Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Improving Polytechnic Education, One Dialogue Session At A Time with ASPIRE

 On the morning of Monday, 27 October 2014, I attended a dialogue session called ASPIRE (Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review) with special guest, Miss Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education and Law. Its main aim was to help us understand what ASPIRE was all about. I now understand that ASPIRE aims to improve polytechnic as well as ITE education to help students studying in these institutions prepare for both the world of work and further education.  Here are some highlights of the event and an interview with a student who has a lot of passion for ASPIRE.

What is ASPIRE? 

The idea for ASPIRE actually came from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as he addressed the need to improve Singapore’s polytechnic and Institute of Technical Education (ITE) educational routes. Despite the advancement of polytechnic and ITE education over the years, there’s still a perception, especially among the older ones, that the Poly and ITE routes aren’t really as enriching and fulfilling educationally as compared with the  Junior College and University routes. ASPIRE aims to change this perception and the SMS wanted to know from students  what could actually be done to improve the quality of education for Poly and ITE students as well as what can be done to change the perception that a Universtiy degree is the only way to go.

The session’s introduction
The ASPIRE dialogue session was held on Monday at 10am at the NYP Lounge. Mr Santokh Singh, NYP’s Director for Communications and Outreach, opened the session by talking about the current state of polytechnic education and basically what the session was going to be about. He also shared some comments and feedback gathered from the ASPIRE sessions so far the Guest Speaker Miss Indranee Rajah went into further detail later on.

An informal session with Miss Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State (Education)
After the short introduction by Mr Singh, Miss Indranee Rajah came out to introduce ASPIRE to us, the students,  along with what to expect from the session as well. The students who were present for the session were selected by their course coordinators  and the turnout was pretty good. What’s great was that since it was an informal session, microphones were strategically placed all around and students could pick up a microphone and share their thoughts and opinions about ASPIRE at anytime.

All about the futureOne of the key things about having an education and/or certain qualifications is to find a good-paying job, which is definitely one of the big motivators for Singaporeans. However, as Miss Indranee pointed out,  the job may be high-paying but you may not enjoy it. She illustrated this by showing us an example by showing a short clip from the Disney animated movie, The Incredibles.

In the clip, the character, Bob Parr (AKA Mr Incredible) was obviously tired of doing a routine job and while being berated by his boss in the office, he noticed someone getting mugged at the back alley. As it was his natural instinct to save lives, he decided to help the man out but was unfortunately stopped by his boss. His boss told Bob that he had received numerous complaints about the way he handled his job at work but Bob couldn’t take it anymore, grabbed his boss and threw him against  the wall.

The point of the video was that there is no point being in a job that doesn’t make you happy no matter how much money you make. It’s all about adding value into the company and your life and being happy at work. It was also another topic Miss Indranee wanted to address during the ASPIRE dialogue session.

Opinions from NYP students

It was then time for the  dialogue, as  Miss Indranee Rajah walked around the NYP Lounge to ask students  what they knew about ASPIRE and the goal of ASPIRE. Many students shared that they were satisfied about the changes that ASPIRE has brought onto the table so far, but also  commented that there is still more that can be done.

One of the students shared that people still have the perception that Poly and ITE are still considered ‘inferior’ to the JC and university route. Miss Indranee mentioned that the Ministry of Education is still working on bringing more opportunities to Poly and ITE students like introducing more places in University and the establishment of Universities specially catered to Poly students like Singapore Institute of Technology, but reiterated that the Paper Chase may not be the best way forward.

Some comments contributed by students about post-secondary education
There were also some concerns from students that  their parents  determine their paths, whether the children like it or not. Many mentioned that the reasons these paths are preferred id because they guarantee high pay. Some jobs that parents want their children to chase are being lawyers,  doctors or engineers. One student pointed out that Parents were living their own dreams through their children. He said that since their parents did not get the chance to be in a university or to get a high-paying job, they wanted to push them onto their children instead.

Another student specifically stated that she intentionally failed her Maths subject during the national exams so that she could get into a design course which was something that she was very interested in. Although she did go against her parents wish, she felt that she did the right thing as she was very interested in design and she will do things not because of the perception they carry, but because she enjoys them.

Opinions about opportunities were also brought up by some students and Miss Indranee herself. Some students felt  that anyone can succeed  provided that he or she is  willing to upgrade and keep learning new things. Miss Indranee agreed and added that the government is providing numerous opportunities for Singaporeans to upgrade their skills. This is so that people can become more capable, have both a wide range of skill sets and be steeped in them. This  will enable them to succeed in life..

There were so many  views and opinions, along with some stories, about Poly education from the students that it isimpossible for me to list them all  here.

