Death of the classroom: technology and the future of education in Asia

Disruption is sweeping across industries. Traditional players in the hotel, movie and taxi industries now grapple with a shrinking share of a pie that is increasingly eaten up by new players who harness technology and deliver on-demand services. In fact, by year 2030, 20 percent of jobs that exist today will no longer be in existence. Much of this change has been driven by technological innovations, but also due to the business opportunities created by incumbent players’ failure to satisfactorily fulfil the changing needs of the customer.

Disrupting the education sector

It was in this broader context of global technological disruption that the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) hosted a panel in October 2017 to discuss the implications on the higher education sector. There are early signs of disruption in the form of massive open online courses, “micro” degrees and new Virtual Reality (VR) tools for online learning. However, as Vice President of EdX, Johannes Heinlein, pointed out during the panel, there are specific demographic trends to watch. An addition of 1 billion women will enter the workforce in the next decade, out of which a vast majority will be from developing economies, and the fastest growing population of learners being adult learners above 25 years of age. How we teach and learn, and who learns are about to look very different in the near future.

Further, the incumbent higher education sector is often deemed to be far too costly, sub-par in its service quality and lagging behind rapid technological changes. The education sector, too, is witnessing the innovation gap, underperforming incumbents and the changing needs of consumers – the very conditions that disrupted entertainment, hospitality and transport services.

Future of education

In the panel moderated by James Crabtree, senior visiting fellow at the LKYSPP, Heinlein articulated the future of education as an enablement, through technology, for individuals to truly develop personalised learning pathways. Education will no longer follow a linear trajectory, but will take on a new lifeform as “a cradle to the grave” or lifelong learning, which casts a new vision for educational institutions, which can be encapsulated as follows:

  • Provision of access to educational material to a wider world
  • Modularisation and diversified modalities of learning
  • Decentralised modes of academic certificate acquisition
  • Collaboration with other institutions and internationalisation
  • Operational and academic changes within institutions

In today’s new economic realities, the fundamental questions of what one needs to know, and how one will gain such knowledge are changing. Students may no longer need to sit through four consecutive years of in-campus formal university education in order to obtain a degree, but instead opt for gaining certificates by online modules catered to their learning needs. Technology will, and already is, enabling access to specific toolsets to guide each individual’s personalised learning pathway. The future of education will follow the in-demand, on-demand trajectory.

Implications on the role of educators

Technology is also being deployed in new ways to aid – or disrupt – the role of teachers. Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is now used in marking of hand-written student essays, not just multiple-choice format test papers. Thanks to self-learning machines and smart algorithms, robots can mimic an actual teacher’s grading patterns within one percentage point differential. Will this make human educators increasingly redundant in the future? Not if they understand and empathise with the needs of their students. Heinlein highlighted the selfie-culture as a helpful way to understand the changing demands of the education sector’s customers, students.

Students now require and expect holistic care and customised solutions for their employment and knowledge needs. Data can be an educator’s friend in this regard, according to Adrian Lim, a director of the Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore. Lim pointed out that just as data is harnessed to optimise the training of Olympic athletes – from fitness training to dietary habits – educators can harness data to better analyse student needs and develop suitable learning solutions for each student. Heinlein echoed the importance of using data to drive positive learning outcomes and cited that a dashboard of each student’s real-time class engagement and work progress as an example of a technology tool that can be harnessed to customise the planning and monitoring of each student’s learning journey.

Challenges and upsides to embracing disruption

Suzaina Kadir, Associate Dean of the LKYSPP, commented that there will be challenges in driving innovation or adoption of unconventional modes of education where established structures and priorities still exist and prevail. She pointed out that even in her recent positive experience of collaborating among international university partners for joint-sharing of educational resources, questions such as that of ultimate ownership of resources needed to be ironed out. In addition, not all partners may be comfortable with the level of openness and sharing that is required in a collaborative and internalised education model.

Embracing change requires mind-set shifts and there is no doubt that time will be taken for these to happen. From a practical standpoint, the panel agreed that sequence of driving and adopting change in the sector will happen in the order of students, businesses and government, followed by academia. Lim pointed out that governments can play the role of initiating and actively directing the institutional players to harness data and technology to pioneer change.

The session ended on a somewhat positive note when at the behest of Crabtree’s, each panel member opined on the upside of the education sector embracing disruption. Kadir spoke of the equalisation that results from employing technology in classroom teaching. Pre-filmed lectures allow students who need more time for preparation the flexibility to put in the extra effort to fully engage in face-to-face discussion in class. Heinlein added that a recent neuroscience study showed improved learning outcomes among students who engaged in learning via technological tools such as videos and online discussion forums. The panel agreed that the industry’s disruption is only a matter of time, and that the best course of action is not to wait for change to knock on its doors, but to pre-empt disruption by actively embracing change.