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Learning Innovation Festival 2021
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Transformative Education

The future of tertiary education in a technology-driven world

Published on 7 February 2022

Over many decades, university has been the final stop for many students before they venture into adulthood. It stands as an institution that tests and challenges those who enter, providing them with knowledge to be ready when it matters most-the real world.

And for the most part, universities have not been static institutions, but rather the product of a thriving and ever-changing culture. From the advent of printing presses in the 1500s that made it possible to mass produce affordable books to the widespread use of computers today, universities are always adapting with the times so that knowledge can be disseminated to eager learners.

However, in the current, fast-paced knowledge economy, it seems that tertiary education is as susceptible to technological disruptions as countless other industries. Knowledge dissemination is no longer tied to physical campuses as web classes have become a norm due to COVID-19, and the presence of online resources has transformed the learning experiences of students worldwide, as information is now accessible at one’s fingertips.

As such, this digital revolution has sparked many universities to examine ways in which they should evolve with modern innovations to continue delivering top-tier education to their digital native students. What would the future of tertiary education look like?

Increase in curated blended learning formats

Online learning is here to stay. As remote classes have become increasingly common, universities are recognising its benefits—such as increased flexibility for students who can now learn at their own pace and convenience or not have to take time off work. Additionally, online delivery allows instructors to enhance student learning by including live interactions with experts from industry and academia irrespective of their geographical location. However, this also signals an undeniable shift in attitude among educators and students alike, some of whom have noted that it is harder to build relationships through their screens.

To solve this problem, course curricula are increasingly being crafted in blended learning formats whereby a mix of online learning and physical classes will be the new norm in tertiary education, as some institutions have already started implementing it. At SMU, for instance, up to one-third of any course can be taught via online tools, as shared by Professor Venky Shankararaman, SMU’s Vice-Provost (Education) during the Learning Innovation Festival (LIFE). For example, the online learning can focus on delivering factual content through interactive quizzes, simulations, etc., and where appropriate, involve industry experts from across the globe. The remaining two-third face-to-face class time can be spent on focused interactive and collaborative learning. The event brought together speakers, faculty members, and staff members to explore educational issues and challenges, and provided opportunities for faculty members to showcase their innovative teaching practices.

Blended learning allows students to enjoy the best of both worlds afforded by technology, as they can have more control over their time with online learning while still being able to interact with their classmates and engage in a rich campus experience during face-to-face lessons and student life activities.

Powerful personalised learning

The increased use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) over the years has also started to spill into tertiary education, as educators and students are starting to recognise the value in personalised learning supported by technology. Steep learning curves will be flattened as knowledgeable AI systems provide recommended learning plans to help individual students stay on track with their progress and enable them to reach their educational milestones smoothly. Apart from this, professors can also tap on the data generated by these systems to better understand their students’ learning preferences and deliver their courses’ content in more engaging ways.

While the above seems like macro ways in which AI could transform tertiary education for the better, there are also more microscopic avenues where such technology can be utilised to improve educational outcomes. Other than general recommendations for courses that support their career aspirations, students can even expect to receive suggestions based on specific lesson content.

For instance, Associate Professor Hady Lauw introduced a new learning tool during his presentation at LIFE: Called Slide++, the tool automatically sifts out relevant material on the internet based on keywords present in lesson slides, for students on the receiving end to access additional online resources that may be of benefit whenever they are reviewing course materials. By doing so, Slide++ value adds to their learning by preventing students from being sidetracked by any irrelevant information yielded from performing web searches.

While Prof Lauw's experience with the learning tool has mainly been with computational disciplines, he anticipates that this algorithmic approach could work for disciplines such as the humanities and social sciences as well.

“Computing is like math, where the concept being discussed is represented by symbols. There is less reliance on words as compared to the humanities or even biological sciences, where keywords are important and understanding them is a big part of students’ learning,” he adds.

Globalised learning and collaboration

Besides powering individual learning journeys, technology will also continue to make waves in the tertiary learning space, by bringing diverse communities of students together regardless of the distance posed by geographical boundaries.

With increased cyberspace bandwidth, universities will be better able to build long-lasting joint partnerships with other institutions around the world and organise courses that cater to their wide student pools. Gone are the days where students would only be able to experience international schooling by participating in exchange programs or overseas internship stints, as they are now able to connect with peers from other countries without leaving home.

A prime example of this development already in movement is the Social Enterprise Challenge in the Indo-Pacific (SECIP) Programme held by various partner universities in the region, including SMU. As a Collaboration Online International Learning (COIL) course comprising 200 students from five different universities in Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, and India, this programme saw its participants striving to work together effectively while overcoming any challenges due to cultural differences. Students had to engineer tangible solutions to answer urgent problems shaped around the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, by tapping on concepts in design-thinking and problem-solving.

By equipping participants with these skills and experiences, such programmes represent the core of what is essential in tertiary education moving forward - the ability to mould students into becoming successful global citizens, especially in a world where challenges nowadays are increasingly complex while spanning across borders.