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Online education set to revolutionalise learning

01 February 2013

Prof Tan (centre) moderating during the session "The Global Science Outlook" at the WEF 2013

Prof Mahbubani speaking at the session on "Pundits, Professors and Their Predictions"

Photos: World Economic Forum
With the theme of "Resilient Dynamism", mankind's constant battle with long-term challenges took centre stage at this year's World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting at Davos-Klosters in Switzerland.

NUS President Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, who attended the event, noted that online education was a key focus, not only for educational institutions but also diverse organisations. Renowned panellists bringing up the subject included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Rafael Reif, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, as well as founders of major online educational programmes Coursera and Udacity.

Impressed by Khadija Niazi, a 12-year-old school girl from Pakistan who related at a Davos philanthropic roundtable session how free online courses from the US had opened up a whole new world of learning for her, Prof Tan pointed out that such programmes make quality education accessible to millions of students worldwide.

He highlighted their potential disruptive impact on higher education at a session he moderated, where Massachusetts Institute of Technology faculty deliberated the reasons behind the phenomenon. Course delivery via the Internet also held a prominent place during the Global University Leaders Forum led by a small group of universities founded from an initiative of the WEF.

Science represented another popular topic at Davos. At a panel discussion Prof Tan moderated on the global science outlook, international experts explored ways to attain synergies in global research to improve addressing the complex challenges facing the world.

The followed-on session looked at the X factors required to prepare for the unknown, with participants bouncing off ideas in the areas of cognitive enhancement, climate change and ageing. As a panellist, Prof Tan said the ageing demographic was "a very serious crisis, albeit in slow motion". He noted that even though the average lifespan is now a dozen years longer than a few decades ago, these are not necessarily quality years. He suggested a positive X Factor lies in unexpected future discoveries in basic science that could lead to better health outcomes as well as solutions for other risk factors.

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, who was also at the WEF meeting, commented: "Each year, Davos provides a microcosm of our world. The current state of global confusion surfaced in the discussions. On the economic front, there was cautious optimism that Europe had pulled back from the brink and that the US would pull through. On the political front, there was considerable pessimism over Middle East prospects, especially for Syria, Egypt and Iran."

However, he saw Asia as a bright spot in the current situation. "Fortunately, the Davos forum recognised that East Asia was marching to a different beat. Reflecting the message of my new book, The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World, I tried to lighten up Davos with doses of optimism. It received a positive response in both the 'Global Security Context' and the 'Pundits, Professors and Their Predictions' panels that I participated in."