New teaching model grooms students for the data age

Singapore’s Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), partnering with industry players, is launching a bold and unprecedented approach to course design and delivery by introducing a new Professional Competency Model (PCM) for students entering their diploma in business intelligence and analytics (DBIA) next year.

It will move away from the usual subject-based approach to one that is structured around workplace competencies.

“For more than 60 years, our polytechnics have moved with the times, adapting their curricula as the industries evolved,” noted former education minister Ong Ye Kung.

“The starting point is to identify the competencies needed in a job role. Then pull together multidisciplinary modules from various schools, integrate [them] and teach them concurrently,” he added in a Facebook posting welcoming the new education initiative.

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“The NYP PCM transforms the fundamentals of teaching and learning in polytechnic education. The key focus is teaching competencies pegged to a specific work function and taught collectively in a competency unit (CU) unlike the traditional curriculum model, which breaks down competencies into different subjects for teaching,” explained NYP Principal and CEO Jeanne Liew in an interview with University World News.

The model was developed in close collaboration with IT industry leaders. Google Cloud, Microsoft, Oracle Academy and SAS Artificial Intelligence Solutions are partnering NYP in the delivery of the new model through the contribution of content material and, in some cases, they will be teaching some components of the DBIA.

“Students graduating from this course will be in great demand within the Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) community, bringing value to the workforce with their competency,” said Randy Goh, Singapore country managing director of SAS, according to a posting on the NYP website.

The main objective of the model is to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning for the students, making the learning experience better and increasing the ability of the polytechnic to respond quickly to changes in the industry.

“[The] CUs can be shared across different NYP diplomas and if there are changes to be made to any one specific CU to enhance its relevancy, the change will be updated across all NYP Schools, to ensure that our students are always equipped with the most relevant skills in demand,” said Liew.

“The notion that one can learn everything on a subject in the classroom from one expert no longer holds true. Learning needs to be a multi-sensory, multi-domain process,” argues Nisar Keshvani, vice president of the Institute of Public Relations Singapore. “The PCM model sounds very appropriate and particularly relevant to mature students, mid-career professionals in particular.”

Keshvani also thinks that, for fresh young students entering polytechnics, the PCM system could give good practical insight to subjects such as journalism, communication design, graphic or visual design, and so on.

The NYP’s PCM will include 33 competency units and five Competency Canvases – whereby skills and knowledge learned are assessed for competency, together with a Work Integrated Unit (WIU) which is a workplace contextualised project. A student needs to complete four of them to graduate along with the completion of a one-year project and one internship placement.

The course introduction in NYP’s website describes the diploma as a discovery in how to help companies make sense of data by analysing and interpreting it to influence business decisions.

“Whether it is from sales figures, market research, mobile or social media platforms, you can take that data and transform it into useful insights for developing business strategies. You will master the techniques and concepts for data visualisation, analytics and modelling, and learn how to manage big data, develop innovative applications and work with exciting artificial intelligence (AI) technologies.”

When asked about whether NYP is drifting away from the traditional lecture-based teaching model, Liew argued that learning in a real-world context allows the experience to be more meaningful and effective.

“Traditionally, you’d break down the integrated blend of academic content and skills into subjects: statistics and maths, for instance, to deal with data,” she explained.

“The previous issue was that there may be no relation drawn to each other during the teaching, so it may not be immediately apparent how to apply the statistics module to the task of presenting data to the management committee.

“With context, we believe the student will learn faster, and be better able to see how to apply the academic knowledge he or she acquires,” added Liew.

Another of Singapore’s tertiary institutions, Republic Polytechnic, also introduced the non-traditional, problem-based learning model about a decade ago, in which they did away with formal lectures. Keshvani was among the founding teaching faculty that delivered that instruction model. He believes that such experimentation is not a bad idea.

“I think we should not think of a no-lectures model as one that is in any way less rigorous or one that compromises learning,” he told University World News, adding, “it’s actually quite intimate – seminar-style tutorials – it’s about the educator’s ability to translate concept into practice and make learning relevant and engaging.”

He pointed out that COVID-19 has helped us realise that the modality is no longer the key component in this process. “It’s the pedagogy, quality of materials, the concepts taught and how they are married with practical skills that truly make a difference,” argued Keshvani.

Liew also believes that the PCM could improve a student’s learning experience.

“The CUs come in various proficiency levels to help students acquire theory and practice in an integrated manner. They can be mixed and matched to form a ‘Canvas’ – a collection of related CUs – where students can develop and demonstrate their abilities to perform a task at a higher proficiency, taking care to mirror workplace practices too,” she explained.

In the older methods, a student would attend lectures, do assignments and might sit for an examination at the end of the semester. All these will be included in grading the student for a particular subject model. Thus, how would you grade a student in the PCM?

“To graduate, students need to complete a certain number of CUs and Competency Canvases, depending on their courses. Additional certifications will be awarded upon completion of a canvas. There are also Work Integration Units which include an internship, a final-year project and key assessments or projects that will require students to demonstrate their abilities to perform significant tasks that are expected by the industry,” explained Liew.

Perhaps the exact modalities of grading could still be in the experimental phase when the course is introduced next year. But Liew’s following response hints that some of the grading may be done in a simulated situation of a real workplace experience.

“For example, students looking to be competent data analysts will require training in data sensing, communications and statistics skills. When this is taught together in the context of a data analysis work task, students are better able to relate immediately, and retain the information and knowledge for subsequent use at the workplace,” noted Liew.

The challenge will be to assess and grade the competency of a student.

“NYP’s approach and tie-up with industry is a dream come true for the potential student,” said Keshvani “These days, this is certainly the way to go and I am pleased to see NYP thinking out of the box.”