requires?

Whose job is it to equip the workforce for the workplace? The panel argued that a better question would be ‘How do all critical stakeholders work together to create a country that produces the skilled workers the country requires?’ Rather than asking who is responsible for addressing the digital skills crises in South Africa, it would be better to consider how all those involved, including government, the education department, private businesses and citizens can work together. This would allow us to approach our digital skills problem from the perspectives of primary education, public access, employment, training and certification. It would also mean that we could consider how these different perspectives can work together to develop the skilled workers the country needs.

2. Treat internet access as a human right

Sounds crazy right? Not according to the UN. On the 1st of July in 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) actually went forward with a motion to protect freedom of expression on the internet and treat internet access as a human right. South Africa voted against the bill, but they did have good reason. Unlike other countries, there are some exceptions to South Africa’s protected freedom of speech, such as not allowing for the incitement of hatred or expressions of racism (remember Penny Sparrow?). Still, internet access is becoming more important every year. How do you apply for a job if they accept CV’s via email? You have the right to freedom of information, but what if most news is published online? Considering that you may struggle to get a job or practice your other rights without it, the panel suggested that we ought to start treating internet access as a necessity rather than a luxury.

3. Redesign learning and certification

Education doesn’t have to mean going to university. Online platforms like Khan Academy and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) have helped people all over the world get certified in different ways. The panel suggested that we should consider this kind of alternative learning and work with companies so that these kinds of certifications help get you hired. The great thing about courses like this is that they can be free (or very cheap): you don’t need to jump through hoops to drop a course if it isn’t to your liking. They cover a wide spectrum of different qualifications. This would mean giving young people access to alternative learning and working with companies to recognise the certification offered by courses like this.

4. Education needs to connect digital and general skills

Just because you can use the internet doesn’t mean you know how to write a formal email. The panellists who have worked as teachers and employers mentioned that many students and new employees didn’t have the general skills that they needed to make them employable. This included things like writing emails, presenting themselves in interviews and using basic communication skills. Digital literacy doesn’t mean much to an employer if students and employees aren’t employable, and being employable means having general skills that you can use online. Connecting these different kinds of skills, the panel suggested, would help make more young people employable in an online world.

Being employable in the 21st century means being prepared for the digital workplace. Getting South African youth ready for an online world will require a lot of creativity and effort, but this discussion showed just how important it is that different parts of South African society come together to make this possible. The points the panel raised show just how varied our strategies should be, and how they require effort from government, education and business. Let’s hope South Africans keep talking about how to prepare our youth for a world that is becoming more and more digital by the year. Especially as the future of South Africa appears to be becoming more and more uncertain.

Despite the ongoings in government at the moment, the future for education is slowly starting to look up as people are starting to realise the worth of investing into the education system. With people such as those on the EifelCorp panel and organisations backing them, change can be effected. Not only will it positively influence the unemployment rate, but it will improve the economy and political state too.

EduConnect 2Cents

Looking to learn a new skill? The internet is bursting with free courses that offer diploma’s in everything from digital marketing and financial trading and investment to photography and nutrition. Have a look at Shaw Academy, Khan Academy and MOOC List.