Economic disruptions brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution have been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, said Gan Siow Huang, Minister of State, Ministry of Education, at the Applied Learning Conference (ALC) 2022.

It is against this backdrop that higher education is placing a greater emphasis on industry-related skills, she continued. This premise formed the basis of the discussion at the Conference, which was organised by the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).

Over two days in January, educators discussed the importance of skill-based learning and coaching to prepare students for the workforce. They also explored how educators and institutions can keep up with industry trends and a rapidly evolving economy.

Applied knowledge 

“Education must move out of the ivory tower. In doing so, we need to be a close collaborator with the industry to train the future workforce,” said Associate Professor May Lim, Director of the Centre for Learning Environment and Assessment Development (CoLEAD) at SIT, one of the speakers at ALC.

Collaboration with the industry entails asking employers what they are looking for in a graduate and how they intend to assess these skills, explained Dr Charla Long, President of the Competency-Based Education Network.

Effective academic programmes will reflect these expectations, she added.

In SIT, all students are required to be attached to a company for eight to 12 months, said Professor Chua Kee Chaing, the university’s President. This immerses students into a real work environment and offers a taste of what working as a full-time staff is like, he explained.

The university’s Integrated Work Study Programme has been successful, with more than half of SIT’s graduates receiving advance employment offers from their attached companies from 2018 to 2020.

Likewise in the United Kingdom, Sheffield Hallam University requires all its students to go through work-related learning every year. Every department and research centre also consults with business owners to ensure their teachings are relevant to the real world, shared its Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Chris Husbands.

Educators to provide personal guidance

Educators need to go beyond teaching and into coaching to prepare students for work, said A/Prof Lim.

“Coaching is about partnering with students in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximise their personal and professional talent,” she explained. Educators take a non-directive approach and ask questions instead of providing instant solutions, said Ramesh Shahdadpuri, Senior Educational Developer at CoLEAD, SIT.

In focus group sessions conducted by SIT, students highlighted the desire to learn skills needed for the real world, such as how to maintain a work life balance and problem-solving in the workforce. Educators can help students learn such skills through coaching.

There are many coachable moments throughout a student’s time in school, highlighted A/Prof Lim. For instance, educators can coach struggling students in time management, rather than penalising them only for late work or poor grades.

Additionally, educators can use coaching to prepare students for work. When a student is going through their internship, they can prompt them to think about how to fit into an organisation’s work culture or how to communicate in the workplace.

Coaching from her professor helped Nadia – a final-year student from SIT – evaluate her career options. The coaching session with her professor helped her consider her longer term career goals and be more critical when applying for jobs, she shared during the Conference.

In Sheffield Hallam, students also receive guidance on entering the workforce. Each student is attached to three advisors  – one each to support their academic, employability, and personal needs, said Sir Chris.

Institutions too need to support educators in their efforts to guide students.

Educators at SIT are required to go through a two-day workshop where they learn key coaching skills such as building rapport, questioning, and giving feedback, said Ramesh. They then put these skills into practice through case studies and role play.

At the end of the workshop, participants go through an assessment where they are tasked to coach a student based on a realistic academic setting scenario. The participants will then receive feedback on how they can improve on their coaching skills, explained Ramesh.

The role of universities 

Universities can also help students succeed through competency-based education. This approach assesses students on their mastery of skills instead of time- or grade-based milestones which traditional education focuses on, explains Long.

For example, if someone wants to learn how to fly a plane, traditional education may require them to score 80 per cent and above to graduate. This means that even if they are bad at landing the plane, they may still pass the course if they excel in all other areas. Meanwhile, competency-based education will require them to master every process.

“You can’t get by on the sum of the whole. Each individual part must be mastered,” Long emphasised.

Competency-based learning can be integrated into workplace learning to help employees upskill, shared Prof Chua. In 2021, the university piloted competency-based workplace learning for two degree programmes in Infocomm Technology and Sustainable Infrastructure Engineering.

This pathway teaches learners new skills through curated projects at their workplaces. This ensures that the company’s training needs are met, while helping learners upskill, he explained.

Much like raising a child, it takes a village of industry players, educators, and universities to help students succeed in the workplace.