Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education: delivering the skills of the future

Tasked with fulfilling an ever expanding need for world-class workers, Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education (ITE) is championing vocational education and skills standards across a number of industries. With a first-world economy, Singapore is among many leading countries that are deploying the latest technology to enhance growth and prosperity. But how is this being implemented? And how is the country building the skillset it needs to stay on track? Following a visit to ITE College HQ back in June, I speak to ITE Director and CEO, Bruce Poh, to find out more.

1) What does technology mean to ITE?

Technology is very much embedded in our programmes, teaching, and learning approaches. It is important for our lecturers and students to keep pace with the rapid developments of technology. While technology can serve as an enabler, it can also be disruptive to many existing jobs, skillsets and businesses. We see this as an important challenge for us to remain relevant and continue to upskill and climb up the knowledge ladder to enhance the capabilities of our staff and students.

At ITE, we harness technology to enhance learning for students, individually, or as a group. Through such exposure to technology early in their studies, students are savvy for the 21st century demands of the workplace.

2) How does ITE harness technological innovations to improve the learning experience?

We are constantly looking to see how we can intensify and scale-up ICT-enabled learning that appeals to our students, who are mostly kinaesthetic learners. Besides equipment provided in school, we encourage students to bring their own devices to labs and interact with lecturers through flipped learning.

For example, just last year, ITE won the Wenhui (文晖) Award for Educational Innovation, established by the National Commission of the People’s Republic of China for UNESCO, and coordinated by the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Programme of Educational Innovation for Development (APEID). ITE won this Award for our "Innovations in 3D Applied Technologies for Skills Development".

We have a Centre for Technology in 3D Applied Technologies where students from our marine engineering, aerospace, and floristry courses use 3D virtual reality learning to "authenticate" work processes and environments. The approach is being scaled up for other courses where opportunities for real-life experience is limited yet necessary to undertake such work.

To ensure our faculty is in tune with industry developments, we have Technology Development Centres (TDC) at each of the three colleges to provide authentic learning opportunities through technology consultancy and projects. The TDC collaborates with industry partners to develop products and systems for business innovation and productivity enhancements.

These are done through a multidisciplinary engineering lab ranging from electronics, to ICT, materials, and mechanical engineering. The projects executed include development of autonomous vehicles, medical devices for kidney stone surgery, IoT applications, smart sensors, and 3D printing.

3) What makes ITE the destination of choice for learners?

Good career options and market-relevant courses. Today, we offer more than 100 full-time courses, compared to just 24 when ITE became a post-secondary institution in 1992. Students have a wide range of courses, across 11 sectors (compared to only four in 1992) to choose from. These courses are created according to industry demand, while ensuring most students can find a course that fits their areas of interest and strengths.

The development of the new 'Regional' Colleges has allowed ITE to introduce more choices and multi-disciplinary programmes for students, and innovative pedagogic approaches via ‘Authentic Learning’ and ‘Immersive Learning’, where teaching and learning occur in spaces simulating real-life work environments.

For example, our aerospace students train in an actual Boeing 737 and other aircrafts; our hospitality students train in a 22-room Campus Hotel and four training restaurants; our healthcare students learn in simulated hospital wards, using high-fidelity mannequins. Our engineering students learn to work on ‘virtual oil-rigs’ in a 3D virtual reality lab, diagnose and repair 'faulty' lifts and escalators, and manufacture products using flexible manufacturing systems and robots.

Our graduates are highly sought after by industry, with about 90 percent of them being employed within six months after graduation. ITE is a destination that one can be assured of a bright future in an area of one’s passion.

We also have a Holistic Student Development Framework to provide opportunities for students to engage in enrichment and development programmes beyond the formal curriculum, including opportunities for global education overseas, personal leadership development, sports, arts and cultural development. Under the global education programme, thirty percent of our students have the opportunity for overseas exchanges, internships and service learning. The Colleges also have a rich array of Co-Curricular Activities (CCAs), which grew from 110 in 2006 to more than 250 currently. Students have autonomy to start new CCAs if they are not already offered.  

One key feedback we often hear from our graduates is the care they experience from their lecturers. We have a strong care culture among staff, as shown in the passion and care of lecturers towards students. ITE intentionally hires staff who show good cultural and values fit, including personality traits that are aligned with the ITE Care (Integrity, Teamwork, Excellence) values and passion to connect with our students.

We have excellent facilities and learning environment for our students. Today, we have three facility- and feature-rich mega-campuses. Students enjoy modern, state-of-the-art learning facilities that are the envy of their peers. ITE College East was established in January 2005; ITE College West in July 2010; and ITE College Central and ITE Headquarters in January 2013.

4) What developments does ITE have planned for the next five years?

ITE, together with the five polytechnics and six universities, works in tandem with Singapore’s manpower strategies to develop skilled manpower for the nation. ITE’s current five-year strategic roadmap – the ITE Trailblazer– is aligned to the national SkillsFuture initiative. The plan is ITE’s strategic response to Singapore’s next phase of development as an advanced economy and society.

In the SkillsFuture agenda, the focus of skills education is continual learning, both on and off the job, and mastery of skills through applied and lifelong learning. In line with the SkillsFuture initiatives, ITE equips our students to be career-ready, with several key approaches.

Since 2015, we implemented 40 hours of the Enhanced Career Counselling (ECG) curriculum across two years for all ITE students. Through the ECG curriculum, students are guided on areas such as choosing a career, and applying relevant transferable skills for the workplace. To give targeted attention, a total of 18 ECG counsellors have been deployed to the three Colleges, with six at each College.

Implemented in 2015, we have worked with industry and companies as co-learning partners, to provide structured internship under an Enhanced Internship Framework. The scheme provides work-based learning, and opportunities for students to develop and deepen skills sets via real work in industry.  Students undergo structured Internship for three to six months via a prescribed, agreed task list under the guidance of an industry trainer. To date, 60 percent of ITE courses have Enhanced Internships. By 2020, all full-time students in 101 ITE courses would have the opportunity to undergo this programme.

To ensure that the skills we teach are relevant, and our students have good employment opportunities when they graduate, we work closely with industry in our curriculum planning process. We have industry representatives in our eight academic advisory committees, and hold regular focus groups with the industry professionals, to ensure that we are in touch with industry and technology changes.

While we can never predict the technological changes of the future, we can future-proof our graduates with competencies that will stand them in good stead for the future. These 21st century competencies, such as problem solving skills, cross-cultural competencies, communication and digital skills, and self-directed learning skills are taught as part of LifeSkills in ITE, and infused in the skills-based programmes and applied learning environments.

To increase their value, relevance and versatility vis-a-vis rapid technological changes, ITE prepares students for related occupations under a single cluster rather than skills for a single trade area. This means students are ready for a group of related jobs, and are flexible to pick up skills for these related jobs. We also have plans to use discipline-specific pedagogy, which helps us adapt and differentiate different pedagogies practised in different clusters of courses. This results in better engagement of students and learning outcomes.  

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