August 11, 2016 1:00 pm JST
Commentary

Charles Chen Yidan -- Education for a better world

The idea that education can change people's lives is a potent one in Asia. Many of us had grandparents or parents who lacked access to education but understood its value and made it a priority in our young lives. Because of them, we have experienced the power of education -- not just at a personal level, but also more broadly through the sustainable growth of our culture, society and economy.

How can we continue this heritage for future generations?

I have been exploring this question over the past decade. I have learnt a lot through my ongoing work with the Tencent Charitable Foundation, the new Yidan Prize Foundation and my other philanthropic projects. What I have learnt is this: Technology can help us to lower costs and boost educational outcomes, but we need new approaches to make the profound and widespread impact that the future demands.

The fundamental problem is that today's education system was developed to meet the needs of the second industrial revolution of mass production powered by electrical energy. It is not suited to today's information society or the coming fourth industrial revolution, where physical, digital and biological systems will change and combine in new ways. Today's youth needs to be equipped for jobs that do not even exist yet. In practical terms, this means proficiency in the STEM subjects -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- as well as analytical and communication skills and an attitude of life-long learning.

To complicate matters, demographic shifts are driving up demand for education while making it harder to fund. On the one hand we have a booming middle class that is calling for better basic education and more tertiary places. On the other hand, rapidly aging populations are shrinking the workforce and increasing demand for healthcare, reducing the public money available for education investment.

In China, for example, education spending will be 2.9% of gross domestic product in 2030, according to the Yidan Prize Forecast: Education to 2030 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit. This is up from 2.3% of GDP in 2015 and represents a considerable increase in absolute terms. Even so, the cost of education is already a burden for middle-class families, and competition for tertiary places is intense.

Last year, around 300,000 Chinese students went to the U.S. to study, but this is only 4% of those who are ready for higher education in China. The pressure will be even greater by 2030, when 50% of China's urban population will enjoy middle-class incomes, according to McKinsey Global Institute, up from 4% in 2010.

Technology can be an answer to these challenges by helping us create and deliver effective, personalized and future-focused education experiences.

Lifelong learning

We are already seeing how computer-assisted learning can engage students and reduce the cost of education delivery so that the learner's financial or personal circumstances or geographic location need no longer be a barrier. Likewise, technology will surely become important for lifelong learning, with massive open online courses (MOOCs) being a viable option. This model needs to be refined, however, to improve outcomes and certify graduates. It may be that a combination of online and traditional face-to-face learning will help deliver accreditation at lower cost in the future.

We also have a lot of evidence that empowering teachers with computer equipment and training is effective in bringing technology into the classroom. Teachers in Israel were given laptops and training between 2007 and 2012 under a program financed by the Athena Fund. The results were startling: In 2012, nearly 80% of high school students in the struggling Yeruham community passed the matriculation test, compared to 43% in 2006.

Using technology in the classroom also makes learning more relevant to job market skills. As STEM-capable workers become essential across all industries and job types, we need to cultivate technological knowhow. Bringing startup incubation support on to tertiary campuses, as Tencent Holdings is trialling at Wuhan College in central China, is one way to integrate education and entrepreneurship. But the declining quality of STEM graduates in some developing economies also needs to be addressed.

Another way that technology can improve learning is through data analysis and automation. Universities are now beginning to use data on student performance and classroom interactions to help personalize learning for students and make teaching more effective.

And yet what we are doing now through technology and innovation in education is not enough.

I know from experience that it is not enough to give computers and software to underserved schools in Asia. It is not enough to offer scholarships to top overseas universities, or even to fund new institutions. This is not to diminish the value, or necessity, of technology donations and scholarships. And I am certainly very proud to support institutions such as Wuhan College and Shenzhen Mingde School, both of which promote experimental approaches to education and whole-person development.

Projects and institutions such as these make a huge difference in the lives of the many young people and educators they touch. But I am conscious that there is so much more to do and so many more young people to reach now and in the near future.

The Yidan Prize is an attempt to start a global conversation about education and to support transformative change in the field. Backed by an endowment trust of $320 million, it is open to teachers and educators internationally. We know we need big ideas to create a better world. And I'm confident we will get them.

Charles Chen Yidan is co-founder of Tencent Holdings and the founder and honorary chairman of the company's charitable foundation.

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