IT is interesting times for tertiary education. Rapid technological advances have given rise to trends such as automation, globalisation and workplace change within industries requiring universities to produce students who have a broader set of 21st century skills that will enable them to thrive in the future.
Talents entering the workforce are expected to have strong foundational skills well as the ability to think independently, identify and solve problems on their own, work collaboratively, and learn new knowledge and skills when necessary.
At the same time, institutes of higher learning are already experiencing the enrolment of Gen Z — those born between 1996 and 2009 — who are digital natives with the always connected mentality and digital devices and profiles which they view as an extension of themselves.
Gen Z is technology-driven just like Gen Y but even more so as technology is more than a tool — it is part of who they are, said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) Centre for Teaching and Learning Technologies director Professor Datuk Dr Mohamed Amin Embi.
In his inaugural lecture at UKM last year, Mohamed Amin said Gen Z has unique learning habits.
“They have a world of information at their fingertips; they can simply Google anything they need to know. Instead of wasting time at memorising, they focus on learning to find, interpret and take advantage of information,” he said.
They multi-task with an Internet-connected device while watching TV — surviving distraction.
And they learn visually as a result of constant stimulation in the form of video games, YouTube videos and television.
“If educators desire to remain relevant to Gen Z, they need to rethink teaching and redesign learning that will engage students in meaningful and deep learning,” said Mohamed Amin.
However, he added that the problem with today’s education — at the school and tertiary level — is that most educators teach the way they were taught in the past.
“There is a need to rethink and redesign 21st century teaching and learning so that they meet the needs of the era. As 21st century educators, it is imperative that we redesign the traditional concept of teaching and learning, and explore new ways to improve students’ experience to prepare them for tomorrow’s world.”
Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) School of Educational Studies dean Professor Dr Hairul Nizam Ismail said classrooms in Malaysian higher education institutions still predominantly adopt the “factory line” concept of teaching and learning where many university lecturers prefer the teacher-centred approach that emphasises delivering lectures during the duration of the class, while students listen passively in their seats.
“Tertiary students should possess learning and innovation techniques; information, media and technological competencies; and life and career skills that will increase their marketability, employability and readiness for citizenship in a competitive world.
“For learning and innovation skills, students need to be creative, think critically and possess problem-solving, communication and collaboration skills,” said Hairul Nizam.
As such, Malaysian higher education institutions are to implement various teaching strategies and approaches such as e- and blended learning, flipped classrooms and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).
These strategies and approaches are suitable to be introduced in higher education institutions as the teaching tools provide flexibility and interactivity to attract 21st century students.
“A technology-based student-centred learning approach will not only make learning more interesting for students, it can also encourage them to actively learn and have confidence to interact with coursemates and lecturers. These characteristics are important to enhance marketability upon graduating.
“This is different from traditional teacher-centred learning, which allows students to remain rather passive. This type of ‘redesigning’ is needed to shape students’ attitudes and improve their skills towards becoming more competitive in the job market. Providing students with specific competencies, such as the ability to utilise information and communications technology tools and higher order thinking skills, will give them the edge they need for the current job market.”
Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) Faculty of Educational Studies dean Professor Dr Aida Suraya Md. Yunus meanwhile highlighted students need real-life learning experiences, and to work on tasks and attend meetings (or briefings) with chief executive officers and industry players.
“We try to arrange more engagement with the industry, therefore the lecturer will also need industry experience. We conduct field trips, collaborate with organisations to allow students to translate theory into practice,” said Aida Suraya.
Students also expect to have different kinds of learning spaces, no longer a lecture theatre or tables in a classroom with them facing the teacher.
“They need a more relaxed atmosphere, tables that can be shifted to allow group discussions and flip charts.
“Our lecturers upload their teaching materials online for students to refer. Not only are lecture notes uploaded, but also links to relevant websites, videos, animated materials, platform for students to share their materials with the class, online discussions/chat rooms with the lecturer and fellow students. This allows students to explore beyond the confines of the course content,” she added.
“A lot of discussion and presentation take place in the course of our programmes. Although the budget is limited, the faculty plans to transform all classrooms into conducive learning spaces — the ‘future classroom’ — for students.
