Webinar on Reimagine Higher and Continuing Education, 24 Sep 2020

This webinar on Reimagine Higher and Continuing Education was a sequel to the community co-creation workshop on 27 July. John C Tsang, Founder of Esperanza, set the scene of the discussion. Quoting the World Economic Forum, John believes that tertiary education institutes are particularly suitable to lead the change because their students are both mature enough to handle the rigour of online work and technologically savvy to navigate new platforms. He highlighted the need to rethink the WHO, WHAT and HOW of higher education in our communities. 

  1.       WHO: Online learning has vastly increased the accessibility and affordability of tertiary education. How do we take advantage of this democratisation of education opportunities?
  2.       WHAT: The switch to remote learning has stimulated debates about the purpose and value of tertiary education. More and more top employers in the US and Europe are ditching the degree requirements because they realise that a degree is neither necessary nor a proxy for the skills that they need. 
  3.       HOW:  Remote learning will impact each and every aspect of tertiary education, from admissions, pedagogy, assessment, quality assurance to business model. It also opens the question of whether education institutes could step up collaboration with one another across different disciplines and time zones. Micro-learning has also become one of the fast emerging trends. Vocational training institutes will need to adapt to this trend and address the needs of their students.

John also referred to the recent Virginia Ready Initiative to retrain the employed for sectors with talent shortage through a tripartite business-academia-government partnership. He asked for a discussion in the community on the role of the business sector in bridging the reskilling and upskilling our workforce. 

Panel 1

Facilitated by Kenn Ross (Managing Director, Asia, Minerva), this panel looked into the roles of higher education in reskilling and upskilling the workforce. 

Kenichi Imarmura (Head of hitoLab, Recruit) said that we had entered into a skill sharing economy, which required good time management, facilitation, EQ and communication skills. He underscored the importance for people to learn and apply in the real world. There should be more collaborations between education institutes (for both universities and high schools) and the business sector. 

Joe Ngai (Managing Partner, McKinsey, Greater China) said that COVID-19 had accelerated many trends, including digital transformation and the gig economy. Whilst the workforce was more empowered, it also brought challenges to organisations such as issues around confidentiality, ethics, company culture and training. Technology had made the delivery of learning much easier now in terms of lowering the costs and access to quality training. The trend of bit-size learning also made it easier for the employees. Corporates also realized that they could not rely on traditional education institutes to provide the experiential learning in a real life economy. But he also pointed out employers who were at the forefront of innovating training and development made up a tiny percentage and over 70% were still lagging behind. And change would not take place overnight.  

Prof Chris Dede (Prof in Learning Technologies, Harvard Graduate School of Education) believed the pandemic was just the tip of an iceberg of the disruptions that we were going through with climate change, longevity and rapid technological advancements. We had to learn how to partner with AI and machines, and developed skills that could not be replaced by technology. He said education was going in the wrong direction. Instead of emphasizing the technical skills, we should develop unique human soft skills such as flexibility, confidence, resilience and initiative. Chris believed universities had to rethink their purpose. Universities should not be about degrees but should be in the lifelong learning business. This notion would change every aspect of higher education, which meant institutions should also be in the unlearning business which requires not just intellectual but social and emotional support as well. 

Prof Christina Hong (President, THEi) said that the rapid transformation to online learning has required a reconsideration of admission, quality assurance, business model, management culture and many other operation aspects. The likely shift to a blended learning mode in the ‘new normal’ will bring new opportunities to education institutes with enhanced efficiencies and the greater opportunity to leverage the global education ecosystem.  Vocational education would have a more important role to reskill and upskill people in the digital transformation and lifelong learning process. 

Summing up, Christina highlighted the importance of applied learning, with a more integrated partnership with industries and more project based learning for students to work on real life problems. This would require a new generation of learning environment (or ecosystem) involving different stakeholders in the community. The other area of opportunity is in ‘earn and learn’ (aka apprenticeship) programmes at degree level.

Kenichi emphasized the importance of equipping the workforce with the ability to manage complexity. He mentioned the leadership programme that Minerva ran with Recruit as an example.

Chris pointed out the importance of partnership with employees. And we should not limit ourselves with roles but as a suite of skills. He introduced his book: The 60 Year Curriculum: New Models for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Age. He suggested that policy makers had to shift to a new concept of employability  (not unemployment) insurance. Kenichi believed that corporates could play a bigger role than government.

Joe believed that a lot of the changes had to do with the culture and values of a society. We had to change some of the ingrained perceptions of what education should be, cascading down to parents’ obsession over the choice of kindergartens. He was also cognizant of the risk of inequality as democratization of learning through technology was not happening yet.

