We sat down with Shui-Min Tan, Chief Information Technology Office at National University of Singapore to discuss how the institution has evolved over the past two years, how her team is tapping on AI and other emerging technologies to meet evolving demands not only in teaching but also in student life, understand how IT leaders, like herself, are having a say on how we teach, learn, live and work in a digital campus.
EDUtech_talks: What has the past year been like for you as the Chief Information Technology Officer (CITO) and how has the institution pivoted?
Tan Shui-Min: I took on the role right smack in the middle of the pandemic, so it was like taking over the baton and sprinting ahead. We were rolling out pandemic solutions whilst keeping to the timelines of our planned projects. As such, it has been busy, busy, busy. But it has been immensely satisfying so far, as the team worked together to deliver results for NUS. I have been blessed with a very strong and supportive team, one that is resilient especially when the going gets tough. I was formerly Director (Applications) and my focus was very much on the applications side of IT. Since taking over, I have had to keep up with the developments of infrastructure and cybersecurity as well.
We transited to remote working quite seamlessly and it showed that in terms of infrastructure we were quite prepared. Everything is either cloud-based or centralised and we have the security provisions to protect it as well. When it came to end-user devices, they were correctly configured to work from home which helped confirm that things put in place before were adequate.
EDUtech_talks: What do you think are some of the changing needs of the university and its stakeholders post pandemic?
Tan Shui-Min: Hybrid is here to stay – hybrid teaching and learning, hybrid research work, hybrid administrative work, etc. People have realised that work can be done remotely, but also recognised the importance of human interaction. As such, the future of work and learning is going to be a mix of physical and digital spaces.
We also envision a lot more online, blended type of learning and we need to be prepared not just with infrastructure but also other solutions like exam proctoring solutions and innovative pedagogy. This involves building smart classrooms, smart boards and also a need to bring up the digital dexterity of our staff. Teachers will need help with converting their lesson materials to video recordings and slides for students to refer to online.
Additionally, we have subscribed to edX, continued to upgrade our learning management system and created a “geNiUS channel” where we put a lot of our teaching videos virtually.
We have been dabbling with Artificial Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR) and Mixed Reality (MR) for the past three to four years and have built innovative pedagogies using these technologies. Through technology, we are seeeing virtual counselling, where medical students learn to support patients through virtual scenarios using VR. Instead of looking at two-dimensional molecular diagrams in a textbook, there is now the capability of looking at complex molecular structures in three-dimensional. These technologies cushioned us during the pandemic.
In today’s situation, students do not have patients for practice purposes and there is a limit in the numbers in the physical laboratory. Faced with these physical restrictions, VR and AR can create a new kind of learning environment for the student and one that can take place any time of the day.
In addition, NUS IT is working towards positioning as the “borderless” university, where students can learn from any part of the world, and research collaboration transcends geographical locations. A “borderless” university will no longer be constrained by physical and geographical limitations; it will be driven by technology, where teaching and learning, research can take place in the digital realm.
We have set this as our “True North”, where we draw our directions in creating our solutions. We are realising this in our implementation of the digital workplace to facilitate hybrid working and learning as well as the use of MR technology to create a digital learning space that can mimic the physical environment.
EDUtech_talks: What role do you see artificial intelligence (AI) playing in the future of education?
Tan Shui-Min: The potential implementation and application of AI are broad and wide-ranged and can apply to a multitude of facets in an organisation. For a higher-learning organisation, an AI system can bring tremendous benefit to the university’s foundation, that of education, research, and administration.
On the educational aspect, we can view it from both sides of a learning process, via the educator, and the student. Educators benefit from an AI assistant system that reduces labour-intensive work, such as grading homework or assessing papers. This alleviates their burdens and allows educators to spend more time to focus on tailoring and conducting impactful lessons for their students, as well as research.
At the same time, an AI assistant gathers insights on how well a student performs and provides recommendations on maintaining or improving their performance. Such information provides an early warning and course-corrective recommendations for non-performers who are on a trajectory of dropping out.
On the student side, the application of an AI system should be all about maximising the chance of a successful learning process. The most basic application is probably a chatbot or assistant to help students navigate the university’s physical, virtual, and academic spaces. A more advanced application could tailor the learning process according to the student’s profile and allow students to select a learning path that fits their preferences and schedule.
EDUtech_talks: What is your Smart Campus vision and how are your working towards it?
Tan Shui-Min: Smart Campus initiatives can be grouped into 2 areas – One revolving around the campus life and experience, and the other anchored in safety and sustainability initiatives.
Firstly, on campus life and experience. A student experiences life on campus through integrated experiences where technology is weaved into their activities. For instance, on-campus dining could be a cashless experience, with the capability of pre-ordering via their mobile, getting campus food delivered and having food lockers. Other initiatives include smart student accommodation with robot concierge services, AI help desks or dining halls with facial recognition.
With campus life all in their palm, students can get a personal assistant on their phone, to remind them of class times, relevant bus arrivals, suggested routes, set-off time and nearby dining options. We want to create a one-stop mobile platform for staff and students, one that is smart and personalised for the individual and one that knows them well.
Secondly, we want to work on safety and sustainability and how technologies can play a role. Enhanced security with facial recognition around campus and video analytics, equipping buildings with sensors, internet of things (IoT), and algorithms to optimise energy consumption to work towards sustainability are all possibilities we will be looking into.