By Shawn Kelly
Thailand’s 27th Prime Minister Hon. Abhisit Vejjajiva commanded the stage at the Asian Institute of Technology on 26 August 2020, delivering a keynote speech titled: “Future, We Hear You: Reforming Education for Lifelong Learning.”
The former PM was speaking to an international gathering of engineering educators attending the PAEE/ALE’ 2020 International Conference on Active Learning On Engineering Education hosted for the first time in Asia by AIT. The 3-day academic event conducted via hybrid technology attracted in-person participants from 5 universities in Thailand and academicians who joined remotely from a number of countries overseas.
AIT President Dr. Eden Woon welcomed the delegates and explained how AIT moved to innovate the delivery of its education in response to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Hybrid instruction using smart modified classrooms and interactive technologies has been largely successful at AIT, he said. “But this is just the tip-of-the-iceberg for the changes expected to happen at universities,” he added. “Not to replace in-person education but to add value through innovation.”
In his opening address, Mr. Abhisit offered a wide range of insights on the many challenges facing education systems against the backdrop of rapid technological change in an era defined by constant disruption. Drawing on his more than 30 years of public service, the former Prime Minister explored the recent trajectory of education through the lens of Thailand, outlining its past successes and current problems to suggest a future way forward.
The expansion of opportunities in education systems has been a great priority for governments around the world, and many societies have benefited, he said. In Thailand, the length of children’s compulsory education has greatly increased, as have national enrollment levels. But mass education has also come at a cost in terms of diversity, quality, and widening gaps in the skills of graduates versus the needs of employers.
“There clearly has been a mismatch between what the current education system is supplying and the demands of the private and public sectors for human resources,” he cautioned.
Echoing the conference theme of Striving Engineering Education Towards Student Competence Development, the former PM stressed that attaining and developing core competencies is now the key to lifelong success. Students need to master how to synthesize, analyze and criticize and not just “cram in” data since the information age enables information to be accessed easily.
“Value creation in today’s economies is all about creativity being added on to technology,” Mr. Abhisit said. “So young people will need a diverse set of customized skills to succeed.”
At university, students will benefit from multidisciplinary education rather than studying specialized subjects, he suggested. For this to happen, schools will need to redesign their curricula, and be flexible in the way they organize themselves. Governments too must change by deregulating and decentralizing educational oversight, and open up education space for other stakeholders. Universities can benefit from allowing contributions from industry who can better match the core competencies expected by employers who are constantly innovating and responding to technological advancements.
Speaking from the United States on the topic of “Active Transdisciplinary Engineering Education for Competence Development in an Intelligent Manufacturing Era,” Georgia Tech’s Prof. David W. Rosen added that conventional lecture style education is no longer sufficient to build needed competence in engineers. He recommended using maker spaces for engineers to develop skills such as the ability to communicate, use domain knowledge, and take action from socially constructed ideas.
Conference chair Assoc. Prof. Pisut Koomsap of AIT’s Industrial Systems Engineering program agreed. “It’s all about competence,” he stressed. “Developing skills through active learning will define one’s career prospects in the future.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the word “disruption” concrete, Mr. Abhisit remarked. “It has woken so many of us up to the need to be flexible, to be nimble and to change to find innovative ways of solving problems,” he said, urging educators to recognize the need for serious reform in education.
The world has changed, and education must keep pace and equip people with the right set of competencies and skills so that many will make valuable contributions to the economy and to society and the world at large, Mr. Abhisit concluded.