The Need for University Level Requirements

Steve Jobs once said, ‘A lot of people haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions, without a broad perspective on the problem’.


NUS recognises the merits of a broad-based education. The spirit of a broad-based education is a central feature of the NUS Teaching Philosophy, which articulates that ‘NUS aims to produce individuals with curious and questioning minds, willing and able to examine and engage in rigorous inquiry, of a broad range of issues within and beyond assumed disciplinary borders’. Not only do we seek to ensure that our graduates acquire the requisite content knowledge, vocational skills and competencies for their majors or professional training, it is equally important that our graduates are empowered with broad knowledge, a wide field of vision and transferable skills.

Why is it important to provide our graduates with a broad exposure to multiple disciplines?

A diverse bank of knowledge and experiences helps us to see and appreciate matters not just in isolation, but to see the possibilities and relationships between ideas, events and subject areas. By studying different areas, one is constantly training one’s mind to think critically, hone analytical abilities and to derive conclusions from information. The mind becomes more agile, and this in turn enables one to learn, understand and organise new knowledge more easily and quickly. After all, the real world is not made up of experimentally defined questions to which one can flip a textbook to obtain answers. In this ever-changing economy and workforce, one needs to be deft and adaptable, to figure out the complexities of each unique situation and problem.

Diversity in educational experiences is thus important. One way to introduce breadth into the university curriculum is through a core curriculum that spans across the university, regardless of one’s major. This is the practice at many American universities. The core curriculum requirements will typically include classes in writing, critical inquiry, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, humanities, social and natural sciences. In British universities, students read the bulk of their modules in their disciplinary majors, and for breadth, students are required read a few modules outside their majors. In recent years however, many British universities have attempted to move towards a more broad-based framework.

The University-Level Requirements (ULR) at NUS is a hybrid of the British and the American systems. NUS has since moved from a traditional British curricular system to a (American) modular system. Today, our system is generally flexible enough to allow students to pursue depth and breadth, according to their interests and aptitude. Apart from core and elective disciplinary requirements, there are General Education (GE) requirements, breadth module requirements, and Singapore Studies module requirements.

In my view, the current system is not ideal. Specifying module requirements does not go far enough to ensure that all NUS students are reaping the desired benefits and outcomes of a broad-based education. An NUS undergraduate could, in the past, select modules that would allow him/her to go through university without completing any modules in writing, presentations or statistics – all of which are basic essential skills. To plug this gap, one measure we have taken is to incorporate a compulsory module in writing and communications for all NUS students; this will be implemented over the next 3 years.

Our colleagues in the General Education Committee have also formed a task force to rethink the GE requirements at NUS. The task force has recommended a structured GE approach by introducing a defining programme, preferably at the onset of one’s university journey, comprising a few GE modules that will broaden learning. Each module in the GE requirements will have multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary content, and employ pedagogies that will lead to significant learning experiences. How the modules are taught, learnt and assessed, will be emphasised as much as what and why they are taught. Getting good teachers for GE modules is critical. To deliver an ‘educationally disruptive’ experience, GE teachers must be strong in their disciplinary interests; at the same time, they must have a deep appreciation of a broad spectrum of disciplines, with multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives.

The possibilities for provocative study, experimentation and risk taking need space, protection and cultivation. The task force is thus advocating for NUS to provide a ‘low stakes but high yield experience’, to move our students out of their comfort learning zone through an ‘educationally disruptive’ experience that will shape their learning modes and perspectives. Fresh from high school/junior college, and for Singaporean males, from National Service, we think that some new students may need some time adjusting to this new learning mode. As such, the idea of having a grade-free semester for GE does merit consideration. 

Students also need to experience academic brilliance, and to be introduced to and inspired by the culture and qualities of academic inquiry and discourse. Hence, it is critical for departments to involve the most inspiring and charismatic lecturers in teaching introductory modules. This will allow our brightest faculty to reach out to many young minds, to imbue them with the correct learning mindsets and perspectives, and set their learning journeys on the right path.

These are some insights into the directions that NUS is heading towards, and I welcome your thoughts, feedback and suggestions.

‘Context is crucial for full understanding, and a general knowledge of the world gives you that context.’  

Robert Harris, 1991

Technology-enhanced Education

In 2008, Professor Andrew Ng of Stanford University started the Stanford Engineering Everywhere programme to distribute free online education. Last year, he taught a Machine Learning class with an enrolment of more than 100,000 students from all over the world. Subsequently, Coursera was born with the intention of bringing materials designed and taught by world-class professors to every part of the world.

MITx was launched at the end of 2011 to deliver MIT courses online and free-of-charge. Later, Harvard and MIT each contributed US$30 million to form a new venture EdX, with the same aim. EdX runs on an open source platform, which provides videos and interactive software to engage online learners. Certificates of completion will be awarded for a modest fee, but at present, there are no plans to award college credits as yet.

Technology has enabled distant and online learning, even of degree courses.

