Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.



Artificial intelligence professors, social online learning and Netflix-style textbooks are just some of the changes students want to embrace – more so than their professors.

IN 1886, William Orton, president of Western Union, said: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” This terrible technology prediction also applied to the automobile, electricity (yes, by Edison himself), and even the Internet, which were once written off as fads or fanciful toys without any potential.

Oh, how wrong these Nostra­damuses were. As we all know, such technologies have gone on to change the way we communicate, gain knowledge, lead our lives and approach our careers.

A similar trend is happening within our higher education sector. It is changing – fast!

These ideas were proposed by students themselves during the Pitch for Progress 2.0 (PFP2) competition, themed “An Education Revolution”, which was recently organised by the Higher Education Ministry in collaboration with the Organisation for National Empowerment (ONE), Asia Pacific University (APU) and online learning ed-tech company OpenLearning.

Over 170 students representing 31 public and private universities were given the stage to share their visions and explorations of how classes of the future could (and should) be.

The winners were from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Mahsa University – each taking home RM5,000.

UKM proposed a flexible timetable, whereby students would be entrusted to choose and arrange their courses based on their own level of preparedness, interests and strength.

They pitched that if personal learning preferences were encouraged, a flexible timetable could spur students into being more effective and even gaining better results. (Think Bill Gates here – minus the dropping out!)

USM proposed a lean classroom which incorporated virtual reality, a modular classroom setting, and a blended learning approach where online and face-to-face learning were part of the curriculum.

Mahsa proposed an online learning platform where students could get a sampling of the courses being offered by particular universities before enrolling. Such pre-tasting would enable students to gain an understanding of possible academic pathways, including exposing them to fields they might not have otherwise been aware of.

PFP2 heightened my realisation that students’ perceptions and needs are indeed speedily changing – especially in the ways they consume, access and apply knowledge.

This was further evidenced when Adam Brimo, CEO and co-founder of OpenLearning, delivered a presentation on the future education landscape.

What happened after his presentation was a first for me; during the Q&A session, the students wouldn’t stop firing off questions for a good two hours, despite it being nearly 11pm!

Malaysian students tend to be quiet, especially during Q&A sessions, to get the event over and done with. But this time it was different.

They were attentive; they were engaged.

The barrage of insightful questions were a revelation too – from how online learning affects the classroom experience, to its ability to assist in research, to overcoming education inequity and enhancing access. The students were savvy about the tech-turf and Brimo answered the questions like a pro.

This enthusiasm brought to mind the words of Prof Datuk Dr Mohamed Amin Embi, a teaching and learning design expert from UKM, who had said that students today don’t just want to be recipients of knowledge. Rather, “they want to be co-curators of knowledge”.

One of the greatest challenges in higher education today is orthodoxy.

Former Harvard University president Larry Summers, in a September 2017 interview, lamented “not enough people are innovating enough in higher education”. He said, “General Electric looks nothing like it looked in 1975. Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford look a lot like they looked in 1975.”

The resistance to change by embracing rapidly advancing technologies comes from “old school” brick-and-mortar lecturers who still have the notion that the content and not the form is all-important. A survey carried out by Navitas Ventures showed that less than 50% of US professors support online education.

However, the same survey revealed that university students are certainly thinking about going “digital”!

When considering where to study, over three-quarters of res­pon­­dents indicated that the “digital savviness” of their university was either very important or somewhat important in their decision about where to study.

The future of education is here. An insightful series of articles on digital news outlet Quartz on “The Vanishing University” cited new trends that’ll change higher education as we know it. This includes a Netflix-style textbook subscription, Artificial intelligence professors, as well as online blended learning being the future.

The bigger picture here is that we must pay more attention to what our students have to say: let their input pave the way for their future.

It is certainly a boon that the Higher Education Ministry is supportive of events like PFP2 — a catalyst for collaborative higher education excellence between administrators and students.

Students today may not (yet) be learned professors, but they are certainly technologically tuned. So, it’s best to tune in to their needs for an education tune-up before a time-out!

Originally published on The Star Online on Thursday, October 26, 2017.