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10 October 2018
The role of of Universities in the Digital Era

(Published - 10 October 2018)

The University of the Western Cape hosted the 4th Social Digital Innovation Research To Empower Communities in Transition (S-DIRECT) seminar this month. It was held at the School of Public Health. S-DIRECT is an initiative of the International Joint Research Group (IJRG), combining the expertise of imec-Smit (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), University of Gent, UWC and its extended partnerships. The theme of the seminar was: The role of Universities in the Digital Age: A human-centric approach to e-Inclusion in the Digital Economy

It is without a doubt that the international and national discourse about the changing digital society, with specific focus on cyber-physical networks and their impact, is intensifying.

Data-driven technologies, intelligent automation and 21st century skills are some of the concepts that form part of multiple conversations and strategies in an attempt to prepare individuals, communities and societies for the future.

The 2018 Future of Jobs Report recently published by the World Economic Forum identifies ubiquitous high-speed mobile internet; artificial intelligence; widespread adoption of big data analytics; and cloud technology as key drivers positively affecting business growth in the next four years. What is particularly clear from this report is the fact that, due to the acceleration of the rate of change, “the window of opportunity for proactive management of this change is closing fast and business, government and workers must proactively plan and implement a new vision for the global labour market.”

Higher Education is positioned to play a key role within this process of critically rethinking and reimagining our responses to the digital age. Of particular significance in highly unequal societies such as South Africa, is the manner in which we engage with human-centric approaches towards e-Inclusion in the Digital Economy. With the clear need for South Africa to develop relevant knowledge and skills to be both inclusive and competitive in the digital economy, international collaboration is key.

The seminar was aimed at providing a perspective on the role of universities within this changing digital context, with specific reference to human-centric approaches. Presentations focused on digital transformation progress and challenges in Belgium and South Africa, instruments to access outcome, the progress and impact of digital inclusion interventions, as well as the privacy implications of a fast changing digital society.

The highlight of the seminar was the panel discussion during which the Rectors and Vice-Chancellors of the University of Ghent, the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and UWC unpacked the theme, each with their own perspective and topic. The first presentation was from Ghent University delivered by Professor Stef Slembrouck, who stood in for the Rector, Professor Rik Van de Walle. His topic was on the changing role of the university in the digital society with specific reference to the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Vrije Universiteit Brussel’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Carolien Pauwels’ topic was, The human and social science role of universities in the 4th Industrial Revolution. She said that it is important to involve social sciences from the start of one’s research and ask questions such as - is everything that is technologically possible, socially relevant, economically viable and legally or ethically permitted?

Lastly, UWC Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius touched on what the University is doing with respect to the digital revolution.

“As universities we have a duty to be contextually relevant and embrace the opportunities offered by the 4th Industrial Revolution, and attend to local transformation and ensure that this revolution serves the common good, in particular vulnerable and marginalised communities,” said Professor Pretorius.

In the area of Learning and Teaching, UWC has recently partnered with a world renowned software developer to offer a postgraduate diploma in e-skills development. This will allow the participant to specialise in immersive technology including augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality. The programme will commence in January 2019.

UWC Institutional Planner, Larry Pokpas, closed the panel discussion with an emphasis on the opportunities that come with this revolution. He cautioned that while societies may have to embrace this revolution, policy creation is crucial because technology is evolving at a fast pace and the current laws and regulations simply cannot keep up.

All speakers highlighted the importance of collaboration between universities, governments, businesses and society in a multi-disciplinary platform.

The S-Direct seminars form part of a multi-year collaboration between University of Ghent, Vrije Universiteit Brussel and UWC.