Thinking Aloud

Just what will we learn in the future and how?

As industries are disrupted, new skills will be needed, along with a love for life and learning

Commuters are cheering that taxis seem easier to come by and rides a little more affordable even as cabbies seem grumpier than usual at the way their lives are being disrupted by technology.

That's a familiar story by now. But the wave of change unleashed by the likes of Uber and GrabTaxi is also being felt in unexpected places, including the hallowed halls of universities around the world.

Ponder this: a major global company declares that it will consider hiring anyone who completes a specified list of

courses from the growing array of tertiary programmes available online. The company might set up an in-house system for assessing and grading potential hires, awarding its own Bachelor of Arts (Google), for example.

Alternatively, it could outsource this to a credible third party, call it GrabDegree, which could pull together the courses, track students' progress, grade them, and award certificates.


What then would universities and professors do?

Or consider a world where graduates have to continually "update" their degrees, as knowledge grows and new information emerges in their fields of study, just as people routinely download newer versions of apps on their smartphones.

This might mean having to return to the books or classroom - or some virtual form of this - from time to time, long after they have left the university.

These thought-provoking scenarios emerged during a closed-door discussion on the Future of Learning at the Nanyang Technological University, as part of the inaugural Nobel Prize Series held here recently.

I was privileged to join the roundtable, which included Nobel laureates from around the world, educators, employers, entrepreneurs and students. The new Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung also attended, and listened intently, summing up what he had learnt from the two-hour session briefly but cogently at the end.

What if, one speaker wondered, the average lifespan for people in developed countries reaches 100 years and workers stay in employment till 80? Would the current model of front-loading university education into four years early in people's lives still make sense?

Or would universities be places you might return to periodically over the years, to learn and relearn, as you transitioned from one role to another in a portfolio of careers, so as to remain employable?

Rather than throwing up pat answers to such imponderables, participants engaged in some rigorous questioning of the question, in the best scholarly traditions.

If indeed most people lived till 100, and with all the relentless advancements in technology, from 3D printing to robotics, would there still be a need for people to spend most of their lives working? Would full employment still be a goal that societies strived for?

Or would new social and economic systems emerge that made work - that daily drudgery for many, alas - even necessary for everyone, all the time? Instead, work might be done a few days a week, or a few months in a year, or for a spell of time, interspersed with periods of recreation and other pursuits?

If so, just what would people do with all that time on their hands? How will they fill their days? What would give their lives meaning and purpose?

The mind boggles.

No doubt such musings might seem like an intellectual indulgence to pragmatic Singaporean parents, more concerned about their children finding well-paying jobs in the here and now.

But the questions are worth pondering, as the challenge of what, why and how we should teach our young today, to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow, is a real and pressing one.

Consider the media industry, which like so many others is facing massive disruption from digital technologies. I recounted during the session how fresh graduates from NTU's well-regarded Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information whom we hire often have a head start over other fresh graduates. They come to us "job-ready", with the skills needed to plug-and-play in the multimedia newsroom that The Straits Times has been transformed into. Our journalists no longer file news reports just for print, but also for online. They work not just with words, but also pictures, graphics and videos.

Increasingly, the ability to code, and marry the processing of information with the technical know-how to produce engaging content, is what will set these young talents apart.

Yet, unless these new NTU recruits continue to learn, and develop not just their craft and technical skills but also deepen their understanding of other critical areas, such as economics, history, or literature, the initial skills gap they enjoy is often closed by other graduates before long.

In other words, while skills and information are necessary, the future belongs to those with the underlying ability to learn and an undying passion for knowledge. In a sense, we will all need to be "philosophers", which translates from Greek as "lovers of wisdom".

Indeed, many participants at the roundtable agreed that apart from technical skills, the most important things that young people will need in the future are: the right values, curiosity to question and seek out new knowledge, resilience to deal with change, social skills to get along with people of all cultures and backgrounds, and a good understanding of their common humanity.

Put simply, the future of learning will be about helping the young discover and understand what it means to be human.

Yet, ironically, isn't that what learning has been about through the ages? Perhaps the Greek philosopher Aristotle was right when he said, "everything changes, everything stays the same".

I left the discussion with profoundly mixed feelings. Amid all the talk of keeping up with relentless change, part of me was a little relieved that my days of having to mug for and take exams are well behind me.

But as I walked through the NTU's futuristic Hive building and surveyed the bright, young things buzzing about their day, looking so fresh and vibrant, with the world at their feet, I could not help but feel a little wistful. What great possibilities lie ahead of them, I thought, and yearned to be back at my alma mater, as I was 25 years ago this year, starting the process of learning and discovering life all over again.

Sure, there would be many changes and challenges along the way, some interesting or intriguing, others risky or even daunting, but life would surely triumph over all.

To my mind, that eternal hope for, and belief in, humanity, a sense that we all share a role and responsibility for shaping the future and taking things forward, is the greatest gift we can give our young. That, to me, is what the future of learning is all about.

Or, as American poet Walt Whitman put it in those immortal words:

"Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring, Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish...

The question: What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here - that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 15, 2015, with the headline 'Just what will we learn in the future and how? ThinkingAloud'. Subscribe