By YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil
President/Vice-Chancellor, OUM

Dr David Lim (DL): Easing into the final quarter of the year, what can we look forward to from now till the year end, Dato’?

YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil (DM): It’s been an exhilarating year for OUM. We recently successfully concluded major rounds of programme accreditation and reaccreditation by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency [MQA]. That, we are immensely proud of.

In September, we graduated about 2,500 of our learners at the 22nd Convocation at the Putra World Trade Centre [PWTC].

In late October, a delegation of OUM staff will be heading to Hanoi for the 2018 Asian Association of Open Universities [AAOU] Annual Conference.

The final key event for the year is the upcoming OUM National Colloquium for Tutors and Learners. On 10 and 11 November, the by-invitation-only colloquium will gather around 140 OUM tutors and learners to share their views and explore open and distance learning [ODL] in the 21st century.

DL: What does OUM aim to achieve with the colloquium?

DM: The colloquium is important to us because tutors and learners are at the very centre of our operations. It is a way of encouraging our tutors and learners to comingle, and to foster better ties and mutual understanding in a supportive collegial environment.

The colloquium is also an opportunity for us to recognise and reward some of our tutors and learners who have played outstanding roles within the University.

As well, it aims to spark dialogue in order to improve on the teaching-learning process gauged by 21st century expectations.

“There are varying views on what constitutes 21st century learning – and by extension, teaching. Nonetheless, there’s consensus that it involves such core competencies as collaborative skills, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving.”

DL: Could you elaborate on these 21st century expectations, Dato’?

DM: There are varying views on what constitutes 21st century learning – and by extension, teaching. Nonetheless, there’s consensus that it involves such core competencies as collaborative skills, digital literacy, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

While such competencies may appear to have always been desirable even before the advent of the 21st century, they are increasingly recognised as critical in a future where automation, artificial intelligence, and disruptive technologies are expected to be ubiquitous.

Now, assume we agree that the future will be radically different from how things are today, and that we need to adequately prepare for it or risk being rendered redundant. Given this scenario, how do we gear ourselves up for the envisioned future as teachers and learners?

How should we embed these future-forward transversal competencies into our current curriculum, mind-sets and the teaching-learning process today?

How do we assist our learners to hark to the future, even as some are still grappling with impedances like rote learning, technology phobia, fear of questioning, sub-literacy, and resistance to higher-order cognition?

And how do we strike a balance in assisting learners in developing not only intellectual capital for career advancement but also humanistic capital for social innovation and societal renewal? We anticipate that such questions, or their offshoots, will be broached directly or tangentially during the colloquium.

DL: I understand that the OUM National Colloquium for Tutors and Learners to be held in November 2018 will be followed up by the 2019 International Conference on Education, organised also by OUM, under the theme “Education for the 21st Century”?

DM: That’s correct.

If you notice, OUM is placing great emphasis on the “21st century”, which is itself a complex signifier. The 21st century is simultaneously the now and the future that stretches to the year 2099. We are 18 years into the century, with another roughly 80 years to go before the turn of the next century. That’s not all.

Even now, in the present, time itself is spread out unevenly. In some pockets within a country or even within a single institution, education may still very much be pre-21st century in conception and practice.

In these pockets, for instance, knowledge is viewed not as discursively constructed and thus open to contestation; it is instead accepted as given and unchanging. Similarly, the teacher remains unchallenged as the fount of knowledge; and education is pursued with inadequate reflexivity, without questioning if what is being pursued today will even be relevant in future.

In contrast to these old paradigms is the progressive conception of education in the 21st century. The 2019 International Conference on Education, or ICE, focuses on the latter under three subthemes: Innovations and technology in education; Assessment in the 21st century; and Access to education and lifelong learning. [See the “Call for Papers” notice for ICE on the final page of this issue.]

DL: ICE 2019 is an international platform that is open to all without restrictions?

DM: ICE 2019 is scheduled to take place on 10 and 11 April 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, and the open call for papers has been sent out internationally.

“A key initiative is the massive ongoing updating of all our learning materials including course modules.”

DL: Apart from these two key events, what new developments and changes can our stakeholders expect from OUM in the immediate future?

DM: Several initiatives are being discussed and worked on in the background as part of our continuous effort to improve all institutional processes that have any bearing at all on teaching and learning.

A key initiative is the massive ongoing updating of all our learning materials including course modules. The aim is to ensure that the content is always up-to-date and constructively aligned with the course objectives and learning outcomes that are routinely refined by our academic team of content experts.

This alignment will in turn be aligned with our assessment tools which, too, are subject to cyclical review and enhancement.

In addition to that, we are working on producing translations of our modules so that, in time, a majority of our courses will have modules in both English and Malay. In this way, we will be better able to serve a large pool of learners who are proficient in only one of the two major languages.

DL: Dato’, could you comment on how this effort is related to the forthcoming infusion of elements of TVET [technical and vocational education and training] into selected course modules currently on offer to OUM learners?

DM: I’m glad you mentioned TVET, this being an area in which the government is currently stepping up efforts to overhaul and popularise.

At OUM, we support the TVET agenda because we believe in its practical utility in complementing academic studies.

We are planning to infuse TVET soft skills into a selection of our courses such as Introduction to Communication, Principles of Management for Non-Business Majors, as well as Thinking Skills and Problem Solving. This will soon be reflected in the respective course modules which are being enhanced as we speak.

DL: These active steps being taken by the University to continually improve upon its programmes surely require substantial financial investment. Does the University have plans to raise the fees it currently charges to reflect its investment?

DM: Our current fees are already very competitive. They are arguably the most affordable in comparison to those of other institutions of higher learning in the country.

OUM learners are rest assured that the fees they pay are locked-in upon entry. That’s an OUM advantage.

The same rates will be payable every semester until they graduate, so they need not worry about any sudden increases.

In any case, the fees we charge must first be approved by the Ministry of Education [MOE]. Based on our costings and proposals, the MOE will set a ceiling to the fees we are permitted to charge by programme.

For many of our programmes, we do not even charge the ceiling rates. We are, however, relooking our costings and may adjust the fees of some programmes slightly upwards so that they are closer to the ceiling.

Some programmes which have already hit the fees ceiling may be relooked. We may apply to the MOE for approval to set a new ceiling based on inflation rates and other cost-increase factors.

Rest assured, any increase in fees will only apply to new learners. The moment they come into the system, the rates they pay are fixed for the duration of their studies.

“In the next few years, OUM will be entering its second decade of establishment, having already grown from ‘emerging’ to ‘mature’ status by the MOE’s classification.”

DL: Last question, Dato’. Could you highlight some other key teaching-learning areas that the University is looking to enhance?

DM: In the next few years, OUM will be entering its second decade of establishment, having already grown from ‘emerging’ to ‘mature’ status by the MOE’s classification.

One of the things we have done and will continue to do as we grow is to constantly raise the bar so that the standards we intrinsically aspire to will meet, if not exceed, the standards by which Malaysian universities are measured by bodies like the MOE.

One of the standards we have recently nudged upwards relate to our research capacity and output. We incentivise our academic staff to conduct rigorous institutional and disciplinary research. We encourage them to publish their work with reputable journals and publishers – ideally, those indexed by academic databases like Scopus and Web of Science. We want our academics’ publications to have longevity, to circulate globally, to be cited by scholars, and to have an impact in their respective fields, for these are things that will elevate the University’s intellectual standing.

DL: Thank you, Dato’, for taking the time to share your views.