Teaching for Tomorrow

The pandemic has brought about dramatic changes in all walks of life, and no less so than in education.

The changes have been rapid and impactful, affecting employment rates, increasing workloads and levels of stress (across family and social contexts as well as work), as well as many other challenges to well-being. At the time of this writing in the start of 2021, there has been some optimism with the arrival of vaccines, permission for international students to return and groups of students finding their way back to campus for practical work. The optimism is tempered with cautiousness reflected in the University’s commitment to offer dual-mode delivery until the end of the year, meaning that when classroom sessions are possible, students may opt for online participation should they be unable or uncomfortable to attend in person.

Without downplaying the negatives, the silver-lining for education is that the pandemic has kick-started long-needed changes that are shaking universities out of a learning model that has persisted for centuries. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson drew unequivocal attention to the fact that many of the ways of teaching dates back to the Industrial Revolution. Although establishing many good things such as free education, qualified teachers, and curriculum design, it was a system, befitting of the era, based on standardisation, conformity and compliance. Rejecting its relevance in today’s world, Sir Ken argued for new approaches to teaching and learning that respond to the individual and emphasise curiosity and creativity. The wisdom of this line of thought is not new, as the Chinese proverb states, “Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time,” and in the mid-twentieth century John Dewey wrote, “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

The changes brought about by the pandemic required all to think carefully about the teaching and proved to be a tremendous opportunity to continue the move away from lectures towards more student-centred approaches. It renewed the efforts to structure content in accessible and engaging ways more in line with what is known about how students learn. An additional benefit has been to highlight that, with the effective use of technology, it is now possible to teach even larger groups of students in ways that are interactive and engaging, and adaptable to learning styles and their differing access needs. These changes have strengthened Sunway University’s ongoing commitment to achieving a fundamental shift in the teaching and learning culture from the one-way transmission of information, epitomised by the traditional lecture, towards active learning techniques in which “an engaged student actively examines, questions, and relates new ideas to old, thereby achieving the kind of deep learning that lasts”. (Barkley & Major, Student Engagement Techniques 2020: 9).

Practically speaking, one especially noteworthy change is the increased technique of ‘flipped classrooms’ where information is provided ahead of time for students to review, at their own pace and at times convenient to them, before the real-time session. In class, students then focus on discussing and exploring ideas that they are then already familiar with. Students take greater responsibility for their learning, and the teaching can be project-based and organised around applying knowledge, critiquing and questioning (echoing Sir Ken’s emphasis on curiosity and creativity).

Returning to the need for change, much has been written about the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the imminent large-scale impact of AI. Drawing on these ideas, the challenges faced are highlighted and some responses to them outlined in order for the university to remain relevant in equipping graduates for meaningful and successful lives.

Broadly understood, there are three key challenges:
1. Teaching is increasingly technology- and data-driven, which (i) requires a more personalised student experience, and (ii) is transforming teaching methods and learning spaces;
2. Teaching needs to address the new and changing needs of students, society and the workplace; and
3. The need to extend who is taught to include new cohorts of non-traditional learners.

Linked with these, in particular the second point, are changes to the core qualities and skills needed by graduates. Educational experiences that prioritise the development of critical thinking, creativity and initiative-taking, technical and digital literacy, problem-solving skills, collaboration, independent and lifelong learning, emotional intelligence and ethical professionalism must be provided. By way of contrast, it is interesting to note that according to the World Economic Forum, declining employment-related skills include the following: manual dexterity; memory, verbal and spatial awareness; management of financial and material resources; reading, writing, and maths; personnel management; quality control; and technology installation and maintenance.

In consideration of these challenges, towards the end of 2019, a group of senior academics met to draft a new educational strategy for the University. Although now in review because of the pandemic, its vision statements address the issues facing education today very well. Starting with excellence, appropriately building on Sunway Group’s core values, the strategy holds that in its most general sense, education should be founded on the “latest and best educational practices applied to modern, research-informed programmes of study that are relevant to the needs of the discipline, the student and wider society.”

Secondly, it was decided that integrity in education means developing, in students and staff, ethical conduct and collegiality, positive and effective citizenship, and stewardship of the individual, the community and the environment. Accordingly, the programmes and experiences offered should be real-world and outward-looking, collaborative with industry and communities, and capable of establishing trust, central as it is to success in professional life, business and leadership.

Finally, humility, the basis for the self-motivated pursuit of knowledge, means establishing a culture of learning that affirms openness to and acceptance of new and of other’s ideas, practises listening, is not constrained by perceived wisdom or prior belief, and an inclusive and international outlook to cultivate global citizenship.

These statements capture the direction needed well, and many developments and projects are already underway moving forward, for example the 42KL and iLabs, as well as those taking place in individual Schools independent of the changes demanded by the pandemic. Two more significant and institution-wide initiatives also deserve special mention: (i) Sunway University’s new ‘curriculum framework’, and (ii) a new ‘block-mode’ academic calendar.

The broad aims of the curriculum framework are to enhance the relevance of graduate attributes, enrich and strengthen undergraduate programmes, and enable curriculum design and delivery that engages and motivates staff and students. Integrating, for the first time at Sunway, a programme structure that is shared across the University, it allows all students to take electives from other discipline areas, increases opportunities to study abroad and includes curriculum related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It is a first step, which over time will extend interdisciplinary provision, industry-related and problem-based learning, globally networked and internationalised learning, entrepreneurial skills training, and more.

Connected with the curriculum framework is the introduction of a new block-mode academic calendar. This, along with full implementation of the curriculum framework, is scheduled to begin in January 2023. The block-mode calendar is in part a response to likely long-term changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but more importantly, it will allow for changes that are strongly aligned with the 21st-century educational needs outlined above; in particular, greater flexibility, increased access for non-traditional learners, and a structure that emphasises technology-enhanced teaching and active learning teaching methods. This last point is of special significance to build on the lessons learnt from the pandemic. The success of block or intensive mode teaching rests upon a new understanding of curriculum design, and new approaches to teaching, engaging and assessing students. There is much work to do to fulfil the vocation as teachers and authentically respond to today’s educational needs and challenges; but it is work that, because of the talent and commitment of the staff and by building on what’s already been achieved, it is with much confident that this will succeed.


Professor Matthew James Sansom
Chancellery Office 
Email: msansom@sunway.edu.my