Education, as we know it, is ever changing. In 2015, Professor Cheong Hee Kiat, President, SUSS, predicted that universities of the future will become more open, with an emphasis on lifelong learning in response to the changes in higher education globally.
He raised the point about how just-in-time and on-the-move upgrading will become more prevalent. This will result in degrees no longer being the prerogative of universities, who will instead embrace the concept of stackable learning in a bid to to produce graduates with skills needed by the marketplace and imbued with a lifelong learning mindset.
His predictions are taking shape today. In an interview from January 2021, Mr Lawrence Wong, in his role as Education Minister then, stressed how the Ministry of Education (MOE) is not beholden to traditional models of university education. He mentioned how individuals striving to acquire skills need not take the traditional four-year route, citing the possibilities and potential of pathways that allow for alternating between work and study, specifically citing the diversity of offerings from SUSS.
But first, what exactly constitutes stackable learning? Changing the way working adults educate themselves, a stackable learning programme is a flexible learning strategy that helps individuals to upskill and reskill. How it works is that students first pick modules that interest them, be it for professional pursuits or personal development. The modules, upon completion, can be combined to upgrade a learner’s capabilities, individual qualifications and credential achievements.
This flexibility extends beyond the syllabus. Learners are also able to accumulate these credential achievements at their own pace. For example, at each and every stage of the learning journey, students are free to take a break from their academic pursuits, before returning to wherever they have left off. This grants learners the ability to plan their learning around financial, work and family commitments, empowering their lifelong learning pursuit.
SUSS illustrates the concept of stackable learning as building blocks that learners stack and reinforce in their skills acquisition. Imagine blocks in different shapes and sizes, each representing a course. Learners, who have full control of their choices at every step of the way, choose the ones relevant to them and start stacking the blocks upon each other, to eventually receive a certificate, diploma, undergraduate degree, or master’s degree.
The Rise of Stackable Learning in Singapore
A fierce and ever-evolving job market has given rise to the need to constantly upskill. According to Dr Dianna Chang, Senior Lecturer, Marketing Programme, SUSS, continuing learning enables people to deepen the skills and knowledge in their existing expertise, broaden horizons and develop new skills that complement existing skills or expand into entirely new territories that offer more promising job opportunities.
Many are in agreement. In a 2020 NTUC LearningHub survey, 84% of employers felt that it was necessary for employees to learn new skills due to changes brought about by Covid-19, while 71% expressed an openness to hiring candidates with broader skill sets in the future. This sentiment is echoed by the employees surveyed as well, with 71% acknowledging the need to upgrade themselves to remain competitive in the job market.
However, taking the traditional degree route to upskill and upgrade might not be suitable for the parties involved. For employees, not all of them can afford time off from work or the financial cost to pursue their studies full time. Additionally, they may not be able to wait for the deferred payoff from having a degree or postgraduate degree that may come up to 4 years later. They require solutions that can help them learn as efficiently and as effectively as possible. This is so in the case of Liu Xinyang, a talent acquisition consultant who is on-track to attain the Graduate Diploma in Digital Marketing. He is working towards a Master of Management degree at SUSS, which allows students to combine two graduate diplomas via a specialisation track. Alternatively, students can pursue a management track. As a working adult, Mr Liu appreciates the flexibility of the stackable credential format that allows him to achieve his desired qualifications when juggling between work and study.
For employers, the opportunity and financial cost of their employees pursuing full-time studies could also be an issue. This is particularly so in the case of smaller organisations, according to Dr Marcus Lee, Head, Marketing Programmes, SUSS. He states that these companies tend to not have enough organisational slack nor do they generally possess the institutional knowledge to afford releasing high potential staff for training, as the tacit knowledge these employees possess make them crucial components for the day-to-day workflow within the organisation to continue operating. The flexibility of stackable learning programmes thus presents itself as a win-win solution for both parties by allowing individuals to learn after working hours or take minimal time off. This empowers employees to simultaneously upskill themselves while continuing to contribute to their organisations.
A Supportive Government
The government is also showing support for stackable learning. Through joint efforts by the Ministry of Education (MOE), SkillsFuture Singapore and the Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs) to support fresh graduates in widening their skill sets and accessing more opportunities across different sectors, free Continuing Education and Training (CET) modules would be made available to the graduating Class of 2020 and 2021. These CET modules can be stacked and lead to micro-credentials or certifications, and in total, over 60,000 fresh graduates can benefit from this initiative.
Another initiative under SkillsFuture is the SGUnited Skills Programme, supported by CET centres, created to target working adults who may have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. This full-time training programme looks to reskill or upskill individuals and comprises a wide range of certifiable courses to help Singaporeans acquire in-demand and emerging skills across several sectors. A key feature of the programme is that it is conducted in a modular format, and is designed in collaboration with partners to help trainees acquire industry-relevant knowledge and traineeship experience to boost their employability. SUSS is supporting this initiative with the SGUnited Skills Programme at SUSS, with courses being delivered through a mixture of learning methodologies, which include blended learning with online components, as well as traditional face-to-face sessions.
The Future of Learning
Rapid technology and business developments create new jobs, and change existing roles. Education is an investment that keeps one competitive, and individuals must continually update themselves to remain relevant.
Stackable learning has added unparalleled inclusivity and diversity to the higher education landscape, as well as greater fluidity to attain credentials. It has freed individuals from linear learning trajectories and imposed sequences of courses. This allows them to curate their lifelong learning journey with the power to choose what, how and when they learn. While it is constantly evolving, stackable learning is here to stay.
 The Straits Times (AUG 2015) Raising the bar in S'pore higher education
 The Straits Times (NOV 2019) Universities must adapt to changing times and prepare people for longer careers, say academics
 The Straits Times (JAN 2021) Traditional degree route not a must before going out to work: Lawrence Wong
 Channel News Asia (JUL 2021) Laying the building blocks for a better future
 NTUC Learning Hub (2020) The New Normal of Sector Skills Report
 Channel News Asia (JUL 2021) Mastering professional challenges in the classroom
 Ministry of Education (MAR 2021) Free Continuing Education and Training Modules for Class of 2021 and 2020