Cultivating a generation of self-directed learners: NUS clinches Times Higher Education award for teaching strategy

Two and a half years after the official inauguration of NUS’ Design-Your-Own-Module (DYOM) initiative for undergraduates, the initiative has gained traction and was honoured at the prestigious Times Higher Education (THE) Awards Asia 2021, widely known as the “Oscars” of higher education.

NUS clinched the award for “Teaching and Learning Strategy of the Year”, for the DYOM programme that leverages technology to encourage more independent, self-directed learning among students.

In a statement accompanying the Awards announcement, THE applauded the programme for putting students “at the wheel of their own learning”.

Empowering self-directed learners

Launched in August 2019, the DYOM programme is composed of two tracks, with the option for students to use eight unrestricted elective module credits either in a group or individually.

The programme uses a low-risk “completed satisfactorily” or “completed unsatisfactorily” grading system that gives students the freedom for genuine learning and intellectual exploration without worrying excessively about grades. It instils independence and critical thinking in students and cultivates a knowledge of how to learn that will serve them well as lifelong learners.

One track in the DYOM programme connects students to more than 2,000 massive open online courses (MOOCs) on the edX platform via the NUS learning management system, giving them immediate access to a wealth of expertise from lecturers and academics around the world. These include those from industry-leading companies and top universities such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tsinghua University and Kyoto University.

The second DYOM track allows students to organise into groups of 10 or more and work closely with a mentor—an NUS faculty member, administrative staff member or industry leader—to create their own modules with hands-on learning experiences in a vast array of subjects and disciplines, including fintech, urban sustainability, fine arts, and more.

The programme not only develops critical skills such as teamwork, communication and flexibility, but offers students the option of pursuing holistic interests outside of their disciplines, the opportunity for multidisciplinary work and an avenue for independent experiential learning.

Students have seized the opportunity, leading modules including “The Art and Science of Photography”, “Dialects in Singapore: Hokkien”, and “The Chemistry of Food”.

Undergraduates have also designed initiatives to promote recycling and save the earth.

Popular with students

Since its inauguration, the DYOM scheme has proven popular with students, a testament to the quality of the innovative, enriching learning experience that it supplies. More than 1,800 students completed MOOCs under one option of the programme in 2020, and the number of groups designing their own module with an NUS mentor doubled from eight in December 2019 to 16 in 2020. In total, more than 800 students have benefited from this option.

 “It is incredibly heartening for the DYOM programme to have received international and regional recognition so soon after its inception,” said Associate Professor Erle Lim, Vice Provost (Teaching Innovation & Quality). An avid proponent of empowering students and encouraging them to view learning as a self-driven, lifelong endeavour, Assoc Prof Lim has been driving the DYOM and edX programmes, among others.

“The award affirms the effort we have invested into cultivating future generations of future-ready learners, as well as leveraging technology to facilitate flexible, independent learning,” he added. “We aspire to take the programme to greater heights so that more students can benefit from this groundbreaking educational experience.”

The DYOM programme has also received strong and continued support from NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost Professor Ho Teck Hua, the proponent of the initiative. The success is also due in large part to the NUS mentors who have led the students to create their modules, as well as the students themselves for taking the initiative to participate and craft their own educational journeys.

Celebrating educational excellence

The THE Awards, first launched in the United Kingdom in 2005 and undergoing the third iteration of its Asian edition, shines a spotlight on extraordinary educational accomplishments by universities, teams and individuals. It offers a major international platform to honour resourceful institutions which have overcome challenging circumstances to deliver first-class educational experiences.

“It was a genuine privilege to immerse ourselves in these first-hand reports from all corners of the continent, detailing how universities responded speedily and ingeniously, deploying their resources to support students, staff and local communities through a crisis and to help point the way out,” Mr Phil Baty, Chief Knowledge Officer at THE, said in his address at the awards ceremony, which took place in London on 14 Dec and was webcasted simultaneously worldwide.

“Those featured have ensured that higher education has continued to thrive and deliver over the past 18 turbulent months, and we know that they will also be central to the recovery and future development of societies and economies,” he added.