“It will not only expose them to emerging technologies but it will also be a research lab to test technology-integrated teaching and learning. The classrooms will be ready by October.
Educational philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) once said: “If we teach today’s students as we been taught yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow.”
As such, Hairul Nizam said educators cannot omit technology from teaching as it is dynamic and changing the way the education industry is shaped today.
“Technology provides the flexibility and learning platform for the teaching and learning process. The lecturers’ role in the 21st century teaching and learning environment is to facilitate students to create knowledge and unleash their creativity to enable them to be innovative. The 21st century lecturer does not go into a classroom to ‘deliver knowledge’ but to assist student to explore, experience and co-create knowledge. These can be done through various teaching and learning activities via technology applications,” he added.
While the importance of a lecturer as the content expert in any course or field cannot be denied, the lecturer also needs to be a good guide to shape critical thinking among students.
“At the end of the day technology is just a tool — how lecturers generate their lessons, readings and activities is important. Making use of tools to boost the learning experience is even more important.” Hairul Nizam added that USM recognises the important and challenging task of changing the mindset of its teaching staff, mostly known as digital immigrants.
“Changing the mindsets of the academic staff is not an easy task as digital immigrants were brought up differently from digital natives. As such a lot of effort from the university is into providing training and setting up initiatives to assist academic staff in implementing 21st century teaching and learning strategies.”
To encourage lecturers to integrate 21st century learning into the teaching and learning process, USM through its Centre for Development Academic Excellence, has actively conducted training programmes for lecturers from other universities. Training involves senior and junior lecturers, and covers a variety of topics and technological equipment that can be implemented during lectures and assignments. Some of the training programmes include MOOCs, Open Learning Platforms, iPad for Teaching and Learning, and Interactive Lectures.
Similarly, UPM has its Centre for Academic Development which provides courses to introduce new teaching methods or technologies to lecturers.
This centre guides lecturers to enhance their teaching, identify those who have tried innovative teaching and learning approaches and conduct sharing sessions.
“UPM’s Research Management Centre has allocated research grants for lecturers to test the effectiveness of new teaching technologies or innovative approaches,” said Aida Suraya.
SHOWING SUPPORT GOES A LONG WAY
FOR 22-year-old Gloria Ngu, who attends Taylor’s University School of Education, making students realise the importance of learning, its relevance and how it can be applied in their lives are more important than the tools used to deliver a lesson.
With considerations such as the duration of a class, number of students and practicality of trying to get enough access to computers or the Internet, the use of technology may not be a priority, said the third-year Bachelor of Education (Hons) Primary Education student.
Her recent six-month experience as an assistant English Language teacher at a Japanese high school taught Ngu that learning 21st century skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity, communication as well as collaboration and teamwork need not require technology as a medium in class.
“I taught Senior One (equivalent to Form Four) students at Seiko Gakuin, an all-male private school in Yokohama. The education system in Japan is very exam-centric and English is not emphasised. I learnt a smattering of Japanese and traditional Japanese and pop culture to break the ice in class. I also translated certain things into Japanese.
The 47 students responded to these methods,” said Ngu.
As the students already had lessons in reading and conversation, Ngu focused on grammar and argumentative writing.
“Writing is very difficult if one is learning a foreign language. So for one of my first writing lessons, I asked the students to write 200
words on whether playing Pokemon Go is a positive or negative experience.”
She divided the class into groups to discuss the topic, allowing Japanese language to be used. The group discussions continued after school hours via Google Docs and Google Translate.
“Is Homework Necessary?” was another writing topic.
“They had to write a letter to either agree or disagree and persuade me in their argument. A student ended a letter with: ‘Please don’t give me so much homework.’ It was quite funny.”
The students practised their English during two school trips and Ngu conducted classes for those who wanted coaching after school.
“From a 200-word composition, my class was able to go up to 500 words. It is very important for teachers to show their caring side and show support to students for them to become more confident. It is also important in shaping future leaders especially when students have limited exposure to the language or come from an underprivileged background.”
Ngu, a former SMK Seafield, Selangor student, said the experience has made her even more passionate about teaching and she is eager to begin her career.