It could be argued that one of the defining features of the late 20th and early 21st Century is that it has been a time of rapid innovation. The opportunities for technology-based entrepreneurship are unparalleled in history, yet South Africa and the rest of the African continent have largely been relegated to the role of consumers of innovations produced elsewhere, or at best have done innovation around the periphery and in a few areas that are the exception. One such exception to this trend might be the cellular phone industry although it might be argued that we have have gotten behind in that space too.
The raw material for innovation, potentially creative young minds, is being wasted even as we languish as consumers of technology and process innovation done elsewhere. In recent years there has been a substantial increase in opportunities for youth to study at higher and further education levels. The number of places at universities and colleges increased, and financial access has been improved by the expansion of the funds provided the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Yet despite this, youth unemployment is rife, and there are substantially more young people qualifying to enter higher education than there are places available.
The squandering of our youth is evident in some recent statistics. Approximately 680 000 school leavers wrote matric examinations at the end of 2010, but only about 230 000 qualified for university studies at a minimal level. South African public universities only have the capacity to accommodate 130 000 first year students, leaving about 100 000 young people – who could be contributing to the economy and society and building the next generation of business – without university places. Getting into university is no guarantee. Up to 30 percent of university students are unable to find jobs after they graduate resulting in high numbers of unemployed graduates. Graduates are the fastest growing group contributing to the increasing numbers of unemployed. The entrepreneurial sector is not growing fast enough to make a high enough contribution to economic development.
Given the low production of high-level skills, all technology-based industries face a critical shortage of highly skilled graduates, and the pace of creation of new businesses is low compared to many other countries. Even if our existing institutions were to improve on their poor throughput rates, and take on the maximum number of students that they could, we would still substantially lack critical mass.
The output of universities in areas of technology that could provide opportunities for innovation is well below what we may call critical mass – the input of talented educators and researchers and the output of talented graduates required to foster innovation and the significant creation of new businesses. Salaries in technology fields are very attractive for graduates, with the result that movement from undergraduate to postgraduate programmes of study is low. The unemployment of graduates generally, and the low rate of production of high-level, technology and entrepreneurship skills are related. They take place within the same ecosystem, and this is a key limiting factor in the knowledge economy and the knowledge ecosystem that supports it.
To make a serious difference, we need 5 000 to 10 000 new PhD's and 100 000 to 200 000 new graduates from the programmes they create. Instead, we are tinkering around the margins and doing incremental things. And of course talking. It is easier to talk, and to tinker incrementally than it is to make a difference. Meanwhile, as a nation, we are wasting our youth.
Today, the day that my Christian friends and family call Easter Sunday, I saw a tweet by Angelica Rocha (@angie4edtech)
which was retweeted by Audrey Watters.
This got me thinking about computer science in schools, which I suppose was its intent.
But first I had to dissect the question. Lately, I have been pondering a lot about the nature of questions that people ask, and the implicit assumptions as well as the emotions they contain. If you have read some of my blog posts answering specific questions about FOSS, you will see some of my thoughts on how questions can be used to create emotions or responses that have nothing to do with the answer.
In the 1960s, mathematician, computer scientist Seymour Papert postulated that a computer could allow learners to shape the way in which a computer was used, and to construct knowledge in ways and domains that would be impossible without it. Papert suggested that using a computer, learning math could be made natural and effective, like learning Zulu by living in KwaZulu-Natal as opposed to being taught Zulu in a classroom in an English speaking region. Papert posed the question "Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?" (there were no PCs then).
On the one level the question is meaningless, and on the other it's answer is axiomatic, but in between lies the true meaning of the question. Where does the power in the child-computer relationship lie? More importantly, it gives rise to the question "What are we doing today to shift the balance of power more in the direction of the child?"
For the first two instances of the question, the use of the "or" operator is entirely inappropriate. Of course, we need an operational definition of 'programming', since the word is inappropriately applied to the child as the technology does not deliberately construct algorithms and load them into the child for their execution. On this level, it is a meaningless question, and in this sense the first clause is true, and the second one false (C-PC !PC-C). But that is not what Papert was on about.
In the second instance of the question, we can adopt an operational definition that defines 'programming' as creating a sequence of instructions in the case of the child programming the computer, and altering the behaviour of the child in the case of the computer programming the child. All interactions with technology are - well interactions - and the influence runs in both directions. There is no single answer to this instance of the question, as the degree to which the relationship is skewed depends on context. A child doing some deep programming task, such as writing a module for the Linux kernel has a different kind of relationship with the computer than a child playing Angry Birds.
