Cover Story: Raising the next generation of tech talents

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 30, 2021 - September 05, 2021.
Cover Story: Raising the next generation of tech talents
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In five years, a generation of digital natives will be graduating from secondary school. Not only is this generation unfamiliar with living in a world where technology does not exist, their tech skills and intuition are significantly elevated.

Bearing this in mind, learning institutions are taking a second look at courses offered across all faculties. As early as five years ago, these institutions acknowledged that greater technological inclusion was needed in their syllabus, especially for non-technology-­focused faculties such as business, the arts and humanities.

With the internet being ubiquitous in everyone’s lives, technology is now a vital component in almost every socioeconomic sector. One of the first few innovations seen was financial technology (fintech), which revolutionised the financial services industry, while subjects such as graphic design have been an important foundation for art students.

It is no secret that tech talent is scarce in Malaysia, with most companies struggling to find new hires or retain good talent. With that in mind, learning institutes have been making changes to their courses and modules to include the tech skills needed in different industries.

The Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) and the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) are the parties responsible for vetting and approving changes made to university courses. Specific criteria need to be met before a module or course is accredited by MQA, and that becomes the biggest hurdle.

Over the years, however, the agency has recognised the need for innovative courses, allowing universities to review their modules and programmes on an annual, triennial or quinquennial (once in every five years) basis, adapting them to feedback received from industry players.

Professor Dr Pradeep Nair, deputy vice-chancellor and chief academic officer at Taylor’s University, tells Digital Edge that the introduction of hybrid degree regulations in 2018 by MQA allowed learning institutes to breathe easier because it gave more freedom in amending modules. This enabled universities to traverse disciplines and share modules among different programmes.

This also means that universities can offer degrees that combine science and technology with the creative arts, business or the humanities, without the constraint of having to conform to a single programme standard.

“Taylor’s was one of the first to take advantage of [hybrid degrees], the first being the Bachelor in Fashion Design Technology, which we introduced last year. Fashion is a very creative field but, by cleverly marrying it with technology, such as body scanners, design software and other digital technologies to measure, design and generate efficient and high-quality fashion, it becomes a game changer in the field,” he says.

Lawrence Chan, chief collaboration officer of BAC Education Group, says IACT College prefers evaluating students through hands-on client projects rather than solely through examinations. Over the years, MQA acknowledged that practical learning was better for certain subjects, subsequently allowing provisions for selected modules to be fully coursework-based.

This allowed IACT to adopt a project-based learning method where learning is built on the application of the theory and principles in live industry projects by students. It also opened avenues for students to know not just how to use software and principles in theory, but also practise them in class and for assignments.

“For example, subjects such as Convergent Journalism, which looks at journalism across all platforms, including digital content, do not have an examination. Everything is coursework-based, where students are assessed on the quality of articles, research done for the piece and how the article performs online,” Chan explains.

So, why are we seeing curriculum changes only now, when regulatory changes were made four years ago? Sunway University’s pro vice-chancellor (Education) and associate dean Professor Matthew James Sansom points out that it can take up to two years to develop new programmes or amend existing ones, as the process involves stakeholders and consultations with industry experts.

“There are curriculum changes that we’re instituting now that go back three to four years, maybe even more. The planning started four years ago, followed by papers being presented to the executive committee and so on, and now we’re at the point where we’re implementing it,” Sansom explains.

Technology meets world

From art to science and even communications, the Fourth Industrial Revolution birthed an array of software to facilitate various sectors. Looking at the world ahead, tech understanding and literacy will definitely be a foundational requirement, especially since most university graduates are digital natives.

With that in mind, Sunway’s Sansom says graduates are expected to intuitively know how to function in a digital work environment, for example, creating content for a company’s Instagram feed even though they may not be trained in digital marketing or designing.

Content creation is a big part of digital literacy today, and some students have the knack for it while others may need a bit of help. While it may seem general and simplistic, Sansom says educators need to take this issue into account because these skills constitute basic requirements for certain jobs.

“The creative arts greatly overlap with digital and technological tools. In the era of big data, one might think data science should sit only within a computer science programme, but it is seen in so many other areas, such as business, finance, medicine and the life sciences,” he says.

