Integrate digital upskilling and reskilling initiatives into the education curriculum

By continuously reforming/improving and adapting the curriculum (in the education system), the end result is higher standards leading to better employability, and not least sought-after digital skills.

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Published in Astro Awani & Asia News Today, image by Astro Awani.

Malaysia has introduced numerous digital upskilling and reskilling initiatives to promote a highly-skilled workforce fit for the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and beyond (think 5IR).

These have included MyDigitalWorkForce Work in Tech (MYWiT), #MyDigitalMaker, Premier Digital Tech Institute, Digital Skills Training Directory, Let’s Learn Digital and eUsahawan by the Malaysian Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC). At the same time, there is the Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s Jobs under the auspices of MY Future Jobs of the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR).

Digital skills are the skills required to “use digital devices, communication applications and network to access and manage information,” from basic online searching and emailing to specialist programming and development.

Data science, digital marketing, cloud computing, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence (AI), user experience design and programming development are several examples of digital skills.

However, education and training institutions in the country have not been able to equip students adequately with the digital skills that growth industries required even well before the Covid-19 era.

For one, the digital skills gap continues to widen between the well-off and underprivileged students throughout the pandemic due to unequal access to digital devices or Internet connectivity. Lockdown measures over the past two years have constrained ability among the underprivileged to follow up the course syllabuses or take extra hours to learn relevant digital skillsets online.

In turn, this has exacerbated the foundational digital skills of students. In the near future, we can expect the situation to be “tighter” for employers as (they continue to) face a tough time recruiting the right talent because graduates do not possess the related digital skills required in the job market.

Nevertheless, till today, colleges and universities have not been able to keep up with the industrial needs of the market, leading to constant criticisms about the quality and type of graduates produced. 

While the higher educational institutions cannot be faulted for “drilling” students well to achieve good grades or pass the exams, they do not sufficiently prepare students to be career-ready.

Higher educational institutions remain (relative) “laggards” in aligning their programmes and courses to the needs of the ever-changing economy. Students may be geared theoretically to solve most problems on paper but, often times, they could struggle to solve real-life work problems and may not have been properly equipped with the necessary skills to do so, in practice.

As highlighted in “Techtalk – Education: Are our universities lagging behind in their tech-related courses?”, The Edge (February 8, 2021), higher educational institutions’ accreditation by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) is laborious and bureaucratic. It could take almost four years for MQA to vet and finally approve a programme. In addition, the internal standards process of the higher educational institutions can take up to a year. By then, the industry and market landscape could have evolved drastically, as pointed out by Eric Ku – who is the co-founder and Executive Director of iTrain Asia Pte Ltd (digital skills training company headquartered in Singapore with a branch in Malaysia).

The overall situation becomes acute when some companies decided to adopt full-time remote working even after the lockdowns (as part of “living with Covid-19”). This inevitably leads to a higher demand for emerging job roles that require specialised digital skills but that which cuts across the data management networking such as hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) – which combines of common data-centre hardware with intelligent software to create flexible storage networks.

Nonetheless, as has been reported, the pace of skills transformation is much slower than the pace of digital transformation in Malaysia – arising from a shortage of digital talent in the country.

For instance, Malaysia ranked 46th (with 57% proficiency) in Coursera’s Global Skills Report last year – way behind Singapore (10th) and Vietnam (20th). Indonesia ranked 45th.

While Malaysian learners were well-versed with digital skills like cloud computing (91% proficiency) and data analysis (79%), there is a significant skills gap across the business (53%), technology (56%) and data science (52%) domains.

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s The Future of Jobs report published in October 2020, only 66.3% of the active population (i.e., encompassing employed and unemployed persons) in Malaysia possess (some form of) digital skills.

PwC also revealed in its “Hopes and Fears Survey 2021” that only 19% of Malaysians were confident in their digital skills – which is sufficient for them to perform their jobs.

In contrast, 78% of Malaysians stated that limited technology access restricted their ability to develop skills required in the job market.

As there were not enough digital talents to fill up the gap, 56,000 digital job vacancies were available in Malaysia as of April 2021. That was almost triple from 19,000 in June 2020, according to MDEC.

Notwithstanding, the Malaysia Digital Economy Blueprint (MDEB) and the MyDIGITAL Initiative contain ambitious plans to generate and nurture agile and competent digital talent between the 2021 to 2030 period.

