, Singapore

Envisioning the future academy

By Eur. Ing. Jo�o Ponciano

What do you hope to see in the future of education? Society has progressed greatly over the past few decades, whether in the form of technological advancements or an understanding of human behaviour. Singapore has welcomed artificial intelligence and machines into the workforce, cracked down on gender stereotypes, championed causes to improve human rights, and made efforts to make the world a better place to live and work in.

However, has the classroom evolved as quickly?

Education institutions need to ask if they are embracing tools and techniques that enhance learning, in an environment that is made up of more digital natives than ever before. Government expenditure per student has risen steadily across all education institutions in Singapore1. Question is: Have we explored enough options to allow students to train in real-world environments, instead of keeping them immured within the confines of a classroom and theoretical learning?

Take learning out of the classroom
I imagine a world where there is a greater incorporation of online learning in and out of the classroom. Online learning is a well-established mode of delivery by well reputed educational providers running similar models, producing excellent student engagement rates. According to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, 63.3% of chief academic leaders say online learning is critical to their long‐term strategy and 71.4% rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face‐to‐face instruction.

Online learning enables students to create their own social learning groups within their modules of study, acting as a key enabler of peer-to-peer learning and support. They are also given the opportunity to participate in discussion forums, allowing students to put forth their questions and discuss the answers. These discussion forums facilitate learning through expression and self-revelation, through means similar to social media updates – a practice that the new generation of learners is very much attuned to.

By expanding the channels of access to material, a potentially international peer network, and their facilitators, students are given the flexibility to make their own learning more independent, hone their abilities to prioritise tasks, and become more active thinkers through more open discourse.

Make learning real with VR and AR
Virtual reality (VR) has, in truth, been around since the nineties, and was largely part of entertainment and gaming industries. However its potential as a unique tool for learning has never really been tapped on. It was heartening to see that at the recent IMDA launch, VR was put forth as a training tool for medical students and junior doctors in emergency rooms and operating theatres. Digital information and medical images will be seamlessly integrated in one view to aid their decision making process. Imagine having access to that type of technology in the common classroom.

Augmented reality (AR) may also be expensive right now, but the possibilities are endless. It can give students access to places, situations, and environments that would otherwise be restricted to them, all through realistic simulations. Think about an engineering student who would otherwise never have the chance to appreciate the infrastructure of our rail system, if not for an intricate 3D map that could be simulated to help them understand the process of its development.

Think about how the same kind of maps could help students in supply chain management, to fully understand global value chains and the complicated processes that make it seamless. With VR and AR already making waves on the shores of the education sector, I am hopeful that we can harness these technologies even more to enhance learning for all.

Groom the next generation of disruptors
As the tools and resources for learning shape the future of education, so must the pedagogy of teaching evolve, to stay relevant to industry demands from our next generation of graduates. Our teachers need to tightly integrate theory into practice. Whilst students do apply for internships and apprenticeships today, I hope that this will be done on a greater scale, with educators contributing in a larger role in the process.

Whilst skill-based learning will continue to be a measure of industry-readiness for graduates in the modern workplace, we need to make sure that our students do not get left behind when the very skills they were trained in become obsolete, and be taught how to generate ideas, instead of just delivering on them.

Design thinking has been a process long upheld by corporations. Tim Brown, the CEO and president of the innovation and design firm IDEO, is a leading proponent of design thinking –a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way. Perhaps the same methods used by the most groundbreaking companies today should be incorporated in schools as well so that teachers and students alike can re-imagine the way classrooms are configured, assignments are developed, and the way students engage with each other.

In one example cited by Design Thinking for Educators, a New York teacher was able to redesign his classroom to better address the needs and desires of his students, based on his students’ input. As a result, his students are more engaged, and move more fluidly in the classroom space. If teachers and students alike could do more to crowd-source ideas to spur investigative thinking – we might be able to build a generation of graduates that are pro-active problem solvers, resilient to change, and adaptable to work demands.

Let us therefore as educators constantly expand our students’ horizons and be counsel to them on their journey of learning.

The future of education is within grasp, yet the future must be realised by the combined efforts of private institutions and public universities. Whilst public universities and research bodies serve as the backbone of highly-skilled human capital, quality private education institutions can complement our ecosystem for higher education as sandboxes for experimentation, before these cutting-edge learning pedagogies are embraced on a larger scale by their public compatriots.

I believe technological advancements should continue to be used to revamp our classrooms and bridge the gap that exists between students of today and professionals of tomorrow. We should never forget to keep improving our pedagogy in relation to technology and skills-of-the-future, as the people benefitting from these improvements to teaching and learning are our brightest sparks for a better tomorrow, and we would do well being committed to teaching them well.


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