Panel 2

Facilitated by Prof Irwin King (Director, Centre for eLearning Innovation and Technology, CUHK), this panel discussed how we could reimagine the delivery, operating and business models, curriculum and pedagogies of higher education.

Justin Reich (Director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab) introduced his book “Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education”.  Despite claims about how technology could transform education, he posited that there had not been a lot of changes in the last 20 years. During the current pandemic, educators are essentially using two common technologies, learning management system and video conferencing. Both educators and students still prefer the face-to-face experience. Whilst the current system could be improved over time, it might not need to be disrupted.

Prof. Gloria Tam (Associate Dean of Minerva) shared a slightly different perspective, taking the audience through her experience with Minerva Project and its global partners on how technology enabled learning innovation – at the pedagogical, student engagement level and impact measurement level. She shared examples of educators experimenting with ways of blending asynchronous and synchronous learning, and approaches such as gamification, experiential and project-based learning, as well as cross-contextual learning modules, all rooted in decades of “Science of Learning” research. Minerva had also developed its own online immersive learning experience platform, known as ForumTM, to enable such pedagogical transformation. This was the result of almost a decade of close collaboration of visionary academic experts, instructional designers and educational engineering experts in the Silicon Valley and globally. Gloria also mentioned that learning innovation was not about “how” (technology), but about “what” (i.e. the curriculum). And with Minerva’s mission of “nurturing wisdom for the sake of the world”, transformation comes as students acquire new habits of mind and foundational concepts that are key for the 21st Century, such as problem solving, critical thinking, effective communication, systems thinking and managing biases.  

On new business models, Gloria shared Minerva’s model of requiring students to learn in different locations around the world with faculty from different universities. Students use the city as the learning ground, and while blending online learning with experiential learning on-the-ground, Minerva saves considerable operating costs for the university too. Justin said whilst travelling could bring a lot of experience to students, they could also learn a lot from the local community. He also believed that the in-class experience would remain valuable, but at the same time there would be continued growth in online learning, particularly in workforce development.

Prof S C Kong (Director of Centre for Learning, Teaching and Technology, Education University) said they had a joint venture with Baptist University on how assessment should evolve with more self-directed and job-related learning without compromising academic integrity. One key aspect was how different courses could contribute to the development of soft skills like problem solving and creative thinking. He added another area that they were working on was how technology could motivate learning.

Justin commented that technology could be useful for assessing certain subjects but not others, and there was no single set of technology that could address all domains. In particular, we could not evaluate the extent to which people could make a compelling or persuasive argument from evidence, which should be one of the main purposes of higher education. There was also the need to take into account the different cultures and backgrounds of students. Gloria believed that technology like AI would help the development of competency based education if we could define the right set of assessment rubrics.

To conclude, Justin highlighted the fact that universities could not outsource their core competencies to technology. Commitment to continuous improvement should actually be the most powerful ‘technology’. Universities should not just prepare students for the labour market, but they should be aware of their roles in the society as reflective and ethical individuals. Gloria used a quote from Richar Rohr to conclude, “transformation is more about unlearning than learning”. SC underscored the importance of educators to co-create knowledge with students.

Question and Answer Session

Charleston Sin, Executive Director of MIT Hong Kong Innovation Node, facilitated the Q&A session. In response to the question about people not served by universities, Justin believed community colleges and technical schools could be the engines of innovation if they were given enough public support. Christina said the Vocational Training Council would play a very important role in lifelong learning. They had used the persona approach to understand more the needs of the different people they served.  Panellists underscored the need to be clear about the purpose of education. It should be all about student learning, what and how they like to learn. SC pinpointed that every student could develop his/her strength if they were motivated. Online learning should not be about using technology to replace face-to-face teaching but a fundamental shift to cope with the 4th Industrial Revolution.

John pointed out that bite-sized learning on a continuous basis would become more and more important, with the exponential growth of knowledge and as people’s attention span got shorter and shorter. Regarding Joe’s comment that businesses were not investing in talent development, John said the government had a role to play in providing incentives.

On the role of technology, Irwin believed that AI would enable better assessment of student needs and more personalised learning. It could also enable self-directed learning with people learning alongside an intelligent tutor. AR and VR would also boost experiential learning.

Panellists wrapped up with what they considered were the most important:

  • To use technology effectively, Kenn said we had to first forget about technology. It was important to say no to methods that were not working.
  • Gloria and SC echoed that student-centricity was the key. Technology should be a means to this end.
  • Irwin pointed out the value of inspirational teachers.
  • Christina highlighted the importance of partnership with industries and the community to enable meaningful project-based learning for mutual benefit.
  • John concluded that if we could focus on more effective delivery of learning for students, everything else would come together.