Yet, at the formative level (i.e., at the primary and secondary school levels), there is uncertainty as to the sustained quality of the digital packages that are required to ensure all schools in the country have good Internet connectivity.

Other than the mere mention of three Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the 12th Malaysia Plan with the termination of 1BestariNet programme, and the launch of the Digital Educational Learning Initiative Malaysia (DELIMa) in July 2019 to enhance digital learning in schools, there is no clarity as to the quality of service (QOS) and service guarantee commitments.

In addition, there is no specific target set on how many teachers have to fully embrace the use of digital tools and technology in teaching, learning and administrative work together with the corresponding outcome. MDEB only indicated that all primary and secondary school teachers must undergo the My Digital Teacher training programme under the supervision of the Ministry of Education (MOE) by 2025.

Nonetheless, the government’s plan to align curriculum design of higher education institutions and in-demand digital skills of the industry by 2025 is a strategic move to improve the capability of students to be future work-ready. This initiative will be under the oversight of both Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI) and the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE).

In short, beyond addressing the digital infrastructure needs of the nation for improved broadband access and internet speed, the current administration also has to resolve the digital skill gap between graduates and the skills demanded by employers today.

Hence, EMIR Research has the following policies to recommend:

1. The orientation and pedagogy of the syllabus, programmes and courses have to continuously evolve, keeping up with the rising demands of the digital economy. This means keeping constant tabs on the latest and up-to-date developments which should be incorporated in real-time into the curriculum, even before formal accreditation, if need be, so long as there is informal approval and confirmation by industry.

And while emphasising digital (i.e., domain) skills, the higher educational institutions should also work closely with industry on the mastering of soft skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving (i.e., lateral skills) that are at the same time, specific and practical to a particular technical requirement or competency.

2. Internships and apprenticeships must be prioritised and properly balanced with the classroom ecosystem. The exposure and experience should also include overseas locations as part of the curriculum.

Furthermore, a rotational scheme should also be promoted whereby there would be several internship experiences in different digital sectors or sub-sectors over the period of three to four years of university life. This would further enhance the students’ exposure and familiarity with rapid changes in industry demand.

3. Within the classroom scenario, small-group tutoring involving industry partners should be introduced so as to balance between ‘theory” and “practice”, and bridge any (impending) skill(s) gap(s).

For primary and secondary level, private education providers could assist schools in providing tutorial sessions after school hours (i.e., 2 hours per tutorial session) and organised at least three times a week. Those experiencing learning loss over the past two years of the pandemic would have the chance to catch up with the school syllabus while picking up some digital skillsets.

4. Technical and vocational education training (TVET) institutions should collaborate with higher educational institutions for cross-learning (by having lecturers from each to be seconded to one another) and promote sharing of technical knowledge and experience (in research and development or R&D as well as commercialisation and application of R&D findings and products).

In line with the dual-track system as practiced in Germany, there should also be flexibility for those wishing to switch from TVET to academia and vice-versa.

5. Accreditation of primary, secondary and tertiary syllabuses on digital subjects should involve the industry. The industry should also have a greater say in designing and vetting the curriculum. At the same time, this would enable the fast-tracking of the accreditation and standards process that is responsive to industry needs.

6. Role-playing and gamification should also be introduced or expanded for STREAM (Science, Technology, Reading, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) education and ideally should be implemented in English. This achieves the purpose of enhancing English language proficiency alongside opening new horizons, with particular reference to students from underprivileged and rural background.

As mentioned by Simpang Renggam MP and former Education Minister YB Dr Maszlee Mailk in his article titled “STEM4ALL, AI and STREAM in education: A 20-month experience” (Malay Mail, March 25, 2021), digital skills are a passport to new opportunities for millions of Malaysians and a building block to attract investment, innovation and new jobs in a global economy.

As digital skills become must-have skills in future jobs, intimate strategic collaboration among the government, industry, academia, TVET and other relevant stakeholders – is critical in ensuring wide-scale digital reskilling and upskilling in both the pre-employment and employment ecosystems.

And by continuously reforming/improving and adapting the curriculum (in the education system), the end result is higher standards leading to better employability, and not least sought-after digital skills.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

 

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