Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?” But making a difference is easier said than done: many have the heart to make an impact, but only a few know how to go about doing so.

The Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS)’s online platform, UniLEARN, aims to help members of the public develop competencies to serve the community beyond their personal needs. It teaches skills such as suicide prevention and marriage counselling. This is one of its efforts to lead social change for the greater good.

The university is also using virtual reality and data analytics to help students learn more effectively in the classroom. Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President of SUSS, shares how the school is committed to making a positive impact on society.

We rise by lifting others

SUSS has embarked on a series of initiatives for social good, one of these is the online learning platform UniLEARN. Its main aim is to nurture volunteers who are adept at tackling social problems, Cheong shares.

For example, it has a course that teaches basic suicide prevention skills to prospective volunteers with Samaritans of Singapore, which runs a crisis intervention hotline. The programme will teach listening, empathising, and questioning skills so volunteers may guide callers through their struggles.

The e-learning platform also has a course for participants to learn how to befriend former inmates and provide much-needed emotional support in their reintegration journey.

“We are working with charities to upload their learning material online because volunteers need training to become good at what they do,” Cheong shares. So far, over 20,000 have benefitted from the 50 courses on UniLEARN.

UniLEARN’s other goal is to encourage more people to volunteer in the social services sector. “When learners come into this space, we want to influence them to volunteer with different types of charities and take part in various causes,” he adds.

At the same time, when social service agencies gather on UniLEARN, they “can exchange knowledge on how they are leading their organisations, and training and managing their volunteers,” Cheong says. Taking in each other’s best practices can benefit the industry as a whole.

The pandemic gave us the best opportunity to learn

UniLEARN offered 14 free courses during Singapore’s lockdown. Some of these aptly addressed challenges the pandemic either caused or intensified.

One course teaches participants how to help married couples through their relationship woes. Divorce rates spiked in many countries when pandemic lockdowns began, according to BBC. This course came at an appropriate time when couples had to work through their marital problems.

UniLEARN also gave cabin crew who were temporarily out of work free access to the ‘Understanding Autism’ course for a limited period in 2020. As countries closed their borders and international travel came to a standstill, a wave of mass layoffs swept across the airline industry.

UniLEARN’s course helped them to make productive use of their time during this period of uncertainty. It taught participants how to provide better care for passengers with autism, which is in line with “SUSS’ vision of a more inclusive society,” Cheong notes.

Participants learned how to understand autism better and recognise some possible causes. More than 10,000 cabin crew globally have benefitted from it.

Tech as an integral component of learning 

As a university, SUSS’s first concern is to develop future talents who are professionally competent and socially conscious. The university is using virtual reality to simulate scenarios that students might face when they step into the working world.

For example, students may take on the role of a social worker to practice giving support to an at-risk family. Afterwards, they can reflect on the session to analyse how they have performed.

Cheong hopes that this initiative can give students the opportunity to problem-solve. “Our students will encounter many different challenges in the real world, but they can’t possibly be running back to us for help all the time,” he notes.

The university is using data analytics to improve student performance as well. It records how many classes each student takes, their exam performance, and how many courses they enroll in and drop out of every semester.

SUSS uses this data for two purposes. First, teachers can pay attention to weaker students who are falling behind. “We want to help students get out of the red and into the black,” Cheong says.

The data can also prompt a student to unload some classes if they have too much on their plate. The majority of SUSS students are adult learners who have to juggle school on top of work commitments, he explains.

Second, the data can motivate students who are already doing well to achieve even higher grades. For example, there may be students who only fall slightly short of achieving first-class honours. “But if they see that they are so close to reaching the next band, the data tells them to keep up the good work and strive for greater heights,” Cheong shares.

SUSS will continue to expand the courses under UniLEARN as part of its mission to spark greater interest in the social service sector. Hopefully, the platform will equip participants with the competencies to lead change and engage in social action for the common good.