NUS Partners Coursera

The phenomenon of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has taken off rapidly. Many leading universities are exploring and leveraging on MOOC platforms. Coursera, an educational technology company based at Stanford University, is one of the major providers of free online learning. Formed in January 2012, Coursera has more than 3 million registered students, and has garnered 62 university partners. NUS joined Coursera as a partner university in February 2013.


Why did NUS join Coursera?


First, the partnership with Coursera will provide NUS with a global presence and online visibility, adding significantly to our international outreach efforts. It is not unusual for a Coursera course to draw an enrolment of more than 100,000 students. (In fact, currently, nearly 16,000 students enrolled in Coursera courses are from Singapore.) This gives an idea of the university’s potential reach through Coursera.


Secondly and more pertinently, the partnership with Coursera will allow NUS to leverage on the Coursera platform for our own modules. Through Coursera, NUS professors will be able to deliver new and better forms of technology-enhanced education that will augment our students’ learning experiences.


Let me explain.


The Coursera platform is well-developed, intuitive to use and very adaptable. It has the capacity and capability to host online courses at a level of sophistication beyond that of other existing platforms. Apart from the ease of uploading material and the plug-and-play features, Coursera also integrates peer assessments, guided exercises, learning checklists and data analytics, which allow course instructors to continually ascertain their students’ learning, and to calibrate accordingly.


Apart from sharing and showcasing NUS courses online to the world at large, the Coursera platform will allow us to expand the enrolment of heavily-subscribed modules at NUS. We are aware that there is a strong demand for some modules and they attract high bid points, year after year. We have erstwhile been constrained by various factors, such as the capacity of lecture theatres and availability of lecturers. Through Coursera, we will be able to circumvent some of these constraints, to enable more NUS students to have access to the modules they want to read.


In terms of infrastructure, NUS is the largest educational wireless setup in Southeast Asia and we are well-equipped to support online learning and other forms of technology-enhanced education. In collaboration with infocomm providers NCS and Cisco, NUS has successfully implemented a flexible, scalable and high-speed wireless network across its Kent Ridge and Bukit Timah campuses. To allow our users to enjoy seamless wireless access, even the internal shuttle buses on campus are equipped with mobile wireless access points via 3G routers. As such, our students and staff can watch a video or surf the Internet uninterrupted.


Coursera is an exciting development as we strive to build our own technology-enhanced education culture on campus. That said, students should not worry that we are planning to rely on MOOCs to replace face-to-face teaching. We remain focused on our top priority, that is, to enhance our students’ learning experience. Coursera is a tool; it however cannot replicate the campus experience; neither can it replace face-to-face interactions with the course instructor or with classmates. We expect to continue with face-to-face sessions while leveraging on the Coursera platform; internal NUS modules that utilise the Coursera platform will have tutorial sessions that focus on higher order skills and deeper engagement.


I will share more details in the following months. In the meantime, interested students can preview the NUS-Coursera page here. The first two public courses that NUS will be launching on the Coursera platform are ‘Write like Mozart: An Introduction to Classical Music Composition’ by Associate Professor Peter Edwards of the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music; and ‘Unpredictable? Randomness, Chance and Free Will’ by Professor Valerio Scarani of the Centre for Quantum Technologies and the Department of Physics. Both courses will commence in January 2014. Feel free to sign up for these courses, or to explore the other courses offered on Coursera. Happy learning!

Pause for a Moment to Savour the Beauty

I was struck by the following message on NUS Confessions. This message posted at night on 31 Mar 2013 was simple but poignant, and it resonated with me.  I reproduce it here in full:


“My friend and I stayed overnight at Utown last night, we sat outside Starbucks throughout the night, doing our work slowly and having some laughs at random and trivial things that we said and did. People who knew us asked (with “oh i am really sad for you” eyes) if we were rushing projects. No we were not, we wanted to stay overnight because we wanted things to slow down, time to pass less quickly, we wanted to enjoy the breeze at Starbucks without having to rush for the last train. 


The truth is, I am graduating and I am starting to miss being part of this physical space, I am starting to feel the amount time left for me to be “in the moment” with the surroundings in school is only that little. Just because we are burdened with the fight with the bell curve and there’s a need to excel amidst it, we often unknowingly forgo the experience of being just as who we are and who we want to be in this physical space. 


It was a quiet and slow night, I had a lot of flashbacks of snippets of memories with different NUS friends (who were once just project mates), memories from mundane activities. Many times we think it is the fun and exciting things that we will miss the most, but in fact it is not, but the ordinary activities we do like eating bee hoon from The Deck, sharing a molten chocolate cake from Starbucks, walking along the link ways, meeting people you haven’t seen for semesters and getting encouragements from them. 


There are just way too many simple things that warm your heart (and you may not even realise it until you stop getting all these), but we are too caught up in the race we forget to slow down, to pause for a moment (or a day) to savor the beauty of these things. I know week 11 is coming up and many of us have endless reports and assignments/projects to complete, but trust me, take half day off from the race and just chill in school, you won’t regret.”


In the hustle and bustle of life, we are all too caught up in our own affairs – studies, activities and what have you. (Myself included – I have been told I am a workaholic.) How often do we pause to relax and reflect? Or to simply allow ourselves to experience and enjoy doing nothing?


