Soft skills and good teachers are just as important as tech in the classroom

Posted by Mark Chaban, Area Director of Education for Microsoft Middle East & Africa

Technology is clearing the way for better and more effective education solutions. But it can’t replace the ‘essentials’ of good education.

And, while much focus has been placed on skilling students up to work in a 21st Century work environment, it’s often soft skills, like business communication or how to prepare for an interview, that prevent them from getting the jobs they want. Perfecting this balance, between old and new teaching methods, and between hard and soft skills, is especially important in developing nations, and teachers play a vital role.  These are some of the things I was excited to discuss at the Innovation Africa summit in Uganda earlier this month, where the theme was “Developing Skills for 21st Century Africa”.

Twenty-first century Africa is an interesting place to be. The continent is home to almost 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24, making up 45% of the total labour force. And this number is expected to double by 2045, with the continent’s labour force becoming larger than China’s.

However, the skills the youth have don’t match what the labour market is looking for. Bringing technology into the classroom can help solve this challenge and ensure Africa’s workforce is globally relevant.

Tech can’t replace the teacher

 As we bring technology into the classroom, we need to be careful that we use it to complement, rather than replace, traditional teaching practices. For example, when we implemented the Office Student Advantage program in schools across Africa, it was done hand-in-hand with teacher training, to incorporate it into their usual methods to enhance their lessons rather than replace them.

I spoke to Microsoft expert educator, Milton Chebet from Uganda, who said that computers have helped him and his fellow teachers improve their own knowledge on the subjects they teach. The benefits of this have been passed on to their students, whose marks have increased substantially. 

Another example: mathematics teachers often tell me how our software helps their students understand complex concepts by making things like geometric shapes more tangible. Using their fingers to manipulate angles in real-time helps students easily grasp the laws that define them. But the teacher’s role, to get students excited about the subject, answer their questions and guide them towards their own discoveries, is invaluable.

These are the kinds of scenarios we think about when developing our software for education. We want to help the educators do their jobs more easily, not replace the critical role they play.

Students need soft skills too

Another key topic at the summit was around skills. Over the years, the kinds of skills technology companies are looking for have changed. Many companies, like Microsoft, are now placing a strong emphasis on ‘soft skills’ as well as ‘hard skills’. For example, IT skills are critical for our employees, but so are creative thinking and problem solving, and knowing how to collaborate.Teachers now need to help students develop both skill sets to ensure they are employable.  To help with this, we have introduced Employability Platforms throughout the Middle East and Africa. They are designed to equip African youth with the right hard and soft skills, career guidance and resources to bridge the skills gap and secure first-time job opportunities.

Technology in education is an interesting field, because its success depends almost completely on maintaining the delicate balance between the wonderful possibilities technology makes possible in the classroom and teacher-led, personalised learning. Similarly, you can have all the knowledge in the world, but might not be able to land your dream job without knowing the etiquette of the business world, or how to work well with others.

After the summit, I was left feeling hopeful and inspired that the industry is on the right track. Let’s continue to find ways to help educators be more effective in the classroom, and forge partnerships across the public and private sector to ensure youth have the skills they need to follow their dreams.