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Academics to chart the future of work in the OECS at UWI Five Islands’ Advocacy Series

By Orville Williams

With the sustained threat of Covid-19 accelerating the transition to widespread digitalisation, some of the region’s most esteemed academics will be discussing the path forward for work in the sub-region, as part of the University of the West Indies (UWI) Five Islands Campus’ Public Advocacy Series.

The series – launched last month – is focused on bringing critical conversations to the forefront of society, in a bid to harness the human and intellectual resources of the sub-region and wider afield toward a successful future.

In this ‘part two’ of the series scheduled for Monday November 30, Dr Didacus Jules – Director-General of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) – and Dr Cardinal Warde – Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – will be joining Chairperson of the series and the UWI Five Islands’ Director of Academic Affairs, Dr Curtis Charles, to discuss The Future of Work in the OECS Region.

Not since the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 have we experienced an event that single-handedly shattered the norms of work, development and progress, and shone a spotlight on the urgent need for diversification in these areas.

Back then, the widely-debated solutions to that crisis included changes to issues like debt management, banking regulations and fixed exchange rates. However, there seems to be a more collective acceptance that some of the most effective solutions to this current crisis are greater economic diversification, and the topic of the hour, increased digitalisation.

According to an analysis from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) – that maps the changing digital landscape since the ’08 crisis – “the [Covid-19 pandemic] has accelerated the uptake of digital solutions, tools, and services, speeding up the global transition towards a digital economy.”

That same analysis warns, however, that the pandemic “has also exposed the wide chasm between the connected and the unconnected, revealing just how far behind many are on digital uptake.”

It is the latter quote that resonates predominantly throughout the region, as we risk being ‘left behind’ with the majority of the ‘developed world’ already changing gears toward the future.

Speaking to Observer ahead of Monday’s discussion, Dr Jules explained that one of the first steps we need to take toward digitalisation as a region, is moving away from the notion that “if you cannot learn with your head, then you need to learn with your hands.”

“That is a false dichotomy. I understand where it has come from [with] our history of slavery…[but] that is nonsense. Every child is capable of learning, even those who are differently-abled. The challenge is, are we capable of teaching them?

“Skills training in today’s world is going to require a solid base of so-called academic subjects, so if we’re talking about the digital revolution and participating in that, you can’t do coding if you don’t have a good understanding of mathematics.

“There is no serious skills training in the modern period that does not require an essential knowledge of some core ‘academic subjects.’ These things are basic building blocks…so we can do it, but we now have to determine what are the core ‘subjects’ that people need to get right.”

Speaking on the UWI’s approach to similar ‘traditions,’ Dr Charles also explained that they too have already begun to pivot.

“When we look at our campus, we have computer science, information technology and we’re going to add data science. Those are the types of fields the UWI is not necessarily known for. So, what we want to do is prepare the next generation of professionals for the OECS, [those] who are going to be able and equipped to address the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

“We’re looking at a lot of interdisciplinary degrees [for next year], so for example, we’re going to put computer science, economics and data science together. What that does is [allow] a young person out of the UWI Five Islands to [be able to] address the workforce of the future.

“[They could] go into a government agency and say, ‘all this big data here, I could write the algorithms that will allow you to basically predict the future of the economy or how we could learn from the patterns in the data.’”

Often times, development plans are made with sole emphasis on the end-product and not so much the genesis. In this case though, both Dr Charles and Dr Jules are in agreement with regard to the need for engagement at the youth level.

“A university, wherever it is, cannot exclude that elementary and secondary level, because they’re our pipeline.

“That age is when students in school decide whether they like math or science. Somebody [may] tell them math is hard and that rivets in their head. So, for example, what [Dr Warde] is doing with his robotic camps and [so on], he is breaking that mold and that’s what we need to do,” Dr Charles said.

After voicing the same sentiment, Dr Jules went a bit further, explaining how the changes could be started with the youth.

“Within the education system, the best way to prepare anyone for transition to the new world of work is going to be [through] radical transformation of the curriculum. So, even at infant level, we’re talking about teaching kids using a lot of project-based initiatives.

“The Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), with the replacement of the old Common Entrance exams – the Caribbean Primary Exit Assessment (CPEA) – if you look at how that was constructed, there is a significant portion involving project work by students, using assessments on an ongoing basis in the classroom, so that people can do iterative work.

“The other physical element includes getting students involved in writing their own projects, in coding, making them very familiar with the new technologies of ICT.”

In setting somewhat of a timeline for the adjustments within the education system, Dr Jules added that, “these things call for structured reform, but I think Covid now provides us with the opportunity to do in two months, what we’ve failed to do in 20 years, because that’s what we’ve done with the paradigm shift from physical learning to online learning.”

Dr Charles, meanwhile, shared a bold assessment of the prospects for the region.

“I see the Eastern Caribbean as the ‘Silicon [Valley] Islands’ of the Caribbean. When Silicon Valley started, there were two things that were fundamental – Stanford University was right there, then the government started pouring money into research and development, then industrial members came in and what we know as Silicon Valley basically exploded.

“There’s no [real difference] between the people in Silicon Valley and [our people in the region], we just need to be able to train our students that they can [either] come out and work for a company, or they could come out and be the next Bill Gates.”

While Monday’s discussion will certainly not be the finale of this evolution – or revolution for that matter – there is the hope that it will serve as a catalyst to ignite the minds of each person within the sub-region and wider CARICOM, in ensuring we put our best feet forward in this new, imminent digital landscape. The University of the West Indies Five Islands Campus’, Future of Work in the OECS Region discussion, will be held digitally on Monday, November 30 from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Caribbean Time. Interested persons are invited to registerat https://fiveislands.uwi.edu/publicadvocacyseries/

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