Pey Kin-Leong is not a fan of hybrid learning.
“The interaction part is really missing,” the professor and associate provost for digital learning at Singapore University of Technology and Design says of lessons conducted part in-person and part online.
When Singapore entered its first lockdown in April 2020, SUTD – like institutions around the world – was forced to move its lessons online. While students have now returned to in-person learning at his university, Kin-Leong has accepted that the future of learning has changed. He is also acutely aware that universities and schools could once again be closed at any moment.
“We realised that beyond Covid-19, there could be a new virus so we have to do much better,” he says, sitting down to chat with The PIE at the Global Lifelong Learning Summit in Singapore. But Kin-Leong firmly believes that institutions need to offer more than hybrid learning as we know it now.
“It is very hard to teach both cyber and physical students meeting the same learning outcomes at the same time,” he says.
SUTD is instead developing campusX: an educational ecosystem that aims to give students the flexibility and accessibility of virtual learning without sacrificing the “joy, fun and.. intimacy” of the classroom. The X represents “uncertainty, challenges, but, at the same time, opportunity”.
“CampusX is designed to address the challenges faced by instructors and students that surfaced during Covid-19,” says Kin-Leong, “and to take it a step further to turn these learning experiences gained during the pandemic to develop an integrated and seamless ‘cyber-physical learning’ environment that is suited for both cyber and physical students.
“Cyber-physical learning is not equal to hybrid learning,”
“Cyber-physical learning, in fact, is not equal to hybrid learning,” he continues. “Cyber-physical is really allowing students to learn the same materials from cyberspace and from the physical space. They are learning the same material at the same time. The instructor can be in the cyber or physical space.”
It comes at a time of increasing interest in the concept of “metaversities” – virtual reality campuses hosted in the metaverse. Earlier this year, 10 US-based universities and colleges created replica campuses in the metaverse. SUTD is currently in talks with Microsoft to discuss using Microsoft Mesh, the tech giant’s alternative to the metaverse.
But Kin-Leong says that campusX will not rely on one form of technology: it will instead be part of a virtual ecosystem of learning tools.
“Maybe AR [or] VR can address some of the pain points and provide some solution, but in reality, we may not use it as a single solution – like one size fits all. We will listen to the instructors and students,” he says.
“We think that technology is a means, but its not the end, meaning that we are going to leverage on technology to reach our end goal, to solve the problems or to address the pain points of the instructor and student.”
If campusX sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. But as a university specialising in technology, SUTD is well positioned to find a solution to the question of post-pandemic education.
Singapore’s fourth public university, SUTD opened in 2012 in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with much of its undergraduate curriculum developed by MIT faculty members.
SUTD now has approximately 2,400 students, 15% of whom are international. Its courses focus on engineering, design, computer science and architecture – subjects that require hands-on experience.
In the first iteration of campusX, SUTD has combined telepresence robots (they look a bit like iPads on sticks) with other technology including facial and eye sensors, VR and gamification tools.
The use of robots means that cyber-students are physically represented and “both cyber students and physically present students are able to learn and collaborate together in an effective and socially connected manner”, says Kin-Leong.
“Instructors can take prompt action to provide positive interventions”
“The learning analytics and sensors also provide instructors with real-time dashboard understanding of the learning responses of students, so that instructors can take prompt action to provide positive interventions and create personalised and optimised learning for both cyber and physical students.”
Now, SUTD wants to work with institutions around the world to develop campusX. Last month, it signed a research agreement with Mexican technology university Tecnológico de Monterrey, under which the two institutions will collaborate and share best practice on cyber-physical learning.
Although campusX is in its infancy, Kin-Leong is excited about the potential.
“[It] opens up enormous opportunities in terms of future students. This could be students who maybe are affiliated with us but not a full-time student. They could be students who want to associate with us and learn something new, but couldn’t find those courses in their own institutions.”
The ecosystem will also allow students to study from their workplaces, give disabled students greater access, and may even open up to students from less-developed countries who are unable to afford to study abroad – all without sacrificing the interactive learning experience.
“And these cyber students do not have to be physically present or matriculate with us,” Kin-Leong says. “I thought that’d be cool, right?”