How the humanities can equip students for the fourth industrial revolution

A humanities degree can open people’s minds in the fourth industrial revolution. Shutterstock

How the humanities can equip students for the fourth industrial revolution

The term “fourth industrial revolution” is understood in various ways. Some people are excited about it. Others are cautious. Some assume it means that technology and robots will take over every human activity. And still others imagine that this “revolution” will lead only to joblessness and automation.

There are also those who are sceptical and insist it’s no revolution at all. They argue that it’s just an improvement and fusion of various technologies – like artificial intelligence and 3D printing – and acceleration in productivity.

In all these instances, the interaction of technology with humans and humans with technology is underestimated. The emphasis on interaction is key to understanding the fourth industrial revolution. And this epoch will, like all times of change, require universities to push the boundaries of teaching and learning.

Universities will need to ensure that students are equipped with approaches to learning that involve agility, adaptability and curiosity. It will be a challenge for us all.

The fourth industrial revolution will also raise many questions for universities to consider. What needs to shift in how lecturers teach and how students learn and will be learning? What does the blurring of the lines between the physical, digital and technological mean for social relationships and for student learning? What do these shifts mean for different countries? Is learning in an environment with peers (virtually or in a class) better than learning online?

In seeking answers, societies must create the space to have conversations across social, academic, industry and community boundaries. The purpose of these conversations is to determine priority areas that need to be improved by the rapid technological changes we are currently experiencing as well as thinking about how we redefine the human condition.

Universities have a crucial role to play in these conversations. And a humanities education has a lot to offer when it comes to preparing students for the fourth industrial revolution.

Harnessing the humanities

A humanities education inculcates the importance of reflecting on the vast array of methodological and societal issues that arise from any practices. These include the technological and computational practices that underpin the fourth industrial revolution.

Critical thinking, debating and creative problem solving are taught in the humanities. This kind of critical orientation allows students to explore the complex human-to-human relations and the human to robotic relations that we are already encountering and that will become ever more common.

This isn’t to suggest that only the humanities are relevant. Cross-disciplinary communities of researchers and educators matter and will matter now more than ever.

This is particularly true in South Africa where the education system hasn’t provided for the breaking down of boundaries between the sciences, let alone between the disciplines in the humanities. Collectively we will need to do more when it comes to drawing on approaches from various disciplines, which will allow for quantitative reasoning, problem solving and systems thinking that are socially relevant.

Such partnerships are already happening in small pockets, and are yielding promising results.

Collaborating and mutuality

For instance, the Faculty of Humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg collaborates with the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment to offer a joint undergraduate programme that meshes engineering with arts to make a programme in game design and digital arts.

Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering students work alongside each other in courses that are team-taught to design innovative high tech games. It’s not all fun: games, after all, are a means of challenging ourselves, controlling outcomes, competing, and figuring out successful strategies of doing things.

Students from this programme draw on a variety of skills like problem solving, inferential thinking and visualisation. They have produced games that are frequently downloaded from various app stores.

Similarly, the university’s faculties of science and humanities offer a postgraduate programme on e-Science or Data Science. The programme brings together science and humanities students and staff to work on complex, big data problems. They’re also taught to think of ways to visualise and communicate this information and to question the predictive powers of big data.

Students are exposed to various interdisciplinary approaches like statistical computing and modelling, data visualisation, text analysis, and geographical information systems. Master of Arts students take courses in data privacy and ethics alongside MSc students. This course is team-taught and students engage with complex problems from two or more science and humanities disciplines.

These and other examples of innovative teaching and learning help to disrupt the current techno talk that dominates conversations about the fourth industrial revolution. It’s essential that we bring our ideas to the fore and reshape the conversations in ways that resonate with who we are, where we are located and what this means for us and our futures.