Taylor's RM100mil investment to remain relevant

Media: Digital Asia Media
Date: 24 June 2013

DESPITE Taylor’s University investing RM100 million (US$31 million) in its five-year e-Learning Strategic Plan 2011-2015 – designed to transform the manner in which the university imparts learning and knowledge to its students – it has not lost sight of what lies at the heart of this successful transformation.

“It is the pedagogy that is important, not the technology,” stresses Pradeep Nair, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Taylor’s University. “That is our mantra.”
 

With its mission to ensure that by 2015, every student at Taylor’s will learn in a collaborative, personalised and self-directed manner, anytime and anywhere, it is the almost 700 lecturers at Taylors who will have the harder transition to make, not the students, who if you look at it, are unconsciously already practicing what is called ‘Blended Learning.’

They are still learning from their lecturers but while in the past that was the ultimate focal point, today, students are learning as much from each other too. And then, there is the Internet, the classroom of the world. Together, these three facets make up Blended Learning.

For the lecturers, this means that they have to now accept that they are no more “the sage on the stage but the facilitator on the side,” as Pradeep describes it.

It is a role that requires a mindset change among the lecturers, especially the older ones. And it will be a tough and painful transition curve for many, he admits.

Helping them to make the transition is an e-learning academy set up to help lecturers prepare their lessons away from book, chalk and board; and instead to video, animation and sound.

The early adapters are already taking to the new way with Pradeep expecting a larger group to take a measured ‘wait-and-see, attitude with a laggard group the slowest to respond.

In a way, this is no different than any other transformation. And often times, a catalyst is needed to get quicker buy-in.

And this is why he is particularly excited about the new classroom design at Taylor’s, which he believes will change the teacher learner dynamics in class.

“I believe that one of the things that has been holding back the application of technology in class has been the classroom itself.

“You can put all the technology into the classroom, but if everybody is still sitting in rows, facing one direction, looking at one person, how can they change [the lecturers’ teaching style]?” says Pradeep.

With the new class to consist of hexagonal shaped sitting clusters, each with its own screen, the concept of the noisy classroom is here. He explains that this facilitates students learning in groups from each other, where each group may want to discuss different aspects of a lesson from the lecturer who moves from cluster to cluster.

If there is something he wishes to share with the whole group, the lecturer can share the screen from one cluster with all the others.

“Now, the class is not watching the lecturer anymore, and they have to change their pedagogy,” says Pradeep, who believes that this transformation of the learning space is a game changer.

He is willing to invest in this change too. The first such class cost RM79,000 (US$24,610) to outfit. And he has now invited four other schools from his various faculties to design the classroom that they feel will work best for their school.

He believes this will build ownership among the lecturers for the new way that Taylor’s will have to impart knowledge and learning to its students in order to stay relevant in the new world of higher education.

It is a different world that he and many of his lecturers grew up in. Indeed, Pradeep started the interview by laying out how people today consume content across various devices (see chart below), using Singapore as an example.
 

Within this content consumption journey, informal collaboration has come to the fore, with students creating their own learning spaces, mixing formal with informal learning. This is enabled by technology.

In a way, education institutions like Taylor’s are already playing catch up. Hence the RM100-million investment “to ensure our continued existence as an institution where learning takes place,” says Pradeep.

Make that Blended Learning, because Taylors has identified this as the cornerstone of the teaching and learning it will offer students.

While the journey to become an institution that offers Blended Learning will not end by 2014, the target is that at least its foundation programme will be taught entirely via tablet. While Taylor’s does not provide tablets or laptops, Pradeep notes that almost 95% of the student body owns either a laptop or tablet coming in.

Its entire Lakeside campus has been covered with 500 access points for WiFi coverage, with all classes and lecture theatres covered. Bandwidth availability has jumped from 65 mega bits per second (Mbps) in 2011 to 632 Mbps this month.

Besides building its own Virtual Learning Environment and populating it with internally-developed course material – a massive effort, Pradeep says – various other small experiments are going on too, all with an eye to getting as many of the lecturers and as much of the teaching and learning onto a blended platform.

Click here to read more on Question & Answer with Pradeep Nair.