ALSET Director on Lifelong Learning in Singapore: “Measure the Outcomes”

Professor Robert Kamei, Associate Provost (Education) and Founding Director of ALSET at NUS

On May 23, NUS Institute for the Application of Learning Science and Education Technology (ALSET) director Robert Kamei spoke at the 2nd USPC-NUS Conference on Science, Policy and Society, an international conference on pressing topics in scientific research and public policy. One of those topics was the growing importance of lifelong learning for success in work and life—an issue that ALSET actively researches in Singapore and beyond.

ALSET’s work in lifelong learning dovetails with a broader shift taking place at NUS, where university leaders recently declared that student enrollment is now valid for 20 years from the point of admission. NUS will still offer standard four-year degrees, but it will also launch new courses and services to address the lifelong learning needs of its students and alumni.

Known as the NUS Lifelong Learners programme (L³), this initiative was launched in March 2018 and extends access to a broad catalogue of courses for the university’s 288,000 alumni. Many of the courses will be delivered through the NUS School of Continuing and Lifelong Learning (SCALE), and will focus on skills that have high market demand, such as advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence.

The L³ program fits neatly with the broader objectives of the Singapore government to promote lifelong learning and workforce resilience. It received generally positive response from students and other stakeholders, but to ensure that a program of this magnitude is managed effectively, NUS will need to collect and objectively evaluate data on its impact.

“What seems to be the right thing to do might have unexpected consequences,” said Professor Kamei, who also serves as Associate Provost (Education) at NUS. “This bold initiative can have unanticipated effects on the university. We have to look at this in a rigorous way and measure the outcomes.”

Enter ALSET, an institute at NUS that manages the ALSET Educational Data Lake, a new resource for education researchers and policy makers that brings together data on student academic outcomes, backgrounds, behaviors —including long-term outcomes in the workforce. The Data Lake securely houses data from across the university, breaking down silos and ensuring that data can be analyzed by researchers while maintaining student privacy concerns.

At the USPC-NUS conference, Kamei used the Data Lake to present preliminary analysis on the lifelong learning needs of NUS students. Using data from a 2016 survey of NUS graduates, he showed that roughly half of all respondents said there was a partial or significant mismatch between their studies and the requirements of their current job.

Students majoring in the arts and social sciences had the lowest rate of jobs that matched their studies, while those in pre-professional programs such as law and medicine were much more likely to find jobs directly related to their field. Those whose jobs did not match their studies reported lower income than their peers. While this is entirely expected, it demonstrates an opportunity for the university to fill this gap with educational programs after graduation.

“Insights from the Data Lake will be critical for building lifelong learning programs that support our graduates,” said Kamei. “We welcome partnerships with the local research and policy communities as we grow our research efforts.”

The Data Lake has an array of other potential uses, many of which are being explored by ALSET’s 35+ researchers. ALSET researchers hail from a wide array of fields—including the social, biological, physical, and computational sciences—making it one of the most interdisciplinary groups of its kind looking at higher education. Ongoing projects aim to advance our general understanding of how people learn most effectively, and what kind of educational technologies deliver the best bang for their buck.

Kamei said that ALSET is also unique in its focus on “in vivo” research, i.e. how learning happens in the classroom and real day-to-day life, not in lab-based experiments. This type of research is much “messier” and will require long-term studies using big data to sort out: “Our university spends a lot of time reviewing courses before they are started, but we also need to understand what is actually happening in the classroom once the courses begin.”

In addition to research, ALSET also offers classes for students and working adults on the basic principles of how we learn, choose, and think. This includes ALS1010CP, a new course on learning science for working adults that provides knowledge and strategies to help them learn in the most efficient, productive, and enjoyable manner possible.

ALSET supports the renewed efforts at NUS to support the lifelong learning needs of its students and alumni. Through basic and translational research, as well as courses that help learners to learn better, we aim to help people of all ages to cultivate the skills to remain competitive in a rapidly changing job market and an increasingly complex world.