Singapore should consider more "fluidity" in its continuing education system as it tries to nurture a culture of lifelong learning, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
That means considering ideas like putting young and old students, skilled and unskilled in the same class, placing more emphasis on "bite-size" learning modules and letting different students learn at their own pace.
DPM Tharman said he was intrigued by the fluidity in the US system after visiting a handful of community colleges near San Francisco last week.
And while he stopped short of calling for an adoption of the US model, he said the system had some strengths that the new SkillsFuture Council in Singapore should consider as it tries to drive skills training in the country.
During an interview in Washington last week, he said: "Our attitude should be to see what can we learn and adapt, never quite being able to replicate what we see because it comes from a different business environment and a different social culture."
One aspect of the US community college model that caught his eye was the diverse mix of students in the classroom, both in terms of age and preparedness.
He stressed that continuing education in Singapore needs to move away from just being something for the young or for those going through a technical pathway.
"Everyone has to just have the opportunity to learn something new, to have bite-size infusions of knowledge at different points of their life, and regardless of what your previous education or starting point is."
At a metal-working class in De Anza College near Cupertino, Mr Tharman met a 67-year-old student doing the course as a hobby.
"I was interacting with students in a metal work and machining laboratory when I met someone I thought was an instructor, but he turned out to be a student," he said.
He wrote on Facebook about two older students he met as he noted the value of bite-size courses that can be combined into a longer course.
He said in the interview that such courses seem to have the most appeal for those engaging in continuing education, as working adults may be put off by the commitment of attending a two-year programme to get certification.
How any such changes might be incorporated into the Singapore system is still left to be seen, Mr Tharman said, noting that it could mean new institutions or programmes within existing institutions.
"We should keep our minds open on what are the best organisation models in terms of governance, incentives and in terms of staff culture.
"Whether we do it within an existing institution, with experiments taking place within it, or whether we, at some point, decide to port everything over to a new wing or institution.
"It will involve some resources, we want to spend it well, but we need to be willing to experiment. It's an exciting journey."
This article was first published on Oct 14, 2014.
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