The next few weeks will be particularly stressful for most of you, but heed this advice – take some time off to chill out in school. And I agree with the author of the above message – you won’t regret it. Best wishes for your examinations!

My Visit to the School of Biomedical Sciences at King’s College London

King’s College London is one of the leading universities in the UK. In early April 2013, I was at King’s College London to sign an agreement on two concurrent degrees. With this new agreement, each year, six students will have the opportunity to participate in one of two concurrent degree programmes. The first is a BSc (Hons) in Life Sciences and an MRes in Molecular Biophysics; the second is a BSc (Hons) in Life Sciences or Chemistry, and MSc in Forensic Science or Analytical Toxicology. Students reading these concurrent degrees will spend the first three years at NUS to earn their Honours degree, and the fourth year at King’s College London to read their Master’s degree. During the course of the undergraduate degree, students may also spend a semester or two at King’s College London under the Student Exchange Programme (SEP).


NUS is mindful that there are costs associated with these overseas learning opportunities. For students participating in these concurrent degree programmes with King’s College London, the NUS Faculty of Science has worked out arrangements with various parties to help mitigate the higher costs of living in London. NUS students going on SEP and other overseas learning programmes may also apply for NUS Awards for Study Abroad (NASA) Scholarships. In addition, students from needy Singaporean families may apply for NASA Bursaries.


This agreement between King’s College London and NUS represents yet another effort in our endeavour to enhance opportunities for NUS students to partake in global learning. A lot of effort goes on (often behind the scenes) to ink an SEP agreement. The latest agreement for example, was mooted in 2008. It took six years of hard work and negotiations by the NUS Faculty of Science and the School of Biomedical Sciences, King’s College London, to reach this positive outcome. 


Today, about 1,700 NUS students will go abroad each year on SEP with one of our 300 partners overseas. At the same time, as part of the exchange agreements, NUS will host a similar number of foreign students from our partner universities. Managing such a large number of student movements is no trivial task – each of these 3,400 incoming and outgoing students has his or her specific issues which we need to help address. These include, amongst others, selection of host university, courses to read, mapping courses back to fulfill degree requirements, accommodation, travel arrangements, food, insurance and financial aid.


I recall, when I was a Sub-Dean at the NUS Faculty of Science in the mid 1990s, I did not have to deal with such issues, simply because we did not have any exchange programmes then! The system has since evolved rapidly. We now have many more academic programmes and pathways that students can choose from, according to their interests and inclinations. With these choices and options, the system has become far more complex, and the range of issues and administrative tedium to contend with has also increased in tandem.


Nevertheless, NUS will press on. There is much value in an overseas stint, to broaden one’s perspectives and to hone one’s global awareness and cross-cultural skills. NUS will continue to expand the opportunities for our students to spend time abroad. We hope that in the next few years, at least 70%  of NUS students will have gone for at least one overseas learning programme. In the years ahead, we expect to send about 2,000 NUS students overseas on SEP and other semester-long programmes, and receive a similar number of incoming students every year.


One interesting opportunity that I would like to encourage our students to explore is the STEER Programme (Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment). The STEER programme is a rare opportunity for students to gain exposure to less conventional, yet rapidly emerging regions. The programme combines classroom-based learning which is augmented with site visits to personally experience the social, cultural, economic, political and business environments of these thriving regions. Under the STEER programme, NUS students have visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India (Hyderabad, Mumbai) and China. Two more new programmes to Myanmar and Brazil have been planned for 2013. Do check out the International Relations Office website for more information on the STEER programme.

EduSports Complex at University Town

Welcome back to a new semester!  I would like to wish one and all an exciting and fulfilling 2013.

As we begin a new year, I am also happy to announce the opening of a brand new facility at UTown – the EduSports Complex.


Designed as a mixed-use complex, EduSports has something for everyone.  For the sports enthusiast, there is a rock climbing wall, a well-equipped gym to challenge your strength and endurance, two multipurpose sports halls with badminton and basketball courts, as well as a recreational pool.

Challenge your skill and perseverance at the 15-metre high rock climbing wall (Photo by Leong Mun Wai)

If you are more inclined towards the performing arts, there are dance studios and orchestra practice rooms.

The NUS Wind Symphony in action at a practice room.
A bookstore on campus for e-gadgets, books and more
Flavours@UTown (food court) on level 2

EduSports also offers a range of dining choices, including a large food court overlooking Town Green, Japanese, Taiwanese and vegan food outlets.  For those with a passion to read, Book Haven, stocks a range of books, magazines as well as e-reading gadgets. For students or staff looking for a space for an activity or simply a group discussion, there are seminar rooms, an auditorium and four lecture theatres, as well as open discussion spaces which you can utilise. The ground level of EduSports features a  Visitors Centre, which is co-located with the NUS Office of Admissions.

The completion of the EduSports Complex brings  the construction of UTown to completion. The sporting and arts dimensions offered by EduSports complement the existing educational facilities at the Education Resource Centre, bringing full circle to our vision of UTown as a pulsating hub for both academic pursuits as well as the holistic development of our students.

When we conceived of and planned for UTown, we wanted UTown to be a place that will enrich the experiences of all our staff and students. It is exciting to see how UTown is shaping up and I hope that UTown will form part of the fond memories you have of NUS.

See you around the campus and at UTown soon!




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