Education needs to innovate to enable learners to solve real-world problems

By Singapore Institute of Technology

Interdisciplinary elements and industry collaboration can better allow university education to tackle today's social and technological realities, said speakers at the CBExchange APAC 2024 conference.

The panel discussion on 'Developing Competencies for Innovation' explored the key factors driving successful innovation and the need to foster a culture of experimentation. Image: Keng Photography for SIT.

Industry and higher education speakers agreed on the need for closer industry-academia collaboration to solve real-world problems in the closing plenary panel at the CBExchange APAC 2024 conference, “Developing Competencies for Innovation.”


Held from 29 February to 1 March in Singapore, CBExchange APAC 2024 was organised by the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) in partnership with the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), a US-based non-profit advocating for competency-based learning.


A competency-based learning approach differs from the traditional approach as the emphasis is on the ability to apply knowledge and skills in the real-world workplace setting.


At the conference, several speakers referred to competency as the intersection of knowledge, skills application, and attitudes.


The panel speakers were Prof Lim Khiang Wee, Director (Academic Affairs and Research Strategy) from SIT; Prof George Siemens, Chief Scientist with Southern New Hampshire University; and Grace Yip, Managing Director at Accenture. Amber Garrison Duncan, Executive Vice-President, Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), moderated the hour-long panel discussion.

Call for closer industry-academia collaboration

“As skillsets continue to evolve, there is a need for more than just funding to support workers in their pursuit of continuous learning,” said Yip from Accenture.


She emphasised the importance of leveraging digital and AI solutions to address the existing friction points within the skills ecosystem. By fostering collaboration among government, corporations and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs), we can better equip workers with the latest skills and ensure that they are job-ready to perform effectively in the workplace.


Prof Lim Khiang Wee, Director (Academic Affairs and Research Strategy), SIT (left), shared that the university is innovative in delivering unique degree programmes for undergraduates and adult learners. Image: Keng Photography for SIT.

Speaking to GovInsider, Prof Lim said that an important motivation for universities to innovate is to address real-world problems in consultation with industry. 


"Real-world problems are not confined by discipline boundaries, and solutions usually require interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, when you produce food for people with dysphagia, you need people who possess knowledge of the type of food dysphagia patients can swallow and those who have the engineering knowhow to quantify the characteristics of such food to streamline the production process," said Prof Lim.

Important to recognise failure as part of innovation

“Innovation often involves risk-taking and embracing failure as a valuable aspect of the learning process,” said Yip. She acknowledged that fostering a culture that embraces failure still remains a challenge in Singapore and Asia. Nevertheless, the ability to learn from failure and bounce back is a competency on its own.


Prof Lim said there is an emphasis on instilling a growth mindset among SIT students. For example, SIT takes an innovative approach to delivering its bachelor's degree programme in applied computing through the Competency-based Stackable Micro-credential (CSM) pathway.


The pathway offers flexibility for working adults to take bite-sized modules called micro-credentials that cover key competencies required in the workplace.  Micro-credentials can be earned alone or stacked towards a bachelor's degree.


Under the CSM pathway, learners who fail a test are classified as 'work-in-progress'. They are scaffolded to pick up again from the weak areas and can have multiple attempts to achieve the desired workplace competencies.


Additionally, the university trains academic staff to handle failure when an experimental teaching approach doesn't meet the intended outcome. They are constantly encouraged to try new ways of doing things even if it doesn't work well the first time.  


Since its 2022 academic year, SIT has rolled out five university-level modules focusing on core critical skills needed to “navigate the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world” across all its degree programmes.


These core critical skills include curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration.

Skills-based hiring is the way forward

All the speakers collectively acknowledged the good work of SkillsFuture Singapore’s national skills frameworks in guiding the transition towards competency-based growth and learning at the macro level.


Grace Yip from Accenture mentioned that talents do not necessarily have to come from conventional paths and stressed the importance of the skill-based hiring approach. Image: Keng Photography for SIT.

“Gone are the days when employers simply picked talents from prestigious universities or top technology consulting companies,” said Yip.


“We have embraced a competency-driven approach and are leveraging technology to assess and find the right proclivities that people have that fit our organisational needs.”


She further highlighted that adopting a skills-based hiring approach can lead to social mobility. In Accenture’s case, she observed a more gender-diverse talent pool following this approach. 


“We assess whether we are attracting a good number of women, not just because they’re women, but rather their proficiency in their skillsets through a more competency-driven approach. This way, we get past the biases you typically see in interviews,” she explained.

Prof Siemens from Southern New Hampshire University also cautioned about the “crumbling degree cartel” situation in the US, where hiring relies less and less on degree requirements – previously a must-have for high-paying jobs.


“This is partially due to the fact that there are a lot of innovative academic programmes offered by tech partners. Whether you’re looking for a project manager or a data scientist, what matters more isn’t necessarily what you have for a formal stamp, but your experience and what you can do on the job,” he explained.


Hence, universities find themselves challenged to remain relevant, provide added value to their learners and meet the rapidly evolving workforce needs. Prof Lim pointed out that it is important for academic staff across IHLs to align themselves with the shift towards a skills-based teaching and learning approach.