Online courses have been around for some time. This trend started at the turn of the century. Many ventures had sprouted, but most of them lost momentum and direction after some time. NUS was previously involved in an online venture with the Universitas 21 group, but the venture folded due to financial non-viability. What is different this time with Coursera and EdX is the level of technology, and the high caliber of universities joining this bandwagon. 

The world was a different place just a mere decade ago. There was no YouTube or Facebook then. Technology has advanced to a stage where interactivity with students can be so dynamic and this can make learning much more effective. Take a look at Khan Academy’s videos and assessments of pre-college and college mathematics (the academic content is similar to what our students have to cover for the A levels in Mathematics) and you can see the power of technological advancement. 

Some colleagues (especially those of us who did not grow up with these gadgets) may be quite skeptical about technology, and view it as a fashion trend that might become passé in time to come. Some are perhaps wary that technology may displace teaching jobs in the future. Let me try to quell this misperception. In the words of John Hennessy, President of Stanford University, “the biggest way IT-enhanced education could go wrong is if we assume that we can fully automate education, if we think that we can throw students in front of terminals, that we don’t need any live instructors anywhere, that students can be totally successful without ever talking to anybody.”

Even with the best textbooks and good quality online resources, the role of the teacher remains critical. In fact, the teacher’s role will become even more important. I think the teacher’s role will shift from solely delivering subject content, to actively facilitating, and directing learning and interaction within a classroom, so that students are probed and prodded at the right time, with the right questions, to stimulate their thinking and learning.

Technology has revolutionised every part of our lives and surely, it will also impact teaching and learning. The Singapore Prime Minister, in his recent National Day Rally speech, provided many examples of how technology has and will impact our lives. Today’s students are more technologically savvy, and they respond very quickly to new innovations. We know that most young people are adept at using technology, and are completely comfortable, for instance, with watching a video online. They like the fact that they can hit the pause button at will; they know how to speed it up a little bit, to watch it 20% faster, and to personalise the experience, making the process of learning more efficient for themselves. We know some students prefer collaborative learning and habitually take and share notes using Twitter. Many are also familiar with crowd sourcing to complete their assignments and projects. The list just goes on and the possibilities are endless.

Should we then continue doing ‘business as usual’ and labour on in a large lecture theatre, earnestly endeavouring to deliver the same subject content, to 300 students with varying abilities and powers of absorption, year in and out, without change? Our aspirations have not changed – we want to deliver a high quality educational experience. Just as we urge our students to question and to discover, we lecturers too, should continually seek to explore how we can leverage on advances in technology, for what it’s worth, to enhance the learning process and its outcomes. 


‘Flipped Classroom’

Some of you may have read about the ‘flipped classroom’ concept. It is a fairly new look at the learning process, facilitated by a new space configuration that has been shown to be successful. The classroom is ‘flipped’, because there are no in-class didactic lectures – students instead access online materials to learn the basic concepts.

The ‘flipped classroom’ rests on a very strong scaffold of well-constructed online materials and the use of interactive learning platforms that further augment and reinforce understanding. In-class tasks and discussions allow for collaborative co-construction of knowledge. Again, learning effectiveness is predicated on well-designed assessment tasks that engender higher order learning outcomes. Effective ‘flipped classroom’ learning environments must also be facilitated by an appropriate learning space design that promotes collaborative learning.

The Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School (Duke-NUS) successfully employed the ‘flipped classroom’ concept in its TeamLEAD (Learn, Engage, Apply and Develop) approach. Under this learning structure, there are no hour-long lectures, but students watch videoed lectures or access online materials that disseminate basic content knowledge. The in-class time is devoted mainly to discussions and problem-solving activities. At the start of each TeamLEAD session, students are individually assessed about the material they were to learn prior to class to assure that they have come to class prepared.  During the first in-class discussion session, students are put in teams and answer the same set of questions (as the ones they had earlier individually answered). The only difference is that they now have to provide a team response. This is where further and deeper learning take place; and the active class dynamics surfaces – a student in a team must convince the others of his/her answer, or be convinced by others of their answers.  The next phase is applying that knowledge to more realistic (typically clinical) problems.  The students are then given another set of problems to solve as a team.  This phase is open resource/open internet.  The teams now must apply what they learned in the earlier phase, and not simply regurgitate a set of basic facts.  Simple questions which test only memory do not work in this instructional method, as it is too easy to just ‘Google’ the answer.  Instead the faculty must work hard to create questions that make the students think and apply facts and key principles that they have learned. 

One might ask, how have the students performed in such a learning environment? Duke-NUS students take the same national tests in basic science (i.e. the US Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE Step 1) as students in American medical schools. Since its inception, Duke-NUS has year after year, performed significantly better than the US national average. What is most striking however, is the fact that the Duke-NUS curriculum devotes only 1 year to basic science instruction, rather than 2 years which is the norm in the US. Duke University is suitably impressed with TeamLEAD that it ‘transported’ the learning strategy back to Duke University, to be implemented at the School of Medicine and several courses in the undergraduate campus; this learning strategy was touted as one that would revolutionise medical education.  