A debate on how ASPIRE is useful to students
Miss Indranee then showed a slide about the opinions and feedback gathered from NYP  students  on their views of ASPIRE. Most of the feedback has been positive although there was one comment that was not really favourable towards the ASPIRE initiative. The comment was that with ASPIRE,  a university graduate may  not get as many opportunities as poly and ITE students and that all his or her hard work would be wasted. Again this was a misunderstood perception of ASPIRE, which aims to help Poly and ITE graduates upgrade themselves at their own pace.

Miss Indranee than shared  a little about the meritocracy system in Singapore where good opportunities and rewards come to those who are willing to work hard and put in the effort. Although it was quite a hotly debated session, it was definitely beneficial and put things into perspective especially on Poly and ITE education.

The ASPIRE app

(Picture from moe.gov.sg/aspire)
Before the session came to a close, the MOE introduced us to an app called, ASPIRE The Journey. It’s a free app that shows you how to navigate through life’s decisions and what steps and measures you need to take before you make the leap. Through the app, you will learn  what you are good at, how much time you will need to devote to work, when will you need to go back to school and when you should upgrade yourself. The app is mainly game-based and it’s a great way to pass the time and learn about decision-making in life at the same time. It’s free for both iPhone and Android devices.

Lunch reception with Miss Indranee

 After the session, participants had the chance to go for lunch. While waiting in line, Nauli, a fellow Write Stuff member, and I had a short chat with Miss Indranee and we discussed further on ASPIRE’s contributions to Poly students. Overall, I found the session enriching and  it changed my perspective on Polytechnic education to a certain extent. The lunch reception was great and I had a good time chatting with other students regarding the ASPIRE session and I even got to take a photo with her.

An interview with Arthur Koh, one of the most passionate students during the ASPIRE dialogue session

During the session, Arthur Koh, a Year 2 student studying Business Informatics atNanyang Polytechnic’s School of Information Technology (NYP SIT), had a lot to share about ASPIRE. He spoke about how ASPIRE could actually be expanded to cover primary and secondary school students and parents. After he talked about the part parents play in their children’s decision making process, some other students also talked about how their parents played a role in their decision-making. I spoke with him regarding ASPIRE because of his passion and here are some of his thoughts.

Q: How did you get involved with ASPIRE?
A: I was introduced to ASPIRE by my course coordinator, Miss Serena Goh. She said I was nominated and before this, I only had a brief knowledge about ASPIRE through newspaper articles. Since she told me about that I was nominated for ASPIRE, I decided to read up a little bit about what the initiative was about.

Q: You mentioned that you got nominated for this event, why did you get nominated?
A: Honestly, I don’t know but one day Miss Goh messaged me on Facebook saying that I had been nominated for ASPIRE. I probably think they have selection criteria, maybe because I already went for a dialogue session previously with NParks.

For me, I’m more interested in ASPIRE because it’s more relevant and I think NParks will be good for those people who are linked with land development and eco management. I’m more interested in ASPIRE as  it affects me and people of my age. .

Q: I noticed that you have a lot of opinions on ASPIRE. Can you share with us some of the opinions that you recently shared during the dialogue session?

A:One of the opinions I shared was about how ASPIRE can be expanded to have a focus on primary school students. ASPIRE encourages youths to think about their future career options and gives them a chance to broaden their experiences so that they are more relevant to society. I think that what ASPIRE can do is start giving more exposure at a younger age because when we are young, we have a lot of dreams and ambitions. If you start young, you can plant the seed so that next time, we won’t be at a stage where people don’t know what they want until after O Levels.

Another one was regarding parents. A lot of decisions are made this way. The way we think, where our values come from; a huge part of it, for most people, come from home. Of course, there’s outside influence but the first person we see are our parents and I think if you want to tackle the issue at the root, you can start with the source, which is the parents.

It’s not about telling them you can do it without university education but opening up their minds that there are different paths because there’s a misconception that everyone follows based on word of mouth which might not be true. I think it would be better if ASPIRE can be used as a way to reach out to match what students want  with what parents actually want, so you can bridge both together.

Q: Since you mentioned that there are other options other than university, what path would you take?
A: Personally, until very recently, I was thinking whether I should start my own business instead of going to university. I’m interested in setting up a business but at the same time, I’m considering if I don’t actually have a good business idea, I may go for further education first so that I can build my network and connections. Of course, there is also the option of running a business and going for further education concurrently.

My opinion is that university is a good place to meet new people and get experiences with people who have been in the industry as some are already working adults. In university, the certificate is also important when you’re looking for a job as well as starting your own business because you can use that to prove your credibility but what you learn inside is mainly theory. Like what people say, the best way to learn is to make mistakes.