We first need to acknowledge that all technology works like this. If id didn't we would still be living in caves and foraging for roots and fruits. It is fundamental to our nature, we give up some power to technology and its creators for the real or perceived benefit it brings. We create the technology, and then the technology alters our behaviour. Which way the influence runs depends on the nature of the technology and our relationship with it.
But neither of these meanings was what Papert had in mind. He was asking, in an obscure and metaphorical way, where does the centre of power lie in the relationship between the child and the computer. His work led to the creation of the Logo programming language, and the kinds of things he had in mind were related to a child ACTUALLY programming a computer, something that is a rare phenomenon these days. And this is the crux of the challenge we face in building a so-called knowledge economy.
There was a time in the brief history of computing when computing was taught at school, but these days, it seems unlikely to happen very much. I have four children, two have finished school, and two are still in high school. They all took subjects that have the word computer in them (or some watered down term for computers), but not one of them have the faintest rudiments of knowledge about programming, and despite it being something I do almost every day for the pure pleasure of it, neither of them and neither of their friends have any clue about computer programming. Not even web scripting or an entry level language like logo. Not even how this text is bolded in HTML.
So, the answer, at this time in the 21st Century, using the third interpretation of the question, the answer is clearly that the power lies with the computer as a manifestation of the ideas and activities of other people who live on the other side of the asymmetric relationship. These are the people who conceived the programmes, wrote the games, designed the applications, or created the web sites and applications that are being used. There is not ONLY a relationship BETWEEN computer and child, there is a relationship AMONG computer, child, and a whole lot of other people. It is a highly skewed relationship these days for most children.
This relationship has been weakened and skewed by a combination of the technology itself (computers are easier to use because people have already programmed them) and educational policies around the world that have shifted computers from the centre to the periphery of learning. We no longer learn ABOUT computers, we learn WITH them (if we are lucky). The theoretization of computers in learning, and the creation of a pseudoscience around it has created the illusion that we still do deep stuff with computers. We mostly don't.
Of course, the phenomenon of 'backgrounding' happens with all technology. Perhaps it is a tragedy, perhaps it is natural, human. I find it unfortunate, it has happened too early with computers, and in South Africa, we seem dead intent on propagating this misfortune in our education systems. I find it sad that we are losing opportunities for more general and widespread capabilities to tell 'the computer' what to do. In South Africa, our school-level education system seems to be increasingly based on a 'for dummies' approach.
We talk about maths and science education, yet hardly anyone is saying that to have effective maths and science education, we need computer science. Teaching Maths and Science education without computer science is like trying to teach literacy without ANY means to produce written words. We have a lot to say about the so-called knowledge economy, without understanding that the knowledge economy rests entirely on the work of people who are able to exert force and do work deep down in the increasingly smaller bowels of the computers that are ubiquitous in our lives. If we don't delve that deeply into computers, all South Africa will ever be is a peripheral player and consumer in the knowledge economy. We will be colonised and exploited AT LEAST as badly as the Apartheid system was exploitative.
Eben Moglen said "software is life". A society that does not have a widespread understanding of computer science in all its forms will not understand that the implication of this is the formation of a society that is not programming the computer, but a computer that is (as a mediator) programming that society. And a programmed society is not free.
The solution? Talk about computers, not watered down phrases. Teach programming, not web browsing and Facebook posting. Take back control. Shift the balance of power in our favour. And of course, Free and Open Source Software can help make that happen.
The topic that I was given when my colleague was unable to make the conference was: "How to develop localised applications to target and profit from the African market." This seemed straight-forward until I started thinking about some of the concepts contained within that simple phrase. Firstly, assuming localised applications refer to applications targeted at local markets, it is important to realise that the current device landscape in this very large continent of Africa is quite heterogeneous. Secondly, most African countries have a scarcity of developers, more so of good developers. In a recent trip to Nigeria, for example, it was reveled that there are about 2000 independent developers in the country, compared to several hundred thousand in the USA. Many thousands are unemployed, and have very limited experience. Thirdly, while there are purely exploitative opportunities to develop apps and sell into the African market, such opportunities do not lead to the generation of local idea capital - the raw material of the knowledge economy. The real opportunity is therefore to use the growing potential of the software applications market place - both open source and (shudder shudder) proprietary - to create capacity-building initiatives, and by doing so to grow idea capital, and thence to grow the size and variety of the market. I use my 8 years experience in the African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources capacity-building initiative to discuss how this could be achieved while still creating business opportunities and growing local economies.
From Telecoms World Africa, May 22, 2012, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa