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  • Writer's pictureStacey Chiew

Exclusive Interview with Dr Elizabeth Lee: The True Essence of Education

One thing we shouldn’t forget is that artificial intelligence is an invention of humans. Humans will always create, for better or for worse. - Dr Elizabeth Lee Fuh Yen

Senior Executive Director of Sunway University, Dr Elizabeth Lee Fuh Yen. Photo courtesy: Sunway University

Senior Executive Director of Sunway Education Group and Sunway University, Dr Elizabeth Lee Fuh Yen, has dedicated her entire professional life in raising the standard and improving the quality of higher education in Malaysia. She joined Sunway Education Group in 1992. Under her leadership, Sunway University has flourished into one of the most preferred universities for local and international students. The University also takes the lead in supporting the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is committed to promoting both student and staff well-being.

There’s a saying, the greatest asset to a country is its people. For a university, students are a valuable asset. Regardless of one’s nationality or race, education continues to play an important role in human development and growth. Since the first school appeared, the debate about the true goals of education never seems to end. There are no perfect answers due to the different views of experts on what education should be – the right subjects to teach, the various approaches of teaching and the types of classroom assessments.

In our increasingly competitive world, people continue to enrol themselves in colleges and universities for various reasons. One is to gain a competitive advantage in the employment market, others include professional development purposes or simply gather ideas. A leading expert in higher education and a strong advocate for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, Dr Elizabeth shares her insights on 21st century learning, the future of education and environmental concerns.

Staying one step ahead. Photo courtesy: Sunway University

1. As the world seeks to refine and reform today’s education system, what education means to you?

An effective education system is not about teaching students how to take a test, but the ability to connect previously acquired knowledge to new situations. It is about effectively incorporating the various information and skills taught in class in real-world settings.

Having good problem-solving skills, knowing when to filter unnecessary information and retain valuable ones can enhance student confidence in different stages of their life. Putting learning first is necessary. However, building competence, character and having the right mind-set are equally important. A good attitude can set students up for long term success. As a result, they become more flexible and adaptable in response to changing circumstances.

University means “universal”, a place where different types of knowledge are celebrated under one roof. The core of education to me is about educating the whole person, and this goes beyond teaching fundamental skills, it is about getting in touch with the inner self. A good university should facilitate students with a thorough and effective curriculum. This means nurturing the whole self – body, mind and spirit to achieve overall wellness. There are many benefits in achieving academic excellence, but the right personality traits such as service to others and thinking ahead can help improve students’ overall wellbeing. To sum up, an educated person is someone who has the characteristics of a refined person, and know when to make good use of his or her knowledge and experience to benefit others.

2. The 21st-century educators continue to debate what works, what doesn't. Based on your experience, what works best in today’s education and why?

This is the age of digital revolution, and we are in the midst of the 4th industrial revolution. Artificial intelligence (AI) is all around us. We need to prepare our students for the challenges of tomorrow. It is true that opportunities comes to those who are prepared. Some will lose their jobs but new jobs will be created as well. This happens during every industrial revolution. For every challenge there is an opportunity. We just need to adjust and adapt to change.

When people see machines that can “think” and “talk” like humans, they start imagining how AI will be taking away their jobs and taking over the world. One thing we shouldn’t forget is that AI is an invention of humans. Humans will always create, for better or for worse. As long as we keep evolving with the world and stay several steps ahead of AI, there are many jobs we can still do to advance our society. A human brain is a lot more sophisticated and intelligent than AI.

It is a fact that AI can perform multiple tasks and calculate faster than a human brain. But AI doesn’t think like humans, it doesn’t have a heart, it is controlled by a CPU that is programmed by humans and it can only be as intelligent as the information it takes in. AI follows logic, how a human brain works still remains a mystery till today.

For example, the artworks created by Vincent Van Gogh reveal his struggles with poverty and mental illness. The brush strokes, the contrast of colours, the subject matter, and the creative process was nothing but a reflection of his heart and soul at work - the pain and suffering of his inner world. Good art comes from personal feelings, life experiences and the deepest part of the heart. AI can't substitute human intuition and emotional intelligence.

