Education in the Era of Disruptive Technology

The Straits TimesMay 10, 2019

When machines can take over jobs of humans, education has to foster creativity, stress EQ (emotional quotient) over IQ, and enable lifelong learning.

The world is undergoing tremendous change in the ways of doing business, in lifestyles and work.

The changes will become more rapid with the prevalence of disruptive technology made possible by advances in computers, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. This age of disruptive technology is sometimes called the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0.

The first industrial revolution was attributed to the development of the steam engine, which transformed agrarian societies into industrial economies. The initial beneficiaries were the textile industries, following their mechanization. Then came the improvements in transportation when applied to trains.

The second industrial revolution was attributed to the development of electricity and used by Michael Faraday for electric-motor technology, convenient household use and telecommunication. Mechanization in factories was further enhanced.

Industry 3.0 brought computerization and information and communications technology. The Internet was able to connect everyone all over the world for business or social purposes.

The era of Industry 4.0, which we are now in, represents new ways in which technology becomes embedded within societies, driven by advances in computers, AI and automation. Both work and lifestyles will undergo significant changes.

Some experts predict that the advent of automation and AI will make half the population jobless very quickly because robots or digital transformations will take over all the tasks.

I have a different view. The steam engine, electricity and Internet did not cause mass unemployment overnight. The changes took place gradually and gave people time to adjust. The same applies to the present generation.

We have to accept that there will be great changes to the way we work and our lifestyles. These are inevitable. To meet the challenges, our students have to be equipped with different skills through appropriate education and training. We can no longer rely on the traditional education model of just broadening minds.

Machines are getting more intelligent than humans, and with their ability to store large amounts of information, machines can make advanced calculations faster and more accurately, and can connect dots and spot patterns better than people. They can also trawl through voluminous data to suss out relevant information in seconds.

We have to look for a different strategy of preparing our students so that they are better than machines in other ways.

I believe we need an immediate as well as a long-term strategy in education to succeed in this era of disruptive technology.

Immediate changes

For immediate implementation, we need to enhance the skills of our students to be able to make use of the power of computers and machines rather than compete with them. To do that, the core knowledge needed would be in information technology (IT) and robotic engineering.

AI is related to the ability of machines to pick up general learning and advance to high-level reasoning — cognitive functions previously associated only with humans. The key to the success of AI is good computer programming on powerful computing machines.

To develop our students to master those skills, we may need to review our high school curriculum. It may be necessary to include in all streams of studies a good grounding in mathematics and the sciences. This will not be a unique system as it has been practiced in the French high school system since Napoleon’s days. The additional knowledge in mathematics and science will help young students understand the abilities of computers.

At a higher level, at the polytechnics and universities, all streams of studies need to include modules on IT and data analytics. IT is the basis of the intelligent world. It comprises disciplines such as Internet communication, Internet of Things (sensors), virtual reality and digital network for data communication.

It is difficult to avoid “big data.” With the power of the Internet of Things, fast computers and enormous data-storage capacity, data accumulates at a tremendous pace. From data, information is constructed.

Collection of related data gives insights into useful knowledge. If the knowledge is targeted, solutions to problems can be devised. So data analytics has been applied in many areas such as business decisions and logistics, and is a powerful scientific tool.

The tools are needed not just for technical people. Professionals such as doctors and lawyers will also need to rely on such expertise for their daily work in future. Examples are in disease identification using AI, medical robotics, legal-case search using AI, language translation of legal documents, and so on.

Other than equipping our students with technical skills, our higher education needs to be more targeted towards professional and career orientation. Our universities and polytechnics should provide their students with more channels for internship, which would cultivate a more market-oriented approach among students.

[Singapore’s] present national strategy to reskill and upskill workers, and promote SkillsFuture for lifelong learning, are in line with the need to adapt to the challenges of disruptive technology. We have to note that skill in this context does not refer only to “manual” skills but should also include “knowledge-based” skills.

Long-term strategy

For the long-term learning strategy, there are three aspects of formal education we need to emphasize. The first is the cultivation of creativity. Many people think that the human ability to come up with a new idea is better than that of machines. Ultimately, a computer lacks imagination or creativity to dream up a vision for the future. It lacks the emotional competence that a human has.

Thus, creativity will be the skill of the future. The key to staying ahead and participating in the creation of the future is our own creativity. We must embrace and develop our creativity, and then use technology creatively to solve the problems of the world. Our education system must nurture creativity among our students. This cannot be achieved by just learning facts to come up with new insights.

I believe the best way to promote it is through open-ended projects. It is even better if projects are done by a team. The interactions of members often generate new ideas and new approaches to problem solving.

EQ, not just IQ

The second requirement of higher education in the new age is to be able to mold students to be good members of society. Students have to learn the art of giving and taking. This behavior is superior to that of machines, which can act only through a prescribed program.

The education path is to develop emotional quotient (EQ) and not just intelligence quotient (IQ).

EQ is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, and use such information to guide their thinking and behavior.

Education modules should include studies on ethics, self-awareness, self-control, social skills and empathy. I am aware that such skills are difficult to impart.

This can be often achieved through inspirational lectures or case studies and practical acts such as visiting community homes. Universities can also make use of experiential learning, immersing students in various scenarios to learn empathy and coping skills. Parents can also help at home by being role models.

Lifelong adaptation

The third requirement of a future education system is to include a strong emphasis on lifelong learning. This is getting more urgent as time passes. New technologies and new concepts are introduced constantly. Knowledge will become obsolete very quickly and, therefore, continuous learning is needed to make oneself relevant. To enable learners to keep up, using e-learning is a good platform. All public and private bodies need to have e-learning facilities as well as the support services to make such a learning method easy to use.

To sum up, education in the era of disruptive technology needs to incorporate learning on tools to take advantage of the intelligence of machines, as well as teachings in creativity, development in EQ and an effective system of continuous education. These are means to make humans better than machines. Until we have an effective strategy on education, we will be left behind by Industry 4.0.

Professor Cham Tao Soon is president (emeritus) of Nanyang Technological University. Copyright © 2019 Singapore Press Holdings This article was written by Tao Cham from The Straits Times and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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