“Wherever you are, wherever people are using computers, data is being generated and the science behind it is applicable to everyone. This is just one of the many interdisciplinary subjects that we see.”

Other interdisciplinary tech modules available at Sunway are Data Mining & Knowledge Discovery (developed by School of Engineering and Technology), Web and Social Media Analytics (School of Business), Big Data Technologies (School of Mathematical Sciences) and Bioinformatics (School of Medical and Life Sciences).

The university is also introducing a new mandatory module this year called Entrepreneurial Mindset and Skills, which will be rolled out over the next two years to equip students with entrepreneurial thinking skills.

Tech understanding and literacy does not mean that one would need to know programming languages and coding, although IACT’s Chan says it would be a plus for any student. The focus, however, is more on using available technology tools and resources to enhance the level of original thinking and creativity involved in carrying out a task, for example, digital image making.

Chan explains that digital image making combines the student’s creativity and skill in computer graphics, which equips a student to work in the digital ecosystem. In this context, back-end programming skills may not be essential, but knowing how to use digital design and digital marketing software is crucial.

“For example, we teach students how to optimise a website, how to drive traffic to the site and perhaps a little bit on the user interface and experience aspect. It is not so much programming-oriented, but it is essential knowledge for when the student works in the real world,” Chan says.

It is also important to monitor future trends and demand from industry players before setting up a new programme or module. The one thing most universities have in common is the presence of an advisory board that allows consultations and conversations with industry professionals before making curriculum changes.

This not only ensures that graduates are future-ready, considering most programmes can take at least three years to complete, but it also ensures that digital native graduates are learning subjects that interest them.

Taylor’s Pradeep adds that prior to the university’s introduction of its Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Robotic Design and Development programme early this year, it found that many school leavers preferred studying for this degree over a traditional engineering degree.

Robotic design and development brings together electrical and mechanical engineering with design and computer science in one programme.

“This gets the younger generation of learners excited because they want to build machines and robotic arms. They like the idea of bringing together their software development skills with mechanical engineering,” Pradeep says.

The university is also looking to offer more futuristic courses in the next couple of years, such as interactive spatial design, which brings together augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed and extended realities with entrepreneurial courses.

Pradeep says the university is working on a programme in precision agriculture or agritech as well, in response to concerns that food security will become a key challenge in many countries in the coming decades.

“Young people are aware that food security is a major issue, especially after the pandemic. They not only want to know that there is food on the table but also that there is sufficient food supply and that it has been cultivated in a safe manner,” he says.

“Meanwhile, the likes of AR and VR are going to transcend all industries, from events to interior designing, where people will be able to see how their living space will look like with furniture in it. These are going to be game changers.”

Foundational and soft skills still essential

Observing how technology is changing the world and the workplace, learning institutes are pushed to think about what is needed to make students ready for their careers. Sunway’s Sansom says the university stresses the importance of soft skills to complement subject knowledge and digital skills.

“Students need to be critical thinkers. They need to be curious, able to take the initiative, be digitally literate, able to solve problems and work in a team, have an entrepreneurial mindset and be lifelong learners.

“You need emotional intelligence to be able to function socially, read social situations and understand people. A person still needs to be compassionate, sympathetic and trustworthy because these are the kinds of things that really set you apart when it comes to employability.”

IACT’s Chan concurs, adding that while there are subjects within the communication discipline that are inevitably going digital, the college took a step back and acknowledged that there are fundamentals that must be taught.

“There are certain fundamentals we cannot run away from. While the teaching platform may remain digital, the subject itself needs to be retained, such as the fundamentals of journalism, marketing, advertising, design and scriptwriting, to name a few.

“These fundamentals cannot be fully digitised because they are something that students need to learn, relearn and develop over their years of study and, subsequently, in their career, which later on will include digital tools and software. We cannot run away from the basics.”

 

It’s never too early for tech education

Teaching children digital skills within the education system will help them become creators instead of only consumers of technology. Conrad Fernandez, executive director of programme development and delivery at LeapED Services Sdn Bhd, tells Digital Edge that, in Malaysia, there is a growing trend of children going online.

According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, 47% of children aged five to 17 use the internet in their daily lives, compared with 18.4% in 2016. With the pandemic, even more children will be spending time online, for both entertainment and education purposes.

