While South Africa has unique challenges, the affordable computing revolution holds promise for bringing digital skills to the youth, writes Michael Cade, senior global technologist at Veeam.

Digital transformation is at the top of every CIO’s agenda. Investing in technology to enable virtual working and to serve customers digitally has become a matter of survival for many organisations.

According to the Veeam Data Protection Report 2021 88% of African organisations stated that their current Digital Transformation initiatives faced impediments, with the main barriers to progress include maintaining operations during the pandemic (62%); dependency on legacy systems (46%); and lack of IT staff skills (38%).

Digital transformation is as much a cultural shift as well as a technological one. It is a process that requires digital upskilling at every level of business and society, including schools. South Africa’s Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, in a United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation and African Union webinar towards the end of 2020, said: “Governments should make sure they come up with clear strategies in terms of human capacity development and investing in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects.”

Her department has previously said that it aims to invest in upskilling young South Africans in the areas of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI), software development and more. The fact that this urgency has reached the highest echelons of government merely serves to point to the urgency of making provision for jobs of the future.

Schools are ultimately where the workforce of the future will be developed, and where children develop interests that often set them up for life. With the Institute for the Future (IFTF) revealing that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t even been invented yet, acquiring digital skills will become even more critical.

In South Africa, like the rest of the continent, access to technology is a stumbling block for large sections of the population, and it is no different for school learners – a dichotomy made apparent by the mere fact that some segments of the population were able to successfully switch to virtual schooling in 2020 while others were not.

However, there are affordable technologies that hold immense potential in bringing learning, specifically in the field of computer science, to far more young people in a fun and engaging way. For roughly R550, a Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer – no bigger than a credit card – which can be attached to monitors or other devices and provides a fun and engaging way for people to master basic computer skills such as setting up a home computer to more advanced practices such as learning programming languages.

While R550 is outside the affordability of many South Africans, notwithstanding limited access to other devices such as monitors, the potential for the large-scale uptake of devices such as these in a coordinated campaign to expose young people to computer science demands consideration.

Here are three ways Raspberry Pi devices can support children – and even businesses – to understand some of the concepts that underpin IT.

Digital DIY

The Raspberry Pi is a tiny computer. It’s been very successful, with over 36 million sold so far. As well as a native CPU it boasts enough ports and connection for you to create your own DIY PC. The device can consume and create content as it has a web browser, word processing, spreadsheets and access to YouTube. It can go as far as connecting the board to additional motors and controllers to create a simple robotics project, or even running Minecraft Pi, which is a means of giving children the opportunity to learn and experiment with code whilst exploring and interacting with the Minecraft world at the same time.

Whatever you choose to do, the learning is in the doing. From working out what cables and connections are needed, to doing the programming once things are set up. Putting theory into practice is a great way to make concepts understandable. Ultimately, the user is not constrained if they do not have access to loads of electronics or devices.

If one were to imagine these devices in schools, homes or even some factories around the country, getting to grips with processes such as these can be the makings of a future engineer.

It really is a great start for an IT enthusiast, or someone wanting to learn coding, and who needs a device to code with. Excitingly, it is also an entry-level, low-cost device for automation. It is not hard to imagine factories where costs would previously have been an obstacle experimenting with their own DIY automation projects.

The device provides a compelling entry point to areas such as robotics and the internet of things (IoT. In our engagement with South Africans, it mimics what we have seen globally. For instance, we are aware of home projects such as connecting wi-fi connected cameras to monitor street traffic to try to pick up anomalous behaviour which could indicate suspicious activity or connecting various appliances and lights and operating them remotely – the potential use cases are limited only by imagination.

IT proficiency

While just setting up the Raspberry Pi to be whatever you want it to be is a learning experience in itself, the fact you can essentially build your own PC, touchscreen device or smart TV presents further opportunities.

This can be helpful for picking up basic skills such as word processing and email management as well as gaining access to all the information on the World Wide Web.

Mastering more advanced concepts like programming and coding starts with the basics and instilling a sense of confidence, which in the case of children can reap dividends further down the line. It also serves as a springboard to access more learning resources on the Web, with the inspiration and ideas that can easily come with them.

Learn to code

While the Raspberry Pi is a great resource for entry-level learning and inspiring people to increase their digital aptitude, it can also be used for more advanced purposes such as learning to code software. Given that software developers are in high demand and short supply, showing children this is an opportunity, and encouraging and challenging those who show an interest, could lead to much greater things, both for them and for the businesses looking to recruit them in the future.

As well as introductory courses such as Scratch and Code-org, which are great ways to introduce children to coding concepts, there are three core coding languages which beginners can learn using the Raspberry Pi, which is powerful enough to be run as a mini Linux server.

The first is Python, often used as a support language for software developers, for build control and management, as well as testing. It is a popular language for children to try and experiment with, due to the relatively straightforward ‘syntax’ it has compared to other languages. The second is Java, which is still one of the most popular languages used to build large enterprise class applications. The third is JavaScript, a text-based programming language used to make web pages interactive. For more advanced users, the Raspberry Pi can be used to gain experience in languages such as HTML and CSS.

An eye on the future

Possibly one of the biggest learnings from using devices such as these is understanding the importance of storing and moving data. Whichever application someone embarks on they will learn that such devices have minimal inbuilt storage and so the data generated needs to be stored elsewhere for analysis or study, but more importantly the data needs to be protected. Depending on the use case, the data could be dispersed across various locations and so cloud-based technologies would be essential.

This teaches the importance of effective Cloud Data Management. The easiest method to follow is the Veeam 3-2-1-1-0 backup rule, which is 3 different copies of data (at least) on, 2 different media (or more) with, 1 offsite copy and, 1 of which is either air-gapped, immutable or offline and have, 0 recovery errors with SureBackup recovery verification.

In summary, the pandemic has put a spotlight on digital literacy and education and if we’re to address the skills gap, we must start encouraging the workforce of the future much earlier, while allowing those currently in the workforce with the inclination to upskill themselves. Finally, accessibility and affordability – broadly speaking – have come a long way, and it is these types of advancements that perhaps provide the best opportunity to embed a culture of digital thinking among the workers of the future.