By Prema Ponnudurai
Digital technology consumption is rapidly growing, with over 26 million Malaysians using the internet today for many online activities.
This is in line with the 12th Malaysia Plan 2021-2025, which focuses on transforming Malaysia into a digitally and technology-driven nation by 2030.
By embedding digitalisation, the education sector is equipping students to achieve Malaysia’s aspirations. It also ensures they remain competitive through various cross-discipline teaching pedagogies that employ the latest innovations in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and augmented reality.
Nevertheless, this feverish inclusion of digitalisation must be coupled with the nurturing of basic human skills and tread with caution to stay true to visions of holistic development.
Through the growth of technology over the years, educational philosophies have evolved from teacher-centred to student-centred and now to ‘self-centred’ learning.
As online delivery, remote learning, self-directed learning, personalised, and independent learning expand, the central role of the teacher is quickly diminishing.
Education of yesteryears was filled with fond memories of bonding with friends, playing pranks, and quirky teachers. However, this may not be the case for future generation learners with the accelerated incorporation of technology.
Highly technology-infused education often leads to an isolating learning experience with a remotely accessible teacher and distant classmates. Recently, studies in technological usage and loneliness have been rampant, leading to the term technolonely being coined.
Friendships are the foundation of growth at university, where connections are made by students having shared interests and on a similar path of intellectual and personal growth. Empirical studies have also indicated that friends are the central social support system for adolescents compared to family.
According to the World Health Organization, among the top causes of mental health issues in youth today is isolation and loneliness, which can also lead to suicidal deaths among youth globally.
In Malaysia, a national study found that youth aged 16-24 are 4.8 times more likely to attempt suicide than other age groups.
Some of the leading causes of suicide attempts noted are academic pressure, lack of peer or parent connectedness, and prolonged online interaction leading to decreased human communication.
Based on these facts, it is crucial that universities play a central role in developing human connections for their students and growing a more robust human-centric teaching and learning environment to ensure that the overall wellbeing of students is maintained.
At present, an array of co-curricular activities and clubs are available at universities. However, these can be improved to transcend into other aspects of a student’s social support system.
For instance, living on campus should be made available to students beyond just the first year as studies have indicated that stronger relationships are built by students living on campus compared to those who live off campus.
Teaching and learning should also take place off campus by way of visits and excursions to related sites so that learning takes place implicitly and the opportunity to build social capital by a shared lived experience increases.
Interestingly, a 2017 study has found that significant social capital leads to improved employability among university students.
The philosophy of human-centric education is beyond just imparting academic knowledge and skills but also centring on a ‘value-based’ approach. It places importance on nurturing human virtues and cultivating qualities of ‘being human’.
Through curriculum enhancements, universities should offer credit-bearing electives in non-academic areas but which contribute to overall growth like sports, service learning, volunteering and community projects.
These contribute to the development of the social and affective domains of the students and to their development as a whole person.
For instance, Durham University in the UK offers modules like Harry Potter and the Age of Illusion; Liverpool Hope University in the UK provides courses on The Beatles; and Cornell University in the US offers a course on recreational tree climbing.
Hence, as universities are often viewed as societal gatekeepers, an equilibrium needs to be maintained for students to build and maintain human connections for social support as these relationships are the foundations of a well-balanced educational experience and provide opportunities to forge lifelong friendships based on shared interests.
As we prepare students for the future workforce, we are witnessing transformations in work trends in the forms of remote and hybrid working cultures.
As we battle the dual disruption of the pandemic and automation, universities have equal responsibility not only to prepare students with knowledge and skills but also to navigate relations and communication for this work environment.
By nature, the human mind was designed to be creative, to solve problems and to be innovative for survival.
While it is important to develop digital skills for the future, technology is always evolving and society will need to continually keep upskilling and relearning digital skills to keep up with trends and remain competitive.
However, it is imperative that ever-consistent human soft skills such as respect, communication, collaboration, listening, empathy and resilience are also inculcated in students, as these are in essence of what it means to be human. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “the greatness of humanity is not in being human, but in being humane.”
So, the next time you are in class, instead of starting by asking your students to log into the learning portal to access your lecture notes, take a few minutes to ask them, “How can I help make you a better person?”. It could make a world of difference.
Prema Ponnudurai is head of the School of Media and Communications at Taylor’s University