Singapore experiments with ‘very agile’ teaching methods

Polytechnic pilots curriculum, rebuilt from scratch to develop flexible graduates, that principal says could be tailor-made for post-Covid world

August 10, 2020
Brainstorm session
Source: iStock

Two years ago, the head of Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore asked her staff to imagine how they would build a school from scratch. “Start with a blank slate, with no legacy structure and no resource constraints,” she said. Her team were to devise entirely new ways of teaching workforce skills without relying on precedents or overseas models, because “other systems have their own contexts”.

Jeanne Liew, Nanyang Polytechnic’s principal and chief executive, told Times Higher Education that they “took apart and rebuilt the curriculum, brick by brick”. She called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the staff to create something of their own”.

The result is the Nanyang Polytechnic Professional Competency Model (NYP-PCM), which will be rolled out with three-year courses in business intelligence and analytics in 2021 and game development and technology in 2022 – two areas chosen as pilots because they are the most rapidly changing.

While the project is small in scale, it could be deployed more broadly later as Singaporean institutions work towards greater multidisciplinarity and lifelong learning. In the Singapore system, polytechnics are tertiary institutions that fit in between vocational schools and universities.

The Nanyang Polytechnic team creating the pilot could not have imagined how radically the education sector would change because of the coronavirus pandemic, but their work is now more relevant than ever as institutions put greater emphasis on flexibility and job-related skills. Although Singapore has handled Covid-19 well, with only 27 deaths as of early August, its “circuit breaker” coronavirus restrictions have taken a toll on the economy. Gross domestic product fell a record 12.6 per cent in the second quarter.

“This pandemic has shown us that there may be disruptions that you don’t expect, so we need a model that’s very agile, very quick,” Ms Liew said.

The NYP-PCM does not use set modules. Instead, students complete a series of “competency units” linked to specific tasks.

While conventional business students may take a first-year statistics class, with little idea of how to apply that information when they enter the workforce a few years later, students under the new model will be assigned a real-life task, such as collecting, converting and presenting a set of data. This could involve a range of areas such as statistics, computer programming and communications. “Telling a data story to a target audience is also a skill, and these things need to be taught together,” Ms Liew said.

The school collaborated with US industry partners – Google Cloud, Microsoft, Oracle Academy and analytics company SAS – to make courses as relevant to workplaces as possible.

Ms Liew admitted that the new system was “very challenging from the teachers’ point of view, because nobody has all these skills”, so lesson planning might involve both a communications lecturer and an IT expert.

The curriculum is not the only thing that has changed at the institution. For example, admissions have been made more flexible to accommodate those who show aptitude and interest but may lack conventional qualifications. A Nanyang Polytechnic survey of students five years after graduation showed that about 80 per cent engaged in some type of continued education.

Ms Liew is already looking ahead to when Singapore will turn the corner after the coronavirus. “We need to be prepared for the recovery, and this is the best time to get ready,” she said. “The pandemic has given us a huge opportunity.”

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