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Digital Talent: It’s not just about picking up tech skills

Digital Talent: It’s not just about picking up tech skills

26 Jul 2021

In his many years of working in the education sector, Dr Goh Chee Leong, CEO of XCL Education, has heard his fair share of complaints about how there isn’t enough digital talent coming out of schools in Malaysia.

A lot of pressure is put on schools to prepare graduates for the digital economy. Various studies have already highlighted how jobs of the future will demand vastly different skill sets from what is typically taught now.

“We felt we had to put our money where our mouth is. If we believe that there is a gap in the current school system that is preventing our country from producing enough digital talents and leaders, then it is our role to create a blueprint for schools in Malaysia to close this gap in the future,” says Goh. XCL Education is a regional group that owns the KDU Schools and REAL Schools, among others, in Malaysia.

“A major part of the digital road map for Malaysia is education. Without enough talent coming out of Malaysia and the region as a whole, no plan is going to work.”

Goh’s answer to this challenge was to set up the Sri KDU International School Klang last year. It is touted as Asia’s first school for digital leadership, and counts as its partners Microsoft, the US-based Digital Media Academy — which delivers tech education to schools globally — and EduSpaze, a Singapore-based education technology accelerator.

“We are hoping in the long term that this school becomes a flagship school. It is not meant to be just a standalone school in Malaysia. We’re hoping to inspire many imitators in both the public and private sectors by demonstrating that schools for digital leadership are the way forward, and this will enable Malaysia to become a digital powerhouse in the next 10 to 15 years,” says Goh.

In the process of setting up the school, his team consulted extensively with industry players. Their tech advisory panel includes Aaron Sarma, general partner at accelerator Scaleup Malaysia, and Ramachandran Muniandy, CEO of tech start-up Asia Mobiliti.

The Sri KDU team asked its advisers what technical skills students would need and whether learning them is even relevant. By the time the students graduate, the skills may already be outdated.

Ultimately, Goh says he believes that a good education is not one focused on specific vocational skills. Rather, it is about the training of the mind.

“Technology evolves. Many of my former students who studied information technology (IT) joke that within three years, whatever they learnt in their degree would become obsolete. But it doesn’t mean they’ve wasted their time because they spent those years training their minds to think like an IT practitioner,” says Goh. 

That is also what he means by cultivating digital leaders. The students will not necessarily end up working in technology companies after they graduate. They will work in a variety of industries but they will have the added advantage of being able to apply new technologies in those industries.

“When we were trying to define what we meant by digital leadership, one of the first examples that came to my mind was the medical practice. For example, if our graduates end up serving as hospital administrators or doctors, as digital leaders, they would be able to apply emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics or big data analysis to revolutionise their processes,” says Goh.

“They will be open to new ideas and have the habit of keeping updated with cutting-edge technologies, while being able to connect the dots between their current pain points and emerging solutions.” 

How will they do it?

On top of the traditional curriculum, students in this school will work on digital challenges for a few hours every week. These challenges could come from the school or from industry partners who present their pain points to students.

For instance, the students may be challenged to create an audio-visual project to help the school’s Covid-19 awareness campaign. Or they might be asked to create a digital marketing strategy for a struggling school club that desperately needs members.

“We’re taking a project-based approach to teach design thinking. We want to train their minds to connect the dots. The way to do this is to expose them to different technologies and challenge them to apply this in a real-world context,” says Goh. 

The digital challenges will be updated to be aligned with new trends in the market, he adds. “On a monthly basis, they are exposed to different technologies. More importantly, we are challenging them to think about how technologies can be used to solve problems or disrupt how things are currently done.” 

Of course, problem-solving skills cannot go without the basic technical skills. Programming, user interface, audio-visual production, drone programming, business intelligence solutions and data analysis are just some skills that students will be picking up. But it will be dynamic and change according to industry trends, Goh emphasises.

This was another point that he and his team debated. Should they teach students only the latest programming language?

“We met with industry leaders and they advised us to expose students to a variety of programming languages. They observed that the new generation of digital natives are able to pick up these skills more rapidly than we expect them to,” says Goh. That turned out to be true when they tested it on students in other schools within their group, he adds. 

“When people talk about preparing children for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 90% of the time they limit it to programming skills. But tech leaders say this is only 10% of the picture. It is more important to have the digital mindset and design-thinking skills, which result in a high-level appreciation of how technology can be a tool for change.”

They took the advice of industry players and decided to expose students to a variety of coding languages and to focus on cultivating higher-order thinking skills.

“There are a few ways to teach digital skills. One is to just memorise and follow a ‘recipe’ book. We are taking the second approach, where we give you the basic skills and on top of that, we give you the space to set your mind free. These are the people who will become the movers and shakers in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he says.

Goh says the team will channel its learnings in this school to the other KDU schools. It also hopes to invite schools in the Klang Valley, especially those in rural or underserved areas, to join its digital programmes on campus after the pandemic eases.

Additionally, tech start-ups will be invited to use co-working spaces on campus to work on projects with the students and staff.

“We want to create a tech community within the school. We also want our students to be able to work with start-ups and on real projects. That’s what makes the school different,” says Goh.

Source: The Edge Markets

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