By Shabana Begum
THE Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) is celebrating its glorious past by focusing on the future.
As the school celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, faculty members reflect on how they can prepare students for a rapidly evolving media industry.
“We need to maintain an innovative mindset, constantly looking for new ways to prepare our students for emerging occupations flowing from the digital economy,” said Prof Charles Salmon, Chair of WKWSCI.
“We need to make sure that we not only equip our students with skills for the current job market, but also for the job market five to 10 years from now,” Prof Salmon also said.
The school kicked off its silver jubilee celebration with a gathering on 21 April at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel attended by about 400 alumni and final-year students, who had just finished defending their final-year projects.
Founded in 1992, the WKWSCI has steadily rose in world rankings, placing first in Asia and sixth in the world for media communication studies in the 2014 Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings.
“We have done well,” said Emeritus Professor Eddie Kuo, the school’s founding Dean. “I personally have no doubt that we are top in Asia and we have started to shine globally.”
But the school also recognises the challenges posed by the changing media and information landscape and is working on keeping its curriculum up to date.
Up to date
The Communication Studies curriculum is updated every three to four years to keep up with changes in the economy, said Assoc Prof Lee Chun Wah, the school’s first head of the division of public and promotional communication.
For example, starting last semester, freshmen are required to take two core modules on basic coding and data analysis.
Employers have told the school that they are looking for graduates who have both traditional storytelling skills and new media skills, such as coding, said Dr Mark Cenite, Associate Chair of WKWSCI.
“The organisations are desperate for people who can analyse social media data,” he explained.
“Requiring courses in which students are introduced to coding and analytics became the clear path forward.”
Students at the school can also take electives on information visualisation, digital campaign management, data-mining and mobile communications, with more new courses already in the planning stages, Prof Salmon said.
Other faculty members also encouraged students to expand their media skills beyond their individual tracks to remain relevant in the digital economy.
Assoc Prof Lee said it has become difficult to find a student who is comprehensive and competent in the fields of public relations, advertising and photography.
“Students tend to be microscopic,” he said. “If they are interested in photojournalism or docudrama, they place their focus onto it. It is called specialty.”
“But these days, it is necessary to be a specialist and a generalist at the same time,” he said.
Ms Nikki Draper, a senior lecturer at the school, added: “Students must be nimble and be able to combine information across different media types. The more you have exposure to a range of things, the better off you are.”
To prepare students for the converged media landscape, the tracks have become more flexible over the years and students have more freedom to pursue modules from different tracks.
Assoc Prof Lee, who established the school’s Professional Internship scheme and the Final Year Project (FYP) system, also believes the curriculum needs to be revamped for students and lecturers to stay abreast of current developments in the economy.
He suggested a longer internship experience or work-study scheme for undergraduates.
Assoc Prof Lee said the mandatory six-month internship for third-year students is “not real enough” and should be extended to one-and-a-half to two years.
From the second half of their second year to their fourth year, students should be sent out to work in media industries or related sectors, he added.
To fulfill their academic requirements, Assoc Prof Lee suggested that students should submit reports and online assignments to update their professors.
“Instead of locking up the students in university for three years or so, they should be sent out to spend a considerable amount of time in the industry, learning on the job,” said Assoc Prof Lee.
This paradigm shift in the curriculum would make undergraduates’ internship experience more realistic, and will position students as economy-ready and job-ready, he added.
But aside from preparing students, Prof Salmon said the school also needs to prepare its faculty in terms of teaching, research and getting grants. This will help the school to reach its goal of “being an international leader in communication and information scholarship”.
In its early years, the school faced several challenges in hiring faculty who were renowned for their research.
Prof Kuo said that in the early 1990s, there were no locally trained communication scholars. NTU had to rely on professors from abroad, many of whom were reluctant in moving to Singapore.
Prof Ang Peng Hwa, the school’s second Dean, said to address this issue, the school started hosting numerous international conferences in Singapore.
These events helped convince international scholars that Singapore, particularly WKWSCI, was a great place to work in, said Assoc Prof Benjamin Detenber, who was the school’s Chair from 2008 to 2013.
The school encountered another faculty recruitment challenge when the University implemented the promotion and tenure system in 2008. This meant faculty members had to meet a much more rigorous set of standards.
Faculty members were expected to publish in top-tier journals and possess significant research records that are internationally recognised, said Assoc Prof Detenber.
Despite these challenges, the school hired its first full professor from abroad, Prof Salmon, in 2011.
The school also hired two endowed chairs, one for communication studies and another for media technology. It will announce the hiring of its third endowed chair, a media innovator from one of Asia’s top corporations, later this year, Prof Salmon added.
Funded by donations to the University, the endowed chair is a highly prestigious academic position meant to attract top international scholars.
Prof Salmon also stressed the importance of research in further developing the school.
“Success in research helps the school’s reputation globally and brings cutting-edge knowledge into our classrooms,” he added.
The school was originally called the School of Communication Studies. But it was renamed in 1995 in honor of the late former President Dr Wee Kim Wee, who was also a former journalist.
The school was first housed in the Chinese Heritage Centre, until it was moved to its own building at the western edge of the campus in 1996.
Since its founding, the school has produced over 2,000 alumni from 24 batches.
Prof Kuo considers the school’s alumni as “very important resources” who can help fresh graduates in their career development.
They can mentor current undergraduates and contribute to the school’s endowment fund.
Prof Salmon also stressed the importance of the school’s alumni as WKWSCI moves forward.
“We want to find more ways to help our alumni navigate through the disruptive media landscape and find new opportunities for success in their careers,” he said.
“We also want to find ways to draw on the wisdom and experience of our alumni in ways that can help our students and faculty be on the frontiers of industry change,” Prof Salmon added.
The school is already planning a big alumni gathering later this year as one of the highlights of its silver jubilee celebration.
Fun facts about WKWSCI
1) The school has been named three times over the years:
School of Communication Studies in 1992
School of Communication and Information in 2002
Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2006
2) Before the school moved to its current location in 1996, it was housed in the Chinese Heritage Centre.
3) The school hosted the Asia Journalism Fellowship (AJF) programme from 2009 to 2016. Journalists from Asia are invited to Singapore to network with other reporters and reflect on their profession.
4) Inspiration for The Hive’s collaborative tables outside tutorial rooms were inspired by the benches in WKWSCI.
What they say about WKWSCI
“I’m very proud of the success of our students and alumni, for their professional accomplishments have influenced communication and information industries in Singapore, Asia and the world.”
– Prof Charles Salmon, Chair of WKWSCI
“I remember running around school with my camera, trying to make short films. In my final year, I was part of the Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting team and I had a close-knit and exciting FYP group. All these experiences helped me decide that photography and filmmaking was what I wanted to do.”
– Mr Samuel He (CS’08), 34, director and co-founder of WEAVE, a video and photography production house. He is also a photojournalism lecturer at WKWSCI
“The school has developed in me an inquisitive mind, a sense of curiosity of the world and doggedness — values that are not only important for a journalist, but in life.”
– Pang Xue Qiang, 25, final-year student majoring in journalism
“The school has a strong culture and spirit unlike any other, and the people here are driven.”
– Nicole Lim, 21, second-year student and president of the 24th Communication & Information Club
“My most memorable moment in WKW was seeing my FYP documentary being shown on the big screen at Filament (the school’s annual film showcase).”
– Ms Clarissa Sih (CS’16), 24, Manager (Communications) at National Parks Board