In today’s world, students need to cultivate good thinking skills so that they can selectively choose their thoughts and ideas in ways that will allow them to thrive. Having good critical thinking skills foster flexible thinking. Humans are good at excelling in the real world, they adapt and evolve while AI is good at handling repetitive jobs in order to make our lives easier. Unless we strive to think better than the machines and focus on building the necessary skills in areas robots can’t do well, otherwise it will be quite a challenge for some to survive in a high tech world.

3. What are the new trends in education?

Everything seems to change drastically for the past few years simply because of technology and internet evolution. Computer science is an excellent choice as experts projected that the demand for technology will continue to rise. IT is big business. On my recent trip to the Silicon Valley, I witnessed first-hand that the tech job market is still high in demand and technological innovation continues to expand at an accelerating rate. It is true technology is progressing faster than ever.

Humans are in the process of creating more powerful tools, especially information technology. It is important for students to put thoughts into the direction the world is heading to. At the same time, they must consider their personal needs and select the right courses that have meaning to them and not doing something that they do not enjoy because of pressure or to fulfil someone’s expectations. Talking to peers, getting guidance from the right people or experts can certainly help them choose the most suitable course.

4. What are the differences between today’s students and students from the 90s? What are the challenges faced by the 21st- century students?

One of my concerns for the 21st century students is mental health. The exact cause of mental illnesses is unknown but experts suggested that it could be caused by a combination of various factors. Given the penetration of technology into our daily lives, the need to work with technology is no longer an option but a necessity. The internet is responsible for spreading information globally. Staying connected is just a click away. According to research, teens who are obsessed with social media or repeatedly exposed to unwanted content are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety, stress or depression.

For a variety of reasons, we often hear that modern day students are less resilient than their predecessors. Perhaps the shift of parenting norms, unrealistic academic expectations and exhaustion caused by school demands are few of the reasons why our young adults are suffering from burnout. Students need to learn to pay attention to their stress levels and seek help when necessary before the problems get worse.

5. Competition or collaboration? Pick one, why?

It’s really hard just to pick one and ignore the other because competition in life is inevitable. I feel that competition is necessary and healthy competition is good for all, it is part of the learning process. In the past and present, competition always exists. I believe competition with good collaboration is the key to success. Competition helps us aim to be as good as or better than another person, it provides motivation and helps us to examine the areas we need to improve.

Good cooperation is critical to any organization's success. Without collaboration and teamwork, it is impossible to make a significant contribution that will benefit a company or a project. No one can do high-quality work in isolation, as most projects are carried out by small teams. Under the right condition, a few brains are better than one brain. Therefore a healthy dose of competitive spirit and a high dose of team collaboration can result in generating better ideas for new discoveries.

6. Sunway University is committed to raising awareness among students and staff, professors and lecturers about issues related to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). What are the steps taken by your university to promote and create solutions for these global issues?

Sunway University has always been a strong advocate for the SDGs. At the heart of the 2030 agenda, are the 17 global goals. I am proud to say that Sunway University is the first sustainable university in Malaysia that embraces the goals. We have been working closely with a panel of experts from the United Nations and in partnership with Lancaster University (UK) to unlock doors for students to gain exclusive education. Since 2018, our university offers the Master in Sustainable Development Management for those who are passionate about developing innovative solutions for a better world. The program is a huge success with interest from students worldwide. In the near future, we plan to offer the Doctorate in Sustainable Development due to the global demand for SDGs-related education.

We are constantly seeking and promoting opportunities for our students to engage with the SDGs. We have developed different strategies to inspire them to take action on building a more sustainable future together. The last straw campaign was launched last year and we have given away reusable straws to create awareness of the importance of protecting the world’s oceans, as plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to ocean health. Additional water dispensers were added on campus to discourage students from buying bottled water and to encourage them to bring their own water bottles. All our vendors on campus no longer sell bottled water.

Most people are not aware that new technology can cause negative impact to our environment too. Toxic chemicals used during manufacturing and stripping discarded computers and tech gadgets down can be a real hazard for the ecosystem as more toxic chemicals are released to the environment. As responsible global citizens, we should find ways to use technology in the most responsible way to avoid creating serious global problems.

Championing the United Nations 17 global goals. Photo courtesy: Sunway University

Article written for Dreamic educational magazine, 2019.

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