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Why fourth industrial era doesn’t require course specialisation

By XN Iraki | February 28th 2021

Upcoming buildings in Nairobi changing the face of Westlands and Upperhill. [Phillip Orwa, Standard]

Specialisation increases efficiency and is much loved by economists and operation managers. The learning curve caps it all. The more you repeat a task, the fewer mistakes you make, you learn.

Remember learning to ride a bike, a car, or typing on a computer? From school to the workplace, specialisation has been cherished since Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” book. As we shift from primary school to university, we specialise, know more about less.

Beyond efficiency, it is argued that specialisation allows students to study what interests them and what they are talented in. That is why it makes sense to expose students to as many subjects as possible in a primary and secondary school; they get to know what they are good at.

Unfortunately, most are swayed by fads and peers leading to a job market with too many graduates in subjects that excite our emotions not our pockets. But specialisation has its limits. Managers will note that specialisation creates insecurity and silos in the workplace. It reduces flexibility and can lead to joblessness.

Your limited skills could be rendered useless by the market or shut you off from other jobs, including future jobs. Your tunnel vision on knowledge and skills becomes a handicap.

That is why anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science graduates could make better entrepreneurs.

They are open to many opportunities without ideological baggage. Covid-19 has taught us the importance of being multiskilled. 

Let us be blunt, our love for specialisation is an echo from the past. While specialisation works so well in trades like carpentry or hairdressing, it might not shine in academia where borders between subjects are getting blurred, just as they were before specialisation became popular at the onset of the industrial revolution.

The disorders of the first industrial revolution spawned specialisation.

The disorders of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) have shifted us from specialisation back to generalisation.

The problems we face either in academia or the workplace demand a multi-disciplinary approach. We talk of pure sciences, there is nothing like pure solutions. The key facet of 4IR is the convergence of physical and biological systems.

World Economic Forum mentions some of the emerging technologies in 4IR; artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

Such technology is not developed through a hybrid of academic disciplines.

Further, innovation and entrepreneurship now require an interdisciplinary approach. One needs to know biology, physics, chemistry and even social sciences like psychology.

How shall we react to AI, what about autonomous cars? How shall we interact with one another virtually?

Covid-19 induced online meetings and classes have given us a glimpse into the non-technological reality of 4IR.

Without a multidisciplinary background, we tend to fear technology, leaving others to forge ahead. We are importers of technology because we do not invest in understanding it.

We love motivation books but not technology or science books. The more complex technology becomes, the harder it will be for us to catch up.

If we never learnt about computers, how can we confront artificial intelligence?

If we never designed cars with a driver, how can we design autonomous cars? Let’s come back home and analyse our education system and its place for specialisation. Are we ready for 4IR or even 5IR?

The defunct A-level system was famous for specialisation in arts or sciences with math in both. It was seen as too elitist and was replaced by 844.

Our neighbours Uganda and Tanzania kept the A-level system. The 8.4.4 which is very American or Canadian, is said to be broad and theoretical.

Specialisation only comes at the university. Rarely admitted is that this generality is good particularly for those who stop formal schooling after Form 4.

A broad range of skills is useful after school. After 30 years, we are shifting to a new system, Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) with specialisation in the last three years of high school.

It’s more Rwandese or Japanese. One innovation is having an exam after junior high school. It may be good for some students to leave school honourably and early.

Keen observers might say we are back to A-level, disguised. Will this system solve our national problems which need a multidisciplinary approach?

The key question is on the content. What will the children learn? Will it make them competitive in the job market, both in Kenya and beyond?

A-level system

Will it break the artificial borders among subjects? Will it bridge the gap between science and humanities? Will the new system become the seedbed of 4IR and later ones?

US universities have been trying to bridge the gap by requiring science students to take some courses in humanities and the other way round.

I taught economics there and for curious reasons, my top students in economics were biology majors. In the A-level system, a general paper tried to bridge that gap and gave us well-rounded students. In the 8.4.4 system, the specialisation is muted by common courses at the undergraduate level. The popularity of these common courses is contestable.

With CBC, they may need to be revisited. The 4IR requires generalists more than specialists, surprisingly. And blunts innovation. Some firms rotate recruits to all departments to have a “feel” of what is done in every department.

That should start earlier in school, it’s a requirement of 4IR. Noted the popularity of hybrid courses like biochemistry, biophysics, astrobiology, geophysics, mechatronics, gene programming among others?

The change in our education system is driven by politics and the need to leave a legacy.

It should be imbibed with the realities of the job market and global trends. The future jobs will require a hybrid of skills like genetically modified organisms crops that can withstand pests or changing western patterns. Has CBC considered that? Are you a student? 

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

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