As part of our University of the Future series, we spoke to leading institutions from across Asia to understand their vision for the future, and how they plan to realise these ambitions.
The following article stems from an extended interview conducted with Associate Professor Foo Yong Lim, Assistant Provost (Applied Learning) at Singapore Institute of Technology as part of the research for our University of the Future eBook. Read more from the University of the Future series or download the eBook – University of the Future: Transforming Asia’s higher education in the new normal and beyond – to explore how universities can embrace the opportunity to reimagine the university of the future.
As the role of the university shifts, the physical structure of the university will change to accommodate these changes and facilitate a more collaborative environment for learning. The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the university of the future, to say the least. There’s been a surge in education technology in the APAC region for the past decade but the pandemic has brought about an urgent shift. Amidst sudden lockdowns and movement restrictions, universities have had to expedite their digital transformation plans and embrace holistic technology solutions to prepare for the university of the future.
One such university is one of the leading educational institutions of Singapore, the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT). They embarked on their digital transformation journey back in 2017. With a technology-enhanced learning strategy, they were aiming to get 80 percent of the educators to be adept at online teaching. They had a three-fold goal with a difficult task at hand to create online content, teach and engage students online, and be able to assess students online. SIT was looking at achieving 80 to 90 percent adoption by August 2020 but the pandemic hit and that made their transition even quicker.
The impacts of COVID-19 on higher education and the role of technology
Most higher education institutions initially planned for a short disruption when COVID-19 first hit Singapore in early 2020, and so did SIT. However, it was soon clear that this was a global crisis, something much bigger than a small glitch. With one-week’s notice, SIT decided to go fully online. Just one week before the final examination, which was planned to be an on-site, paper-based examination, the university switched to having online examinations.
Having a framework where faculty had already been trained and access to support and infrastructure really helped make this transition smoother. SIT was well-equipped with the right software, including processes that had been practiced even in small stakes like continual assessments etc., and this eased the transition when online learning went into full swing.
“We just thought, let’s do this thing we’ve already done before but on a bigger scale,” shared Associate Professor Foo Yong Lim, Assistant Provost (Applied Learning) at SIT. Learning for the faculty had been done earlier, and students already had some exposure. There was some trepidation, like whether the internet bandwidth would be able to handle it, but by and large, their tech-enhanced education did really help them ease into the transition. “Looking back, I’m pleasantly surprised that it was smoother than I thought it would be,” he added.
The university of the future in a post-pandemic era
Like SIT, many universities were well prepared but there were many traditional institutions that were caught by surprise and struggled. As such, to enable continuity, many colleges turned towards video and web conferencing platforms for teaching. However, that format is not sustainable in the long run as it brings down the entire concept of education to mere content dissemination due to lack of feedback and feedforward, hence poor engagement as well as no scope for assessment.
The future of university education will be free of geographical constraints and physical spaces. It will be enabled by holistic technology solutions like learning management systems and SIT is already on that path. They are moving to a new campus that won’t have any lecture halls at all. Traditional lecture halls will be replaced with collaborative classrooms where students can engage in more peer-based learning.
Professor Foo shared, “The role of the university of the future, in terms of the faculty, is to curate the content, create the learning activities and facilitate collaboration. When students go to school, the value in being at school comes from working on projects together or going to the lab and getting things done. That’s something that cannot be replicated via the Internet, and that’s the true value of a university.”
Collaboration is key to future-proofing higher education
Collaboration between education technology providers and educators will be vital in the future. Professor Foo said, “I think in the past, most of the universities had a very basic infrastructure of an LMS, which some of the faculty used as a tool to curate certain content but a lot of the faculty probably used it as a dropbox to put in files for students to access. They never fully explored the workflow-enabled learning management system.”
He added, “I think going into the COVID-19 environment, a lot of us were forced to learn to use the technology and how to use it to help do things, and many of us found it extremely helpful. For example, with D2L Brightspace, we had all the quiz structures and suddenly the grading for online quizzes became very easy. For a lot of faculty who didn’t previously use the built-in tools, they’ve suddenly realised that it’s there. I foresee that they will want even more features to make learning even more seamless. We are seeing more demand from faculty for newer features that they hope to see in our edtech tools. In the past, if they couldn’t get it from edtech, they had backup plans in the form of face-to-face. Now they are considering: What is the alternative if I can’t do face-to-face?”
That said, edtech tools can never completely replace the face-to-face experience. Things like personal communication skills, working in teams, working on projects, building things, in that respect, the university still has a role to play. As such, blended learning is set to be the future of education. Educators empowered with learning management systems, such as D2L Brightspace will be able to impart higher education that is relevant in the 4.0 era.