We do, however, have hoverboards, electric-powered vehicles aka Mr Fusion, rejuvenation clinics, and self-drying jackets – well, sort of.
Back to the Future (Part II) inspired many of today’s innovations. Some, like flying cars remain a dream, while others are best left in 1989’s imagination, in particular the sense of fashion.
Some of today’s innovations have in fact surpassed what was dreamt of almost 26 years ago, such as our smartphones, the internet, and our fashion sense.
When we talk about the future, technology almost certainly always plays a role. It is, after all, the most vivid way to portray change and advancement.
So, when asked ‘How do you foresee the University of the Future’, what comes to mind?
Recently, a forum was held at the Higher Education Ministry, discussing this very question. The panelist of the forum consisted of Tan Sri Dr Lin-See Yan, Tan Sri Dr Nordin Kardi and Tan Sri Tg Mahaleel – esteemed individuals well versed in education and industry.
With the proliferation of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), nanodegrees, and e-education, we tend to envision a future away from the conventional confines of a classroom whilst we leverage on technology.
Whilst I cannot disagree that the future university will be dictated largely by this surge of technology driven learning, the forum’s panelist seemed to have advocated a return to the core values of a higher learning institution.
Dr Nordin presented a comprehensive recap of the university as an institution throughout the course of history.
There was a romantic notion of the university as a conglomerate of classical buildings within a campus, as a safe zone for thought, research, discovery and collaboration – and even, a space to commit errors and learn from them.
Romantic notions aside, when considering the university of the future, one has to ask – what is the end product of this utopia?
For Dr Lin the end product is the “person” that the university produces. He then beautifully describes the ideal future graduate.
This individual must:
- have the ability to compose a literate and persuasive essay;
- obtain sufficient insight to interpret a famous humanistic text;
- possess the capacity to history to the present;
- know how to understand the foundations of science and scientific method and to unravel the mysteries of science and technologies in the real world and;
- possess enough quantitative reasoning ability to sharpen analysis of everyday problems that we encounter.
“For instance, the difference between genes and chromosomes, and how Nobel prizes are awarded, are basic things that people need to know and be able to explain,” he said.
The aspiration that resonated with me the most was how a university of the future graduate has to have the capacity to link history to the present.
When I asked my colleague, Erica Cheong Wen Li, who is also a Perdana Fellow attached to my office, she said that the forum drove home a key point for her - all three panelists envisioned the future university graduate to be a globally aware, wholesome and well-rounded individual, that he is to be an expert of his specialised field, yet be well-versed in artistic, cultural and civic pursuits.
She accepts the notion that the delineation of conventional disciplines is fading and that the challenge will be to recognise rapid changes and be impactful with swift responses.
“What an exciting future!” she said. “But how prepared are my peers and I?”
“Looking back, I recall my university days at the University of Melbourne being incredibly diverse and eye-opening.
"Under the newly launched Melbourne Model, all students were required to take one subject outside of their faculty every semester.
“So, amidst making site contour models and memorising the different types of classical Greek columns (Erica was an architecture major), I was able to pick up Mandarin, study Australian microeconomics, and even learn a few African tunes in World Music Choir.
"This diversity – which arguably contributed nothing technical towards my pursuit of an architectural degree – helped broaden my world views and exposure, helping me value and appreciate the sum of all parts of my qualification”.
She added: “To quote panelist Tan Sri Tg Mahaleel, ‘no problem can be solved by a single discipline’. With the breadth of my university education, I hope that I am able to rise and compete with these future university graduates”.
Ultimately, this will take time.
According to Dr Lin, Harvard University had spent 10 years reforming its curriculum in arriving at the eight areas of knowledge that every Harvard graduate must have, namely:
1. Aesthetic and intepretive understanding;
2. Culture and belief;
3. Empirical and mathematical reasoning;
4. Ethical reasoning;
5. Science of living systems;
6. Science of physical systems;
7. Societies of the world;
8. Role of politics and economics in the world economy.
Personally, I believe that the key is to look forward but remember to remain grounded. Technology facilitates progress but is not the be all and end all. The University of the Future, undoubtedly, holds lots of promise.
Overall, the forum was insightful and I look forward to more.
In parting, Dr Lin said “A graduate of Harvard needs to also have international experience of a significant nature."
"And this does not include having a girlfriend from Shanghai”, he quipped.
No worries for me there.