16 October 2019

Higher learning institutions: More than just knowledge providers

by Cassandra Lau

“Congratulations, Jung Kook!  You have graduated ya…Lots of knowledge in your head ya…Now can work in big companies…Can earn big, big money,” Aunty Ngo congratulates a fresh graduate.

“Thank you Aunty Ngo for coming to my graduation. This is just the beginning, aunty. Now I have to apply what I have learned,” replies fresh graduate Yong Jung Kook. 

These could be the typical comments made by any family members to their relatives upon witnessing or hearing they have graduated from a university and about to embark on their career.

Many people perceive that the pursuit of knowledge is the ultimate aim in life.  This is because with knowledge, we can improve our quality of life, have better job prospects and able to present a competitive edge to our contenders. Consequently, time, money and effort are devoted to acquiring knowledge. 

To a certain extent, many people think that higher learning institutions are set to fulfil the goal of a knowledge provider. This is true, in the sense that higher learning institutions house a compendium of subjects, be it in technology, science, arts, business, or language and engage a number of experts teaching and researching them.  

In addition, the institutions also have a pool of resources such as online subscriptions, and physical amenities like libraries, laboratories and equipment. However, the role of higher learning institutions is more than just a knowledge provider especially in this day and age. 

The emergence of the digital revolution has created the ‘information age’ which has made information or data available anywhere as long as there is connection to the internet. This has revolutionised the way we live, conduct business, socialise, educate our young, and even how we spend leisure time. 

Can users who have access to a lot of data make sense and use the information appropriately? Can they evaluate whether their sources are credible, reliable and valid?  What about the background of the websites or the contributing authors? Are they able to interpret, analyse, evaluate and judge the information critically before making a decision?

This is where the role of higher learning institutions has evolved to be more than just a knowledge provider. Higher learning institutions train learners to be thinkers and provide support for the acquisition of skills. 

Firstly, higher learning institutions focus on the learner’s thinking processes. The educators in universities are not only delivering knowledge but acting like a catalyst to open the minds of the learners by challenging them to interpret and evaluate data before making a judgement call.   

For example, in the Foundation English classrooms in Swinburne, learners are tasked to research on global issues by using Swinburne Library databases. With the big data at their fingertips, they have to screen and choose which articles are credible, reliable and valid for their assignment.

Then, they have to read and interpret the message on the text and subsequently present their thoughts and analysis in either the written or oral form following formal conventions. The discussions among the learners and the suggestions made by the instructors influence the decision making of the learners.  

In order to shift the focus to the learners’ acquisition processes, instructional strategies in the classroom have also changed. The flipped classroom is among one of the strategies that is used. In flipped classroom, instructional content like lecture slides and learning resources are made available online, creating a fluid and flexible media which learners can access anytime, anywhere. Knowledge is no longer confined to ‘when the lecturer teaches’.

Consequently, this frees the time spent in the classroom for the meetings of the minds, both for the learners and educators. The tasks or ‘homework’ now take precedent in the classroom. During discussions, learners are able to identify gaps in their knowledge, organise and reorganise information and consolidate them for recall later.  The activities are learner centred.   

Another role of the higher learning institutions is to provide the platform and support for simulated and realistic activities to hone the interest and skills of young adults and prepare them for the real world. Through involvement in these activities, young adults network and acquire skills that are essential for successful careers. 

For instance, an engineering student indulging in his fantasy to be a writer is able to get advice and support from the Swinburne Sarawak Creative Writing Community on campus.  A business major is able to hone his leadership skills while organising an exchange programme through AIESEC. 

Having said all this, the roles of higher learning institutions are dynamic and are always changing to meet the fluid and organic needs of human.  The universities act like a bridge between the enormous data accessible and the learner’s challenge to make the decision where to search, when to stop, when to request for expert’s opinion and when to rely on personal experiences and intuition.

At Swinburne Sarawak, lecturers are guiding students in precisely this way, to use the knowledge they gain to make positive and useful decisions both in academia and in the real world.   

Cassandra Lau is a lecturer from the School of Foundation Studies at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at celau@swinburne.edu.my.