Thursday, June 23, 2011

Education in the Era of Knowledge Economy

 Recently I was invited by Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) as a panelist in a forum that discussed about the impact of curriculum on graduate employability. One participant (a student) raised the issue about the relevance of curriculum with the actual demand of the job market, i.e., whether what they learn in three or four years curriculum is adequate to prepare them for the real job. Another participant (a teacher counselor) also echoed the same concern of their students, especially at a point when the students are deciding which programme to take at the degree level. For example, if a student take a programme in Forensic Science, would he/she end up working as a forensic personnel?

I think in some professional courses such as medicine, pharmacy, law and perhaps engineering, it is reasonable to expect that the graduates would end up as medical doctors, pharmacists, lawyers and engineers because there is always a great demand for them in the government (public) and private sectors. Unfortunately the situation is different for other disciplines. So if a student has a degree in Chemistry, he/she might not end up working as a chemist but perhaps as an officer in public administration. What's wrong with this? Well, they might say that they are not trained to do administration because they were trained to become a chemist -- so what they have learned is wasted. I think this is a challenge for educators to make our students understand and appreciate the fact that whatever they have learned in their degree will become part of their knowledge, perhaps in this case, a specialized knowledge in chemistry. We have to educate our students to have a larger sense of purpose when come to education, that is to think of the tertiary education as a platform, or as a stepping stone, or as a launchpad for them to explore the 'real world' outside the comfort boundary of the ivory tower.

According to Alvin Toffler, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. In this regard, curriculum in any degree programme should be designed in such a manner that our graduate is equipped with various learning and thinking skills to make them more VERSATILE, FLEXIBLE, RESOURCEFUL, and ADAPTABLE. When our graduates posses these skills then they will be able to learn new skills and adapt readily to new environment. I cannot emphasize more the need that the innovative teaching approaches be integrated with appropriate student-centered learning environment so that the skill of "learn how to learn" can be imparted more effectively. Cognitive research on learning suggests that "how people learn is more important than what people learn in the achievement of successful learning" (OECD 2001, page 20).

We should take cognizant that we are living through a period of dynamic transformation in all aspects of our lives and this transformation is catalyzed by a profound change of economic model and rapid advancement in technology. We have seen the world moving from a resource-based (agricultural) economy to industrial economy (much dependent on labour and natural resources such as coal) and now rapidly into a so-called knowledge-based economy, in which knowledge is the key resource.

Knowledge economy has been defined as: in which the generation and the exploitation of knowledge has come to play the predominant part in the creation of wealth. It is not simply about pushing back the frontiers of knowledge; it is also about the more effective use of  all types of knowledge in all manner of economic activity.
The knowledge economy increasing relies on the diffusion and the use of knowledge, as well as its creation. Hence the success of enterprises, and of national economies as a whole, will become more reliant upon their effectiveness in gathering, absorbing and utilizing knowledge, as well as in its creation (Houghton and Sheehan, 2000).

It is obvious that the emergence of the global knowledge economy present new challenges and inevitably will bring about a great impact on our education system. Furthermore, the application of knowledge is all aspects of the economy is being greatly facilitated by the rapid advancement in information, computing and communication (ICT) technologies. Therefore, it is imperative that the transformation in economic model and unprecedented pace in knowledge generation/dissemination be aligned to a similar transformation in education...but how do we go about it? What does our national education system need to do in response to knowledge-based growth? What can educators do to meet the challenge. Do we have to wait for some new policies in place or can we start something on our own initiative to bring transformation into our own practices in teaching and learning environment?

To deal with the new demands and challenges of knowledge economy, lifelong learning has been suggested as a new model to prepare human capital (in most literature the term 'skilled workers' is commonly used) to compete in the global economy.
"A lifelong learning framework encompasses learning throughout the lifecycle, from early childhood through retirement. It encompasses formal learning (schools, training institutions, universities); nonformal learning (structured on-the-job training); and informal learning (skills learned from family members or people in the community). It allows people to access learning opportunities as they need them rather than because they have reached a certain age. (The World Bank Report, 2003).
The next question is, how do we incorporate lifelong learning model into our existing educational framework? It is obvious that our educational systems can no longer emphasis task-specific skills but must focus instead on developing learners' decision-making and problem-solving skills and teaching them how to learn on their own and with others (The World Bank Report, 2003). Achieving these goals requires a fundamental change in the way learning takes place and the relationship between learner and teacher. Our graduates need to be equipped with the essential skills and competencies they need to succeed in knowledge economy era. These skills include mastery of technical, interpersonal, and methodological skills. Technical skills include literacy, foreign language, math, science, problem-solving, and analytical skills. Interpersonal skills include teamwork, leadership, and communication skills. Methodological skills include ability to learn on one's own, to pursue lifelong learning, and to cope with risk and change.

I believe that a systemic (thorough) reform of our education system is urgently needed. Education reform or transformation actually has been a recurrent theme not only in Malaysia but globally. So what are we doing about it and where are we heading? Yes, we have a seemingly comprehensive National Higher Education Action Plan (2007-2010). Here I cite some statements (verbatim) from the document with respect to teaching and learning:
"We must produce confident students with a sense of balance and proportion. While an individual may specialize in a certain area, his or her perspective should be enriched by other experiences as well. The Ministry of Higher Education will thus introduce a holistic programme that will cut across all disciplines and focus on communication and entrepreneurial skills. The programme, which is intended to build a balanced perspective in all students, will expose them to subjects beyond their area of specialisation. For example, students reading for degrees in the sciences such as medicine, engineering and chemistry will be exposed to courses covering literature and philosophy. Likewise, students in the humanities will be exposed to the rudiments of science and technology, and certainly, ICT."

"Dynamic and relevant curriculum and pedagogy are needed to ensure the health and strength of an institution. Inter-disciplinary approaches to the design of higher education curricula will build and stimulate creativity, innovation, leadership and entrepreneurship. Curricula must also equip undergraduates with appropriate skills to enable them to compete in an ever-changing market. Curricula must be reviewed, and courses that are no longer relevant must be removed. Peer review and industry collaboration must be enhanced in curricula development and evaluation".
Reading through the whole document giving me the impression that our educational reform is very much in line with the lifelong learning model proposed in the World Bank Report. In fact, lifelong learning was specifically mentioned (National Higher Education Action Plan [2007-2010], page 39) and has been identified as one of the Critical Agenda Projects (CAP). Other CAPs directly related to teaching and learning are "Teaching and Learning" and "E-learning". I want to be optimistic about the successful implementation of the Action Plan but having seen the detail of how the various CAPs are being managed and executed...I have my doubt. But again, I always believe that we don't really have to wait for the policy or strategic plan to come in place. The initiative can be taken by parties at different levels -- institution, faculty/department, and individual (educators).

Further readings: