By Prema Ponnudurai
Digital technology consumption is rapidly growing with over 26 million Malaysians utilising the internet today for numerous online activities. This is in line with the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) which focuses on transforming Malaysia into a digitally- and technology-driven nation by 2030.
By embedding digitalisation, the education sector is equipping students to achieve Malaysia’s aspirations. It also ensures they remain competitive through various cross-discipline teaching pedagogies which employ the latest innovations in Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality. Nevertheless, this feverish inclusion of digitalisation must be coupled with the nurturing of basic human skills and tread with caution to stay true to visions of holistic development.
Through the growth of technology over the years, educational philosophies have evolved from teacher-centred to student-centred and now to ‘self-centred’ learning. As online delivery, remote learning, self-directed learning, personalised, and independent learning expand, the central role of the teacher is quickly diminishing. Education of yesteryears was filled with fond memories of bonding with friends, playing pranks, and quirky teachers; however, this may not be the case for future generation learners with the accelerated incorporation of technology.
Highly technology-infused education often leads to an isolating learning experience with a remotely accessible teacher and distant classmates. Recently, studies in technological usage and loneliness have been rampant, leading to the term ‘technolonely’ being coined. Friendships are the foundation of growth at university, where connections are made by students having shared interests and on a similar path of intellectual and personal growth. Empirical studies have also indicated that friends are the central social support system for adolescents compared to family.
According to the World Health Organisation, among the top causes of mental health issues in youth today is due to isolation and loneliness which can also lead to suicidal deaths among youth globally. In Malaysia, a national study found that youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are 4.8 times more likely to attempt suicide than other age groups. Some of the leading causes of suicide attempts noted are academic pressure, lack of peer or parent connectedness, and prolonged online interaction leading to decreased human communication. Based on these facts, it is crucial that universities play a central role in developing human connections for their students and growing a more robust human-centric teaching and learning environment to ensure the overall wellbeing of students is maintained.
At present, an array of co-curricular activities and clubs are available at universities. However, these can be improved to transcend into other aspects of a student’s social support system. For instance, living on campus should be made available to students beyond just the first year as studies have indicated that stronger relationships are built by students living on campus opposed to those who live off campus. Teaching and learning should also take place off campus by way of visits and excursions to related sites so that learning takes place implicitly and opportunity to build social capital by a shared lived experience increases. Interestingly, a 2017 study has found that significant social capital leads to improved employability among university students.
The philosophy of human-centric education is beyond just imparting academic knowledge and skills but also centring on a ‘value-based’ approach. It places importance on nurturing human virtues and cultivating qualities of ‘being human’. Through curriculum enhancements, universities should offer credit-bearing electives in non-academic areas but which contribute to the overall growth like sports, service learning, volunteering, and community projects as they contribute to the development of the student’s social and affective domains and as a whole person.
For instance, Durham University, UK, offers modules Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion, the Liverpool Hope University, UK, provides courses on The Beatles, Cornell University, USA, offers a course on Recreational Tree Climbing and many more. Hence, as universities are often viewed as societal gatekeepers, an equilibrium needs to be maintained for students to build and maintain human connections for social support as these relationships are the foundations of a well-balanced educational experience and opportunities to forge lifelong friendships based on shared interests.
As we prepare students for the future workforce, we are witnessing transformations in work trends in the forms of remote and hybrid working cultures. Therefore, as we battle the dual disruption of the pandemic and automation, universities have equal responsibility to prepare students with the knowledge and skills but also in navigating relations and communication for this work environment.
By nature, the human mind was designed to be creative, to problem solve, and be innovative for survival. While it is important to develop digital skills for the future, technology is always evolving and society will need to continuously keep up-skilling and re-learning digital skills to keep up with trends and remain competitive. However, it is imperative that the ever-consistent human soft skills of respect, communication, collaboration, listening, empathy, resilience and so on are also inculcated in students as these are in essence what it means to be human.
As quoted by Mahatma Gandhi, ‘the greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane’. So, the next time you are in class, instead of starting by asking your students to log into the learning portal to access your lecture notes, take a few minutes to ask them, ‘How can I help make you a better person?’ and it could mean a world of difference.
Prema Ponnudurai is Head of School, School of Media and Communication, Faculty of Social Sciences & Leisure Management, Taylor’s University.