BY Fast Company Contributor 4 MINUTE READ

Last year, the enabling powers of technology provided a glimpse into our societal evolution and showed the possibilities as to what the future of work, education and society at large could be.

With all the changes that were brought about in the face of the global pandemic, the focus has now shifted from immediate remote accessibility between organisations to the health of their operations for long term success and the role of technology in enabling growth. This is all well and good in nations where access to technology is extensive, but how will this pan out in South Africa?

If harnessed effectively, technology will continue to lead efforts to support recovery, playing a pivotal role in enabling society to “build back better” for the long-term, ensuring that the systems we put in place solve the problems of today and ensure society is well equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow.

Universities are not exempt when it comes to the need to embrace technology and to ramp up compute power. Whilst educating and enabling our future workforce, universities need to keep abreast of technological change and manage the vast amounts of data being generated from remote learning while being able to invest in and harness the power of emerging technologies.

Situational analysis – South African universities

Accommodating more than 1 million students, South Africa has 25 private universities and over 20 public universities distributed across its nine provinces. Furthermore, the government plans to increase university enrolment to 1.5 million by 2030.

As student numbers increase, universities will not only need to take a hybrid learning stance but will also need to ensure that students from all communities have reliable access to digital connectivity.

In fact, according to a recent study conducted by IDC and commissioned by Dell Technologies, universities need to ramp up their compute power in order to accommodate the increase in online learning, as they move toward hybrid learning structures across the country. The study also states that technology can play a pivotal role in education content generation and utilisation. Furthermore, the report cites that at the onset of the pandemic, educational institutions had to quickly provide students and teachers with hardware (laptops and tablets) for learning purposes. Connectivity and secure access to learning content were also critical to ensure continuous learning.

Hybrid learning has emerged as the new way of learning and this situation is expected to persist throughout 2021.

Digital inequity is a reality in South Africa

In developing nations, 47% of people are connected, compared to 87% of people in developed nations. South Africa – a region where the lines between the developed and developing worlds are often blurred, as modern metropolies stand side by side with rural villages – 56.3% of the population has access to the Internet according to StatsSa. This share is projected to grow to 62.3% in 2025.

Across the world, including throughout South Africa, one of the leading barriers of access to the internet includes both the cost of devices and poor connectivity. According to the World Economic Forum, the digital divide is widened between higher and lower demographic groups by the fact that data in South Africa is one of most expensive globally.

AI could level the playing field

One of the trends identified in the study involves IT departments in universities supporting emerging technology for research and process automation. While research is typically a preserve of academic departments, IT departments play a critical role in ensuring that research is conducted seamlessly. In addition, while the uptake of AI in South Africa is generally rising, universities are yet to fully harness the benefits of the technology.

However not enough use cases exist at the university level where AI is used to enhance the admission process by enabling universities to forecast demand and achieve their target enrolment numbers. The use of AI to deliver classes is yet to gain traction at the university level, although this will be a future area of focus.

In a paper written by the Policy Action Network (PAN) titled “AI and data in education”, there are high hopes around the implementation of AI in the South African education sector as a means to narrow the digital divide and mitigate resource challenges facing educational institutions “while enabling better decision making in administrative and management processes”. The paper goes on to say that there is still significant interest in how AI and Machine Learning can support adaptive learning and personalised learning systems. This goes over and above its administrative use.

Although spending cuts, declining fees, and falling hostel revenues are putting pressure on budgets, educational institutions are nonetheless fast tracking their digital transformation initiatives. Universities, like most organisations are undergoing a process of rapid digitisation and whilst there are barriers that need to be considered, CIO’s will have to adapt and be empowered by tapping into emerging technologies, such as AI to enable their organisations to transition into the digital world, by increasing compute power. This will facilitate online learning, personalisation of learning and the ability to store the vast amounts of data that online learning generates. Modernising universities, making education more accessible and best preparing young graduates to enter into the workplace.

Universities were significantly impacted and disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like organisations in other industries, universities have needed to digitally transform in order to continue to educate students. However, digital transformation now reaches further than just enabling universities to connect with students and continue lecturing. It has propelled universities and tertiary institutions into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, along with the rest of the world. This requires technology driven solutions and mediums to deliver lectures, store vast volumes of data, provide personalisation to students via emerging technologies, such as AI. Staff and students will also need to be able to access online academic content and therefore universities need to provide connectivity and devices like laptops and tablets to students and university staff. The objective of universities embracing digital transformation is to ensure that learning and enrolment continue unabated. This puts the onus on CIOs to reprioritise spending in response to shifts in the market, motivate for grants where necessary and ensure that universities are well positioned to respond to change through the enabling power of technology.

Doug Woolley Managing Director Dell Technologies South Africa