Let's make university education more practical

The work of engineers, architects, scientists, accountants, financial analysts, doctors, nurses, lawyers, and other professionals is rapidly being changed by productivity- enhancing tools. Driven by improvements in computers, the Internet and software, the economics of these tools has been improving for decades and new tools continue to emerge, changing the work of professionals, improving their productivity and, in some cases, reducing the demand for them.

For example, computers automatically perform calculations, create drawings and find information, thus requiring engineers, architects and scientists to do more high-level conceptual design. For accountants and financial analysts, computers do most of the calculations and even audits, thus requiring them to think more strategically about a business. Even nurses and doctors are using more devices to access information and do calculations, thus changing their work.

In all the professions, using productivity-enhancing tools, understanding what will be next for the tools and their impact on work, and even being the ones to devise the next generation of tools are becoming increasingly important tasks in a professional's career.

Surprisingly, these issues are rarely covered in university programmes because of two simple facts: university courses are taught from academic journals and journals do not cover these issues because they focus on theory, not practice.

As most readers are aware, publishing in journals is the primary method by which universities evaluate professors and thus professors spend large amounts of time reading and writing journal articles.

What many readers probably don't realise, however, is that this emphasis on publishing means that journals form the basis for courses because these journals purportedly represent the core knowledge of the discipline and thus what should be taught in courses.

In other words, if something is not covered in a discipline's main academic journals, it is not important to the discipline and if that something involves practice more than theory, the journals will not cover it.

From my experience as a technology consultant who studied in America and has taught in universities in Japan and Singapore, I find that even engineering faculties do not discuss the increasing automation of work although their graduates develop the productivity-enhancing tools.

Instead, they emphasise the science and mathematics that are covered by journals and thus engineers become much more skilled at understanding explanations for physical phenomena and doing low-level calculations than at understanding productivity-enhancing tools or developing real products and services.

Although engineering departments generally provide their students access to more of the productivity-enhancing tools than do other academic departments, they rarely discuss the future of these tools and the drivers of them.

Even electrical engineering programmes focus primarily on the theoretical aspects of these tools and not the drivers of their improvements or their impact on the future work of engineers.

I taught a course on technology change for seven years at the National University of Singapore (NUS) that helped students understand how improvements in computers, the Internet and software are enabling new forms of work, products and services. It was a popular course in terms of evaluations and number of students, attracting students from across many NUS faculties.

The research that forms the basis for the course even attracted interest from media outlets such as the Financial Times.

However, these types of accomplishments are frequently dismissed by universities because they would rather have students read academic articles than learn about real innovations, even though the serial entrepreneur Elon Musk calls most academic articles useless and few corporate engineers and scientists read academic papers.

Others told me that students should study the millennium development goals, which are important but do not replace the importance of understanding real products and services.

I also often met mathematics graduates who had not heard of Big Data or engineering students who had not heard of the Internet of Things. When I mentioned this to faculty, they argued stridently that it was the student's job to learn about these things on their own.

In all these discussions, I rarely met engineering faculty who were aware of new products and services in their field simply because they were too busy doing research that apparently has nothing to do with products and services that are being introduced.

With a PhD in engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University, I know that most United States universities also emphasise theoretical research more than practical courses.

Books criticising an excessive emphasis on research, a lack of practical courses, and rising tuitions are fuelling intense conversations about the future of university education in America.

Mr Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, argues in Higher Education in America that "most faculty members prefer to teach the kinds of specialised courses and seminars that are closely aligned with their scholarly interests. Not surprisingly, teaching what professors know best does not always coincide with what undergraduates most need to learn".

Mr Andrew Hacker and Ms Claudia Dreifus similarly argue in their book Higher Education? that "curriculums are filled with lists and locutions, along with quasi-theories from academic journals".

They add that these " are so specialised that course offerings proliferate, thwarting a cogent understanding of ourselves and our world".

What will Singapore do?

I believe that Singapore's leaders recognise the above-mentioned problems and thus the challenge is to translate their words into action.

For example, a recent Straits Times article that summarised Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's comments about education was entitled "Children must be ready for jobs that do not yet exist".

Two years ago, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam argued that universities need to go beyond science and help students "have lifelong learning that is integrated with the real world, developments in technology".

Both these comments emphasise the importance of helping students deal with the world around them of which the future of work, the products and services that are being commercialised, and the organisations that are commercialising them are examples of practical things that students must learn if they are to deal with the real world.

For me, I will continue to help young Singaporeans learn about the world, partly because I am the proud father of a young Singaporean.

• The writer is a technology consultant retired from the National University of Singapore Faculty of Engineering and is completing a book on America's system of research and development.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2017, with the headline 'Let's make university education more practical'. Print Edition | Subscribe