According to UNESCO, nearly 75% of the world’s student population has been affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a first in history and it will have a lasting impact on students, parents and education systems — both global and local.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a new phenomenon that is truly worldwide in its impact. In the past, we have had only epidemics afflicting certain regions of the world, but this time the virus has spread to all corners of the globe.
E-learning is not something new; it has been around for at least three decades. But until now, the objective of e-learning for institutions of higher education has not been for the purpose of continued learning in the face of disruptions as with the COVID-19 situation. Rather, there have been two sets of rationale for e-learning:
The first rationale is to widen the sources of learning. Students cannot only depend on their lecturers and tutors for knowledge and information. Since the advent of the Internet we have had access to vast troves of information, quite literally at our fingertips. Students should be literally searching the whole world for knowledge. Arguably, nearly every university in the world today uses some form of e-learning to broaden the sources of learning for its students.
The second rationale for e-learning, particularly at institutions of higher learning, has to do with the rapid evolution of technology and the pressing need to keep workforce skills up to date. Lifelong learning is now considered essential for continued economic and social progress, and e-learning methods often prove to be the best way to deliver lifelong learning.
When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s, the technology we used was so dramatically different from what we have today. If we did not continue learning after we graduated, it would have been very challenging for us to adjust to new requirements at work, and indeed to a whole new lifestyle that is now intertwined with technology.
Today, with the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns and social distancing, e-learning has become a vital tool to ensure the continuity of learning and education. Some have argued that during these periods of school closures, students can be left to learn and discover on their own and to return to the school curriculum when the situation improves. Personally, my education was disrupted by the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and despite that my peers and I did go on to continue our education and succeed. But unlike a war with a visible enemy, COVID-19 is not just a war with an invisible and seemingly omnipresent enemy, but one that also exposes our vulnerability to future virus outbreaks. Importantly, this pandemic is going to force us to rethink our social interactions and that will include the way we educate.
Institutions of higher learning in Singapore are generally quite prepared to adapt to this new reality, because they are likely to already be using e-learning tools to some extent.
The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), of which I was Chancellor from 2005 to 2014, has been ready for this for a very long time. A large number of SUSS students are part-timers, and e-learning tools are indispensable to making the part-time educational experience effective.
In the early 2000s, Singapore aimed to attract 150,000 international students by 2015. Supported by the Singapore Education Campaign, the initiative saw a record 90,000 students head to Singapore to study in 2010.
If we look throughout the Asian region though, not all university students may be in the same situation — some of them may not even have Internet access, let alone laptops or tablets.
In any case, higher education should not strive to be a completely online activity. In engineering for instance, you would need to touch equipment, to get a feel of things. Blended learning — where you have a course taught through a mix of e-learning and traditional face-to-face learning — will certainly prove to be much more satisfactory than a purely e-learning experience. Ultimately, the interaction with fellow students is a defining experience of university life.
The Future of Singapore as a Global Higher Education Hub
Ten years ago, I was a committee member in an audit exercise of one of the top universities in China. During one meeting with 20 of their students, I asked if they, as citizens of the most populous country in the world, had an interest in the little city-state of Singapore. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that they were in fact all keen to study in Singapore — surprised, because of the prestigious status of the university they were already part of. They replied that because the nature of business has become so international, they did not want to just remain in China. Some of them also cited the chance to improve their proficiency in English.
I believe that Singapore will continue to remain an attractive place for international students. The high quality and international standing of our universities, and particularly for students in Asia and our use of English as the lingua franca will remain strong pull factors post-COVID-19.
There is also the aspect of cross-border educational exchanges. When you travel to a certain place, you meet new people, you learn new philosophies and new cultures. I believe students should always spend a part of their learning overseas as far as possible.
In the short term we will certainly see a fall in the number of students travelling overseas for an education, but I feel that over time and having learnt from this pandemic and increased preventive measures, numbers will begin to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.
In that sense, we all certainly hope the COVID-19 situation would improve sooner rather than later. We cannot eliminate the notion of the physical classroom and the physical university in the pursuit of serious, all-rounded learning.
CHAM TAO SOON
Cham Tao Soon was founding President of the Nanyang Technological University in 1981, and was conferred the title of President Emeritus in July 2007. He was also the first Chancellor and Chairman of the SIM University (UniSIM). He is currently Chairman of the Advisory Board of The HEAD Foundation.