Amid the spiralling cost of fuel and food in South Africa, it is easy to forget the enduring problem of unemployment. Figures released by Statistics SA recently show that unemployment continues to burden young people. Nearly two-thirds (63.9%) of those aged 15 to 24 are unemployed, and 42.1% of those aged 25 to 34 are without jobs. South Africa’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, particularly among the youth.
Despite job shortages in many sectors, people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) occupations are far less likely to face joblessness.
Part of the reason why South Africa has a high unemployment rate is because of a lack of skills, especially in the modern world characterised by technological advancements.
It is hard to imagine a world without the technological advancements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Artificial intelligence (AI), robots, cobots, the internet of things and advanced technological software are gradually dominating the world of work.
The prediction is that by 2030 about 73 million jobs will be lost due to automation. Although this might be frightening, there is hope for graduates who are empowered with the relevant skills that support these innovations.
Improvement and innovation
Worldwide, careers of the future will be based on Stem. Irrespective of where you live, having an educational background in Stem is purported to give you the edge in securing employment.
The new social and economic demand for higher-order intellectual skills that has accompanied the global information technology revolution has implications for educational experiences that are provided to young people.
National growth and competitiveness are dependent on continuous technological improvement and innovation, driven by a workforce that needs to be adaptable in its thinking and operate with greater autonomy.
Whereas skills in set routines were valued as attributes in the past, today each employee is expected to think critically, solve abstract problems and generate new ideas for improvement.
An individual who is well grounded in Stem education is likely to have well developed higher-order thinking skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and creative thinking.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), however, reports a worrying shortage of qualified scientists, engineers and other Stem-related personnel in South Africa.
Stem education crisis
There is no doubt we have a crisis in Stem education in this country with school learners not being empowered with experiences needed for them to pursue further studies in Stem and then ultimately take up Stem-related careers.
Evidence of this state of affairs is quite palpable. South Africa participates in international benchmarking tests such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The performance of South African learners has been found to be dismal, and we feature consistently as one of the worst-performing countries.
Furthermore, the performance of learners in Stem subjects in the high-stakes matric examinations is also not what it ought to be. Research conducted in this country shows that in most South African classrooms, learners have uninspiring and disengaged experiences of Stem learning that demotivates them from continuing with Stem education at the post-school level and subsequently choosing Stem-related careers.
One way to excite learners in the discipline of science is to get them to think like a scientist. Inquiry-based learning that is central to the school science curriculum is regarded to be one approach that is effective in initiating learners into the world of science.
However, the successful incorporation of hands-on science learning through inquiry requires that schools have traditional science laboratories, equipment, reagents and other resources. Unfortunately, these resources are not readily available for poorly resourced schools.
This means learners from socioeconomically disadvantaged communities cannot access quality Stem education at school and are hence denied entry to pursue post-school studies in Stem that would improve their chances of employment.
It is our contention that the use of advanced learning technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality can provide young people with learning experiences that spark their interest in Stem, and perhaps create aspiration in them to take up careers in Stem.
The Covid-19 pandemic created extensive disruptions to education both at school and higher education levels, causing urgency to implement and develop solutions to combat this disturbance.
Opening the doors to learning
While global medical research was invested in finding a vaccine to combat the coronavirus, researchers in Stem education, such as at the University of Johannesburg, were occupied with exploring the affordances of technology-enhanced learning (TEL) during the transition to remote and online learning.
What became clear from this research is that TEL could open doors to learning opportunities, especially in Stem, that are unprecedented in human history. For example, technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality have the potential to change how students engage with topics in Stem. Schools, with higher education, should capitalise on how this medium can push the boundaries of learning into new dimensions.
Virtual and augmented reality applications — which simulate science concepts, providing an opportunity for learners to visualise and investigate phenomena through multiple levels of representation and concurrently interact with the object of learning — can be powerful educational tools for science learning and empowering equity in education.
In a country such as South Africa, where the historical disadvantage of marginalised communities still perpetuates, much hope for educational transformation is being pinned on the adoption of such learning technologies.
The use of such technologies because of their mobility and interactive features hold much potential for providing a viable option to conventional laboratory experience that is denied to the vast majority of learners in this country.
However, the use of AR and VR in Stem remains relatively unexplored in the South African educational environment. Researchers at the University of Johannesburg’s Virtual and Augmented Reality in Stem Education (Varsteme) hub are taking the lead in investigating how VR and AR may be integrated into the teaching and learning experiences of teachers and learners respectively.
We maintain that learning in basic and higher education will be reimagined, blending face-to-face and VR learning experiences in diverse learning programmes. The forceful emergence of such technologies is not merely a reaction to the limitations brought on by the pandemic, but is a marker for the future of Stem education.
Although the roll-out of such technologies could be a game-changer, socioeconomic factors need to be negotiated. Online platforms are data-consumptive. South Africa has one of the most exorbitant data costs in the world. Technological devices are costly. There is a risk that historically impoverished communities will be further disadvantaged.
This was the case during the Covid-induced lockdown from March 2020, where schools located in affluent communities were able to make an easy transition to online teaching because of existing infrastructure, whereas learners attending schools in poorer communities were at a disadvantage.
The only way to address this is through partnerships between the government and the private sector where data costs for educational purposes are reduced and technological devices become more accessible to the poor. DM
Professor Umesh Ramnarain is the head of the Department of Science and Technology Education (Faculty of Education) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
Mafor Penn is a science lecturer and PhD candidate in the Department of Childhood Education, Faculty of Education at UJ.