‘Why play a ro­bot’s role?’

Vice-provost fights to up­grade NUS

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - John.ross@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Some univer­sity ex­ec­u­tives drive their staff to do more. Bernard Tan’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is en­sur­ing that they do less.

As se­nior vice-provost (un­der­grad­u­ate ed­u­ca­tion) at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore, Pro­fes­sor Tan (pic­tured inset) launches reg­u­lar cam­paigns against un­nec­es­sary pro­cesses. The prime mo­ti­va­tion is not to in­crease ef­fi­ciency, he in­sists, but rather to boost the univer­sity’s ap­peal.

“We like to think that we are al­ways in­no­vat­ing, so that prospec­tive stu­dents will find us fresh,” said Pro­fes­sor Tan. “We are a 100-yearold univer­sity. It doesn’t mean we have to act like an old per­son.

“As a top univer­sity, we have a rep­u­ta­tion to up­hold. When stu­dents go into the gro­cery store or sub­way, the ser­vices are high­tech. It can­not be that when they start ap­ply­ing to univer­sity they are back to the Stone Age.”

A “for­ward-look­ing” ad­mis­sions of­fice has helped to put re­cruit­ment pro­cesses at the top of Pro­fes­sor Tan’s hit list. The univer­sity is jet­ti­son­ing printed ad­ver­tise­ments, which Tan in­sists are never seen by stu­dents – only their par­ents – and re­plac­ing them with apps that can read QR codes and min­imise the work­load of en­rolling.

Pro­fes­sor Tan is also whit­tling down the process of re-en­rol­ments – which stu­dents must en­dure sev­eral times a year if they sign up for “spe­cial” semesters in the main term breaks – from 10 steps to five. And he is look­ing at how to au­to­mat­i­cally re­view the oc­ca­sion­ally “weird” sub­ject com­bi­na­tions that stu­dents propose for dou­ble de­grees.

This task, Pro­fes­sor Tan ad­mit­ted, still re­quires hu­man over­sight. “But in time to come, when we have enough de­tail, we’ll be able to use ma­chine learn­ing to cap­ture the com­mon pat­terns. The sys­tem will be able to say, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’

“We used to have peo­ple sit­ting in the ad­mis­sions of­fice and check­ing book­ings, click­ing a but­ton that says ‘of­fer’. I asked them, why are you play­ing the role of a ro­bot? Now the ro­bots do the work that ro­bots ought to do. The hu­mans do the work that hu­mans ought to do.”

Pro­fes­sor Tan’s fix­a­tion on stream­lin­ing is spurred by a recog­ni­tion that uni­ver­si­ties can be “crushed” by bu­reau­cratic com­plex­ity. “So many things are ob­so­lete. Peo­ple do them for years and never ask, ‘Why am I do­ing this?’

“I tell my staff, ‘Why don’t each of you spend some time telling me some things you shouldn’t have to do. When you have a whole list of things, and you give me a con­vinc­ing rea­son, I think you are ready to get a prize.’ I need to re­ward them for think­ing about what they should not do – not what they should do more of.”

He said that ad­mis­sions staff stopped pro­duc­ing printed pub­lic­ity items such as hand­books, guides and brochures – even though they had con­sis­tently won in­ter­na­tional awards – af­ter find­ing the ma­te­rial lit­ter­ing the gut­ters at the end of open days.

The ma­te­rial ap­pealed to the award judges, who be­longed to the par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion, but stu­dents never read it, Pro­fes­sor Tan said. “I told staff, ‘Why don’t we leave on a win­ning note and stop do­ing these things?’

“When they started do­ing the apps, they re­alised there was a com­pe­ti­tion for apps, too, and they are still win­ning prizes.”

Pro­fes­sor Tan also as­pires to slash the num­ber of end-of-se­mes­ter ex­ams. Where they must be re­tained, he wants to re­place writ­ten tests with elec­tronic ver­sions.

Elec­tronic ex­ams are markedly prefer­able, he be­lieves, ar­gu­ing that mul­ti­me­dia tools can boost the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the ques­tions, blunt­ing the ben­e­fits of rote learn­ing, and can en­force es­say word lim­its.

Pro­fes­sor Tan shrugged off in­tegrity con­cerns around e-test­ing, say­ing that mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions, for ex­am­ple, can be “ran­domised” to pre­vent cheat­ing. He said that ex­ams now pro­vided only 20 per cent to 30 per cent of as­sess­ment marks in any case, and stated that univer­sity author­i­ties should not al­low para­noia to be the guid­ing prin­ci­ple of exam de­sign.

The NUS has also made in­roads against re­dun­dancy, Pro­fes­sor Tan said, by mov­ing away from the pas­sive learn­ing ap­proach that still dom­i­nates some Asian higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tems. The univer­sity’s em­pha­sis, in­stead, is on arm­ing stu­dents to ques­tion as­sump­tions.

“Nowa­days, there is only one sage on a stage, and it is called Google. In­stead of dump­ing stu­dents with knowl­edge, we teach them how to be dis­cern­ing about what’s real and what’s fake,” he said. “We are look­ing at how to use tech­nol­ogy, in­tern­ships, ex­pe­ri­en­tial learn­ing – things they could not do with­out hav­ing a univer­sity as a plat­form.”

Pas­sive learn­ing pro­duces peo­ple with “a head full of knowl­edge that will be­come ob­so­lete any­way”, Pro­fes­sor Tan said. “When there’s big change in in­dus­try, in the job en­vi­ron­ment, they will be the first to be dis­placed.”

Evo­lu­tion the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore is re­plac­ing printed ad­ver­tise­ments with apps that sim­plify en­rol­ment

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