Q: Have your shared your opinions about ASPIRE before and what did they think?
A: Before I went for the ASPIRE dialogue, I already had these thoughts about how parents should be educated first. I shared this with my own father, who actually is willing to open his mind and on the other hand, you have my mother who has more of the ‘go for a university degree’ route. The opinions that I shared with them are contrasting because even though both my parents didn’t go for university education, my father went through a system where he started from the bottom and worked all the way up. He believes that a degree is useful but it’s not that if you don’t have it, you die.

For my mother’s end, she knows that theory in concept but because of her Korean upbringing, my grandparents told her since young that she must go for a degree. She actually wanted to go but because she was poor, she couldn’t go to university so it’s actually some of the unfulfilled dreams parents have, which they might subconsciously impose on their children but I think ultimately, they want what’s best for us.

Q: What are some opinions that were shared by other students, which you don’t agree with during the dialogue session?
A: For me in general, I’m diplomatic because I like to take a look at things at different perspectives. Usually, if a crowd is taking a certain opinion, I like to see a different perspective but  most of the opinions at the Session werenot really contrasting, they were like built on. For example, I started with parents and after that, another person says ‘oh I agree’ and about how parents really influence a lot.
I guess one thing I would disagree with is that maybe they were too focussed on the parental aspect. That’s the core of the root but our experiences can also be shaped by our friends around us so they are trying to fix that by educating everyone. I think most of the people here actually agree with the path that they’re going through and I kind of agree with that as well.

Q: What do you think of the whole ASPIRE dialogue session and the minister herself
A: Based on my previous experiences, I would say that this dialogue session was a structured event. They told us in the beginning that it’ll be quite open and I was caught off guard because she, the SMS, literally carried the microphone and called students and asked them. I think it’s okay because it actually breaks the pace and it’s not too structured where everybody is giving the same answers all over. In general, the theme is there but what I like was, after I mentioned the parent’s issue, I sawa lot of people sharing from their own personal experiences.

I could see that they spoke from the heart so it’s one thing I really like and I like how the session actually allows people to speak their opinions. People don’t really like to ask questions but during ASPIRE, people ask because they’re curious and I think it allowed us to really see how other people might be thinking so we can be introduced to how other people think and I think it’s good for us in general.

Q: Let’s say there is no ASPIRE and you want to help poly and ITE students, what would you do?
A: I want to be a job creator so if I have a business next time, I would definitely help people by giving them internship experiences. Let’s just say that one day I have a company that’s big enough. We can provide scholarships, educational opportunities and let them learn things they can’t get in classes. There’s only so much we learn from here but through industry experience, that thing will be a good thing so I’ll give them a chance to make mistakes and maybe put them through a mini pressure cooker.

Through this, people can improve themselves right, by breaking it down and then from there, building it up because if you have a weak foundation like the Leaning Tower Of Pisa, it will eventually fall one day unless you reinforce it. If you tear the whole thing down and build it from the bottom, you will stay strong so I think that would be something that I can offer to students next time.

Q: Any other things that you would like to contribute ASPIRE?
A: Actually the group might be too big and they might be choosing people randomly. Probably for some schools, they might choose people who have been selected by their course coordinators. In my case, probably it’s because I spoke to her before so she might have known about my opinions which may be why she chose me. However, it might be random so I think it would be good if there’s some sort of screening process.

Some people might not be interested so maybe it’s good to find out in advance because they may not feel like contributing. It might be better if they place someone there who is interested or if they have a lot of opinions. I guess this is not a bad thing but I think in general, everyone has a similar mindset. ASPIRE itself is good but maybe if the event was a bit smaller it would be better because there’s really a lot of people and if there’s such a big group, they would be more afraid to speak up. Smaller focus groups might be a better thing.

Q: Do you have any advice for the reader?
A: I think what is important is that instead of limiting yourself, I think lifelong learning which is what ASPIRE talks about is very important. When we were young, we all had this spark in us. We were fascinated with everything and I think it’s good if people can hold on to that because we only live so long what might as well experience the joy of discovering and learning just about anything. Never stop learning and life is basically a journey.

Overall, ASPIRE has  changed my perspective of poly (and ITE) education in general. No longer do we have to think and have the perception that Poly is second best and ITE is third best. Now the perspective is that no matter what path you take, everybody will have opportunities. There are tons of career and life opportunities for both Poly and ITE students.  All that matters is that learning should be something that should not just stop at schools and that there are still more opportunities waiting for us if we put our hard work and effort into our lives. My chat with Arthur also opened  my perspective on post-secondary education,that it’s  just the beginning.

By Hanafi Bin Sedik, Year 2, Diploma in Engineering Informatics

I like to spend my free time and weekends exploring various places around Singapore, taking long walks at public parks and eating delicious food. Not only that, I also like to make videos, write on my personal blog and hang out with my awesome friends and family. I wish to work at a major software company and start my own production company in the future.

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