The Covid -19 pandemic has had a massive impact on education. It has highlighted gaps in the system, it has laid bare policy weaknesses and has exposed infrastructure inefficiencies.
We are staggering from the impact of a combined fiscal and health crisis and we cannot allow this to continue. The challenge to all of us, is now to launch a broad-front collaborative approach to remedy the situation. This approach must encompass technology education, philanthropy and policy.
There is a window of opportunity available because of the Covid epidemic. An opportunity to address inequality in society and give our children an education to live a fulfilling life and not just a piece of paper.
Gone are the days when each organisation could jealously guard the public relations impact of their own inhouse educational CSI initiatives. Government, through policy and implementation, has not been able to resolve the crisis. We are all frustrated by the problem; our backs are to the wall -the only way forward is to share our resources to deliver the solution.
Organisations, both public and private, now have to revisit their purpose, their reason for existence and articulate a clear vision of what is required for the future. Education is the mechanism for empowering citizens across communities to embrace a significant future.
The classroom as we knew it, is no longer the normal. Educational CSI, in the old form of doing “them” a favour, needs a profound re-think. Education is at the centre of our society. Today’s students and learners are tomorrow’s customers and clients. They will also be the managers, government officials and leaders.
As a country, we have not got the basics in place. Many schools are without running water, sanitation or adequate security. In many schools teaches are frequently absent for days or large parts of the working day. A big lesson from Covid is that the dislocation of the education value chain has been uncovered. Our public education system is not geared up for normal operations, much less taking up the challenges of 4IR in the midst of a Covid-19 epidemic.
All this is common place and well understood. The problem will not be resolved by endless repetition of the failings. What should we, you and me, do about this? What CAN we do?
The first challenge is not to focus on 4IR as a magic solution, but to get the physical infrastructure of our schools in shape. Schools should be a place of safety. Many students and learners have home environments that are not conducive for learning. Desks, chairs, laboratories and libraries are the absolute basics, and in many cases they are non-existent.
A school – even with social distancing – can be a place of safety and learning. We must prepare for the post-Covid world.
The opportunity here is to work with authorities to assist local schools to bring their infrastructure to the basic minimum.
Consider the plight of students and learners who are not in the upper quartile. They are bright, but not bright enough to get the bursaries and the study opportunities. Many come from disadvantaged backgrounds, through no fault of their own. Many are without access to quality education and consequently their contribution is lost to the economy. And the cycle of poverty and helplessness continues.
The opportunity here is to create educational opportunities for these students though bursaries and other support. One example is the Regenesys Foundation’s Ed4All initiative, which brings affordable online education to those who need it most.
While we must obviously address our educational infrastructure problems and challenges, we must also grab the opportunities presented by online education. Students can study in their own homes. Students don’t have to use valuable time and money commuting to and from classes. Studying at home is a safe alternative for female students in violence-ravaged communities. Hundreds of online learning platforms, formal and informal exist and make the learn from home option an extremely viable one. It cannot replace the student-teacher relationship, but it has an immensely powerful role to play. However, online education is not without its drawbacks. Remote learning not available to all. Load shedding and power outages are commonplace. And sadly, many families live in shacks with no electricity or running water.
The opportunity here is to work with authorities to assist employees to live in adequate housing so that children have a secure place for study.
There is a further problem with problem with the study from home option. Online education requires low cost access to the internet. Data costs in South Africa are extremely high. The cost per megabyte is highest for the poor, who can’t afford bulk data packages offered by service providers. The policy environment of data costs has been extremely slow to respond to making educational internet access cheap and ubiquitous.
The opportunity here is to work with your preferred data provider to create low cost access options for low income employees.
One way of getting around the problem of internet-dependent access to education is the digitization of text books. Textbooks, study guides and workbooks can be loaded onto devices. The student uses these materials without needing regular high-volume internet access. It also solves the problem of physical textbook distribution. The challenges in exercising this option include the cost of devices and ensuring the availability of textbooks, without falling foul of copyright legislation. The physical security of the devices is also problematic.
The opportunity here is to support the digitisation of textbooks and their free distribution. Financial support for the acquisition of devices is another way of contributing.
Producing students and learners for entry to the economy is important but it is only one side of the equation. We also have to give attention to business and employment opportunities. As a result of Covid-19 and our already fragile economy, organisations are rebalancing. They are reviewing their purpose, the way they do business and the roles and functions within their businesses. A time of stress can focus the mind, and new opportunities emerge. But some organisations will have to trim their staff complement.
The opportunities here include: Include a learning package as part of the retrenchment package. Partner with a suitable educational institution to explore options . This could take the form of a formal course, a skills course, or paying a child’s school fees for a year in advance. If some of your employees have to work short time, assist them with part time courses to broaden their skills and increase their value to your organisation. This is a very powerful invest-for-impact opportunity and will built loyalty and social licence to operate within your workforce.
The Regenesys Foundation has pledged R100mil to underwrite education opportunities for exactly this purpose.
Our TVET and FET colleges are powerful vehicles for delivering sought after skills to the economy. Craftspeople of every trade and discipline can find formal employment and can establish their own businesses, providing valuable and necessary services to society. In turn they employ assistants, bookkeepers and drivers. They are a formidable driver of economic renewal. It is time to throw away the prevailing class disdain for people who work with their hands and their minds. TVET and FET colleges need to become the preferred career path option.
The opportunities here are manifold. Encourage employees’ children to qualify in a trade. Support your local collages with employment offers to graduates. Work with local schools to build this into the the formal life orientation learnings.
A further matter requires redress, and it is not an easy one. It is the problem of the school curriculum. The Covid-19 lockdown has exposed, life nothing before, the inadequacies of what is currently taught in schools. The current system is administration-heavy, ponderous and cumbersome. The emphasis is on control rather than on creating compelling learning opportunities. Education delivery is couched in a rigid policy environment, with unbending demands for uniform outcomes. Teachers are exhausted by administrative tasks, which take them away from their deep vocation of teaching. It does not take account of the lived reality of hundreds of thousands of learners, who struggle to pass subjects which were designed for a world the has passed us by. Thousands drop out of the system, because they are frustrated, they don’t have the funds, or they need find work to contribute to the household income and survival. The essential question is: what must be learned for someone to be able to make a significant contribution to society? A world that includes gender-based violence, teacher absenteeism and child headed households.
We need a zero-based look at education. Instead of the argument – well, we have always taught that in school and it is very important; we should ask – what knowledge is needed for success in a 4IR, post-Covid-19 world? What skills are important for a large part of our population who will never have long term regular formal employment and who will not go to university. In common parlance they are referred to as the masses, but they are not homogenous. They are unique individuals each with their own hopes and aspirations. They need accessible options to craft a distinctive life solution. Much better options.
The approach to a solution here is complex and perplexing. A collaborative approach is needed. The time is now for philanthropic interventions to address the problem. A CSI approach to redesigning the curriculum. Here is a challenging thought: with all the technology and expertise available in the private sector, is it possible to construct an alternative curriculum , independent of the bricks and mortar of the national education policy, top heave bureaucracy and curriculum. This is the stuff of true disruption.
There is a crushing responsibility resting on the shoulders of those who manage CSI funds. Should they continue in the old way which creates glamorous photo opportunities for the CEO.
Or do they strike out, link with like-minded forward-thinking leaders in other CSI environments, pool their resources, their influence and their skills and contribute far beyond their wildest imaginings.
If ever there was a time to do that, that time is now.