Message from the Provost

Professor Tan Eng Chye
Deputy President (Academic Affairs) and Provost

Higher education is fluid and dynamic, both internationally and also locally here in Singapore. Two trends are worthy of special notice: technological disruption globally and demographic developments locally. How do these phenomena affect us at NUS, and more particularly, our policies and practices around teaching and learning—and thereby the Teaching Academy?

The recent years have seen huge geo- as well as socio-political shifts in Asia, North America, and Europe. Part and parcel of globalisation is not only exciting international partnerships between Euro-American nation states and the burgeoning economies of Asia, in particular China, but also ever-increasing rivalry. Resistance to globalisation and income inequality (often blamed on globalisation) in part account for noteworthy recent developments in the US, in particular the election of Donald Trump as President, and also in Europe, with the decision of the UK to leave the EU.

To a significant extent, globalisation is driven by rapid changes in technology. These new technologies bring about challenges, but also vast opportunities. With regard to the former, first and foremost we need to accept that it is no longer sufficient to teach our students content knowledge and associated skills and behaviours only; important though transmitting such expertise is, we also need to find ways of teaching students to learn how to learn, so we can support them in becoming ever more agile. Such agility is necessary for them to be able to adapt to the huge changes being wrought by globalisation and technological disruption. There has recently been a lot of discussion of what is becoming known as the “fourth industrial revolution”: 

  • The first industrial revolution, in the early 19th century, saw the advent of steam-driven machines.
  • The second, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was marked by the introduction of electricity.
  • The third industrial revolution, from the 1960s onwards, saw the rise of computing as a dominant force. From the introduction of the personal computer, to the spread of the internet, to mobile devices, computing has become ubiquitous in our lives.
  • With the fourth industrial revolution, we are entering uncharted territory. It sees simultaneous and rapid changes in the fields of robotics and biotechnology, and ultimately perhaps their convergence in intelligent machines.

The implications for higher education are profound. What we are facing is a changing employment landscape, as automation and eventually artificial intelligence will render many of today’s jobs redundant: from telemarketers, to accountants, to health technologists. This is a major reason why as educators we need to approach teaching in an evidence-informed way; this is why we need to learn how to move beyond disseminating content to our students, but also in addition how to support them in learning how to learn. This will be necessary if we are to find ways of preparing our students for jobs intelligent machines will not be able to do. Future skills with which we need to equip them include those associated with complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, and emotional intelligence. These are skills that robots do not have (as yet). And they are skills we can and must teach our students when we teach them Chemistry, or Music, or Mathematics, or Engineering. The fourth industrial revolution compels us not only to teach knowledge, but also sophisticated ways of doing things with that knowledge in innovative ways.

But aside from presenting us with challenges, disruptive technologies also present us with opportunities. As the learning sciences have discovered, we can use the affordances of technology to transform our learning environments in ways that will help us approach our teaching to move beyond transmission of knowledge. Technology can help us create active-learning environments. Computers can provide scaffolding, for example through adaptive tutorials that provide students with opportunities to engage in deliberate practice through online videos and quizzes. Based on their performance, which can be assessed using software, students follow personalised learning paths. This helps them to prepare for face-to-face class meetings, where the expert teacher can then model problem solving, synthesise what students have learnt, and provide direct instruction where necessary to supplement gaps in knowledge.

I would like to challenge the NUS Teaching Academy to think through how it can support our efforts at NUS to develop the kinds of changes needed for us to fully leverage on learning technologies, thereby equipping our faculty members as they teach students in enhanced ways in order to better prepare them for the future. This needs to include finding ways to support the Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL), the Centre for Instructional Technology (CIT), and the new Institute for Application of Learning Science and Educational Technology (ALSET) in their endeavours to enhance teaching and learning. In particular, I urge the Academy to consider good practices at other similar Academies locally and abroad.

Moving to the second trend alluded to at the start: once again, as is well known Singapore is experiencing significant shifts in our population, which is greying as people live longer and the birth rate declines. Already we are feeling the effects of these shifts in declining cohort sizes at our schools and also, now, our universities. This trend of course has various implications. In the future, we will have fewer undergraduate students and instead more working adults returning to university in order to upskill in response to the changing job market. It is for this reason that in Singapore we now have significant initiatives such as SkillsFuture, and why recently at NUS we established our School of Continuing and Lifelong Education (SCALE). There are significant budgetary implications as funding will increasingly need to be diverted towards programmes geared towards Continuing Education and Training.

In light of these two huge trends that I have highlighted—associated respectively with technology and demography—we need to take a step back and ask some hard questions about our strategies at the university. What value do our various initiatives actually add? To take just one example, but an important one: how exactly does our investment in teaching awards advance our strategic direction? To what extent do teaching awards motivate faculty members to enhance their practice in order to meet the challenges and opportunities discussed here? Is the output of these awards commensurate with the financial and logistical inputs required, or are there better ways of inspiring and equipping faculty to enhance their practice? What role can the Academy play in fostering such enhancement, and therefore: what is the value that the Academy itself adds to NUS? These are difficult but important questions that we should not shy away from asking. I hope that the Academy will ask these questions and study how it may best respond.

The NUS Teaching Academy has been instrumental in promoting excellence in teaching and learning at NUS. I wish the Academy continued success for the year ahead.

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