With the success of TeamLEAD, NUS will be piloting the ‘flipped classroom’ strategy with a number of modules. We hope to harness the active engagement enabled by the ‘flipped classroom’ concept and good use of technology to maximize and personalise learning for our students. We do not advocate using technology for technology’s sake; but we do need to align the way we deliver education with how our students experience today’s technology-driven world in general, and life at the university in particular. Let’s all keep an open mind and see what this new technology-enabled learning strategy has to offer.


Entrepreneurship at NUS


Last month, the Straits Times conducted a survey of about 500 people on the values that mattered most to them. Honesty, kindness and gratitude came up tops. Curiousity was ranked last; creativity and courage were not too far from the bottom. Perhaps the sample size is too small for us to have any conclusive sense. But a few were quick to jump in to say that this is why we do not have great inventions and Nobel laureates.


Do Singaporeans have what it takes to stay relevant, ahead and prosperous in the next 50 years? Singapore has done well in the past 47 years. We have first world infrastructure (some may not agree, with the recent MRT breakdowns), the rule of law, reliable regulatory frameworks, and a hardworking and resilient labour force. But, in this innovation-driven era, ideas, creativity and enterprise – these are what will shape and define our future. You may like to read this great article by Farhad Manjoo on the competition in the IT industry.


Last Friday, I was invited to be a judge for the inaugural NUSSU Test-Bed Programme, a joint initiative by NUSSU and NUS Enterprise. Our students and alumni submitted a total of 63 business proposals, of which 10 were shortlisted to pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges. The panel would select a few of the winning ideas which will be test-bedded in NUS. NUS, with its 45,000 staff and students, provides a ready ‘customer’ base to seed and spawn these ideas.


Entrepreneurship can be a daunting endeavour. It begins with curiosity, ideas and dreams, of a product, technology or service that could bring value to society. However, it does not stop there. The next step entails venturing into the unknown – attempting to translate this idea into fruition. Much work goes into sourcing for support and resources to develop and fine-tune the product or service. And finally, the greatest challenge beholds, to capture and harness the value created in the marketplace.


While we know that it is important to nurture entrepreneurial skills and mindsets, some would say that the Asian upbringing is not particularly conducive for this purpose. In our growing years, many of us try not to question or challenge our parents, elders or teachers too much, as we do not want to be misconstrued as being disrespectful. Many parents prefer their children to pursue tried and tested professional careers, rather than to venture into start-ups.


I am thus very heartened by Friday’s event. The ideas of the 10 shortlisted teams are testament that there are budding seeds of adventure and enterprise within our community. I applaud and commend each team for their efforts. In formulating the business proposals, these students have had to “think outside of the box”, and though the course, they would have developed a sense of opportunism and savvy. It is an experience that textbooks cannot impart, yet the wisdom and acumen gained will come in useful in their future endeavours.  


Eventually, the panel of judges selected 4 proposals for test-bedding at NUS: SnapSell, Intraix, YourKaki and Munshi Labs. SnapSell is an app that will make selling and buying of second-hand items such a breeze and a delight. Intraix is an energy management system which incorporates an interesting gaming/challenge component. YourKaki is a refreshing one-stop community and directory for sport enthusiasts. And finally, Munshi Labs will facilitate researchers, consultancy firms and the like, with an easy database of respondents for research and surveys. There was a proposal (i.e., Clault which ensures security in cloud-based storage and applications) for which the judges thought was highly marketable, but unsuitable for test-bedding in NUS. Congratulations to all the teams for your fine participation.  


I also wanted to also convey the message to our students that if you think you have an enterprising knack, or if you are curious about creativity and innovation, there are developmental avenues and opportunities in NUS you can explore. The NUS Entrepreneurship Centre has been actively supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship endeavours within the university community. The Centre provides physical incubation space to NUS startup companies, and mentoring, financial and marketing support, as well as business network access that is vital for small businesses to thrive and take off.


Or perhaps, you will relish a work-study stint in an entrepreneurial hub. Take a look at the NUS Overseas College Programme (NOC). NOC is a distinct flagship educational programme which gives students the opportunity to be immersed in leading entrepreneurial hubs, such as Silicon Valley, Philadelphia, Stockholm, China, India and Israel. NOC students spend a year in these hubs, working as full-time interns in high-tech start-ups or innovative companies; they learn directly from founders and entrepreneurs, and witness firsthand, the business and operating environment. At the same time, NOC students will read entrepreneurship-related or discipline-based courses at established NUS partner universities at these overseas locations.


Finally, may I share a quote from Samuel Ullman, an American poet. He once aptly described youth as a state of mind – it is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigour of the emotions, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease. This sums up the spirit of entrepreneurship that we hope will flourish in our community. Stay youthful, always!