A model of lifelong learning: NUS equips staff with data literacy and artificial intelligence skills

The changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are still unfolding but its demand on new skills and ways of working is clear, as organisations seek to survive and thrive in the uncertain times ahead.

Many businesses have trimmed back on employee development, but NUS has bucked the trend by putting in huge investment to arm its administrative staff with skills that are critical for success in the digital future.

By launching comprehensive training programmes in data literacy and artificial intelligence since last year, NUS is demonstrating its commitment to prepare staff for the digital future.

Using data to derive business insights and drive performance 

The University has set its sights on arming and upskilling its administrative employees on data literacy and analytics, with the Data Literacy Programme (DLP) conducted over the past year.

“The DLP reaffirms the University’s commitment to lifelong learning and the development of our staff, and is our first step to prepare them for the digital future,” said NUS President Professor Tan Eng Chye.

“NUS is not only committed to deliver innovative student programmes, we are also committed to ensure our staff are equipped with the relevant skills to stay ahead in these rapidly evolving times, and be ready for new roles in the economy including data analysts and data scientists.”

Data is an important resource for all organisations, and is key to deriving meaningful insights to drive business decisions and performance. “All organisations including NUS need to have a higher level of data literacy to unlock these resources to improve our decision efficacy.”

Learners give the thumbs up

Since its launch in mid-2020, over 2,400 employees have completed or are currently attending the DLP Basic course.

The course is being delivered via a blended, hybrid learning approach requiring learners to complete a suite of eLearning sessions, attend 15 hours of hands-on workshops, and complete a group project.

Specially designed and helmed by a dedicated group of professors and instructors, including Associate Professor Roger Tan, Associate Professor Carol Anne Hargreaves and Dr Vik Gopal, the DLP is tailored for staff with little to no background in data literacy so that a common ground can be established for staff.

Feedback has been positive. The DLP has garnered an 80 per cent programme satisfaction rate, with the majority signaling that they will recommend the course to other colleagues.

In addition, many learners wish to pursue higher levels of DLP to deepen their data literacy skillsets – to this end, the DLP will roll out intermediate and advanced levels, to cover data engineering and data visualisation.

Learners who have become strong advocates of DLP include Ms Ho Yuen Ping from NUS Enterprise, who expressed her hopes of administrative staff in NUS being equipped in baseline data literacy to make better decisions for the University.

“I look forward to the day when all administrative staff have gone through DLP – it means that when we present data for managerial decision-making, everyone will understand and be talking the same language.” 

Mr Li Xin from the NUS Faculty of Science has experienced the usefulness of the in-person workshops. “Sometimes, what we need is a good starting point and very useful guidance from the teachers so that we can get started. Thereafter, maybe Google is useful. But before that, you really don’t know what you don’t know so it is very difficult.”

The University’s efforts to upgrade employees’ skills has led to a greater appreciation for data among employees. Ms Ann Koh Lay Boon from the NUS Office of The President recognises that DLP has led her to appreciate the process of working with data.

“My experience doing DLP is very interesting. In fact, I have been encouraging people to go on DLP. Now when I look at a report and the data, I understand how much work has gone into (giving you this kind of information). I get a better idea of how things are done,” she shared.

Data-driven projects

DLP presents an invaluable opportunity for learners to collaborate with their colleagues across the University to embark on work-related projects, harnessing data to generate meaningful results.

Over 400 projects have been presented with 13 winning projects identified based on the depth of data insights generated, the potential impact on the community, and the application of data storytelling techniques.

These projects hold much potential in adding value to the work done in NUS. For instance, a team that worked on data related to the NUS internal bus shuttle system explored the different safety events on the bus routes. With in-depth analysis of the data, their project uncovered hotspots for safety events and the types of dominant safety events such as cornering and braking.

Another team investigated the data related to the NUS claims system. The project delved into the claims made by different units in NUS qualitatively and quantitatively, generating interesting insights that have prompted the finance team to provide new services and tighten gaps. This project has helped generate savings for NUS.

Unleashing AI-based thinking  

Following close on the heels of DLP, NUS also rolled out the Artificial Intelligence Competency Course (AICC) for staff, to train them to create smart systems and applications using modern machine learning and deep learning techniques.

Designed by faculty members from NUS School of Computing, including Associate Professor Tan Wee Kek, Dr Lek Hsiang Hui and Dr Akshay Narayan, AICC is a series of courses structured according to three levels of competency – basic, intermediate and advanced. The basic course aims to train learners to be conversant in AI, able to explain what AI is and identify opportunities to apply AI within the University to create positive impact.

The intermediate and advanced courses are targeted at interested employees who want to apply AI in their workplace to solve real problems and improve productivity.

AICC also adopts a hybrid learning approach with participants attending a weekly three-hour in-person discussion with the instructors, culminating in a group project at the end of five weeks.

Just six months into the launch of AICC, the programme has already started to bear fruit with participants proposing various innovative AI projects to improve the productivity of their daily work and create new opportunities for the University. For instance, a team from the NUS School of Design and Environment and NUS Centre for English Language Communication has proposed an AI system to automatically verify the correctness of supporting documents that are submitted for postgraduate admission applications.

Staff from the NUS Centre for Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing (CRISP) have conceptualised an AI system to automate the cloud masking process when analysing satellite images, while a team from the NUS Development Office has put forth the idea of creating an AI application to better engage with alumni and potential donors.

Ms Kelly Fong Guan Wen from the NUS Office of Human Resources has found AICC to be helpful in her daily work as well as for her general understanding of the potential of AI.

“I believe this will come in handy for all colleagues in time to come and I am very grateful to be part of this learning experience.”

Spirit of lifelong learning coded in the NUS DNA  

NUS aims for all in the University’s community to embody the spirit of lifelong learning.

The University has also established a Skills Transformation Fund account for administrative employees. Employees are empowered to take ownership of their development and utilise the fund to enroll in learning courses that build essential skillsets for their jobs.

This will help staff to adapt, transform and innovate to better meet the needs of tomorrow’s challenges.

“Learning should be a key differentiator in our value proposition as an employer,” said Prof Tan.


By the NUS Office of Human Resources