Fernandez: We see a huge opportunity to teach children to see technology as a productivity tool

With that in mind, it is vital that Malaysian students are ready to join a globally competitive workforce, as outlined in MyDIGITAL.

“All children need to navigate the digital universe, but what they are taught will depend on the needs of the individual child and the context of the school.

“More important is how they are taught, to ensure that we constantly open their minds to the possibilities of science and technology and the importance of questioning, adopting and adapting,” Fernandez says.

He says children as young as five, who are in kindergarten, can start to use tools such as Scratch Jr, Kodable or mBlock to get started on the basics of coding. By the age of seven, they would then be able to write and test simple programs as well as demonstrate a good understanding of responsible technology use. From there, they will be ready to move on to more complex coding languages such as HTML, Python and JavaScript.

In five years, digital native school leavers will have learnt, shopped, created, communicated, competed, found friends and formed relationships online, says Fernandez. How they choose to use technology in the future will be informed by the path our education systems take now.

Currently, Standard Six students learn ICT (information and communications technology) in class, lower secondary school students have the option to learn basic computer science and technology, and upper secondary school students learn computer science. Fernandez points out that, beyond the technical dimensions or “hard skills” being taught, there is a need to cultivate digital literacy or digital intelligence in students.

“Just as we wouldn’t put a person behind the steering wheel of a car without driving lessons, key fundamental soft skills are needed to navigate the digital world. There is an opportunity to improve the cognitive and socio-emotional skills of our youth for them to fully maximise technology to their advantage without exposing themselves to cyber risks or [jeopardising] their mental and emotional health,” he says.

“We see a huge opportunity to teach children to see technology as a productivity tool. We need them to understand how it works, and fully maximise how technology can help shape their future so they can be builders rather than just consumers of technology.”

 

Digital upskilling should not be feared

During the pandemic, there was a significant increase in virtual events. This changed the event management landscape, but the number of event managers with the technical capabilities to successfully manage a virtual event was small. This gap in the market prompted GEVME CEO Veemal Gungadin to help event managers reinvent themselves with new digital skills and capabilities.

Initially, the company built educational resources for its clients and anyone interested in being a digital event manager. Over time, however, Gungadin realised there was a need for the role to be more defined, especially as industry players believe hybrid events are the future.

“Early last year, we created the educational materials because they were not readily available. We even checked out universities, polytechnics and training institutions and they too were not up to speed.

Gungadin: With big data analytics, companies can leverage the treasure trove of data that is captured during events

“And so, we engaged with experts of virtual events — people from the UK, the US, Australia, Japan and China who have been doing this long before the pandemic — to gain more insight and create better educational material,” Gungadin says.

Two sets of educational material were developed for two groups of people — one for adult learning, targeting event managers who want to learn new skills, and the other, to fit into the core curriculum of learning institutes.

Gungadin explains that the courses for adult learning are bite-sized and can be carried out in two full days, and have a practical element to them. Meanwhile, courses for learning institutions are still in the works, as most universities typically review their curriculums on a three-year cycle.

One of the institutes offering adult courses is Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore. Gungadin says it is an in-person course but the institute is looking to offer online classes as well. Unfortunately, owing to the heightened restrictions in Singapore, the GEVME team is only going to offer the course in early September.

For the adult learning course, Gungadin says the first thing it is addressing is the fear of technology. An event manager frequently encounters digital terminology (such as secure sockets layer, or SSL), which needs to be demystified, as it could be intimidating.

The course will also cover cybersecurity, making students aware of the importance of data protection and management, especially in the context of virtual events.

After instructing students in the foundational basics, Gungadin says, the course will focus on more technical subjects.

“When I say ‘technical’, it’s not to build things from a technical perspective, but to be able to become a proficient user of tools out there, even free tools that you can get started on,” he explains.

Gungadin advises event agencies to become tech companies that incorporate digital event management and big data analytics, which will be the next asset to the industry.

“With big data analytics, companies can leverage the treasure trove of data that is captured during events, allowing them to have a better understanding of their customers and to act upon that. We’ve always talked about these things, but never really applied them. That is changing.”