How can universities fortify the 4IR in their curricula?

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw an upsurge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies in Africa, from artificial intelligence in medical technology, 3D printing for medical use, drones delivering life-saving medicine and digital learning platforms in schools and universities.

What was still a policy and on the political agenda in many African countries soon became a reality forcefully ushered in by COVID-19.

The 4IR has, in recent years, dominated the education agenda of many developing states in the world. Uncertainties such as COVID-19, on the one hand, fortified the need for universities to rethink curricula and formulate best practices to deliver skills that are current, adept and responsive to the challenges of the information revolution.

While the pandemic is still a reality, universities of technology in South Africa are plotting forward and actively looking to sustain the gains made during this period of uncertainty.

This article is published in partnership with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) to focus on the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA), a European-Union-funded project including THENSA members. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

But what does 4IR education look like in the context of technology universities? This was the focus of the second day of activities at the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA) training event held in Durban, South Africa, from 21-24 March 2022.

Non-technical skills are neglected

The 4IR education and innovation in South Africa’s (SA) higher education institutions is one of four focus areas (also called communities of practice) of the European Union-funded HERESA project, established in 2021 to create a network of higher education reform experts in SA.

Sonja Sechi, who is an adjunct professor at one of Europe’s leading technology universities, Politecnico di Torino, in Italy, told participants during the training event on 22 March that current educational programmes focus on technical skills the most, and neglect the non-technical.

“[This] while professionals involved in key-enabling technology industries, [like engineering], are required to demonstrate an adaptive blend of both technical and non-technical skills,” she said.

Instead, universities must include technical multidisciplinarity and non-technical courses, and problem-based learning into the curricula and promote continuous learning for professionals. These are some of the best practices Politecnico di Torino in its teaching since it was founded in 1859, reinforces in its technology teaching, learning and research.

At the core of their programmes is training students in various disciplines at the same time so they can work on and discover where those disciplines intersect.

For example, among other studies, the Politecnico di Torino masters programme in global industrial management has a training component that entails students spending three semesters at different partner institutions in Germany and China.

Inequalities present unique challenges

Sechi pointed out that the institution’s close collaboration with various industries is behind its programmes’ success. “The training plan provides technical and managerial skills, and the development of the curricula considers the specific industrial needs, because it was designed with the support of industries,” she said.

Technology offers endless opportunities in Africa. However, the pandemic-deepened inequalities also present a unique challenge to the continent’s universities, where most innovation and research takes place.

The Emerging African Innovation Leaders’ Exchange and Training Programme (AfricaInLead), emanating from the Italian presidency, identifies the next generation of African leaders and equips them with skills and knowledge in emerging technologies (4IR) that they can use to tackle some of the continent’s socio-economic and environmental challenges.

Some of the emerging technology clusters are bio, green, nano, neuro, and digital tech. The first leg of the project is targeting 21 African leaders in six countries across various technology and innovation disciplines.

By the end of the project, the 21 African leaders will mentor the next generation of leaders in emerging technologies through capacity-building activities that will help to kick-start new innovative entrepreneurial opportunities on the continent.