Globally connected

Dr Charles Ong, Head of the School of Life and Physical Sciences at PSB Academy, Singapore, talks with Giselle Roberts about COVID-19, transnational education and partnerships that work

It’s a typical muggy morning in Singapore. Dr Charles Ong is as personable as ever, as we catch up over Zoom and compare notes on lockdown.

“In Singapore, lockdown was called a circuit breaker,” he explains. “Like La Trobe, PSB transitioned to online teaching in March. Our new learning management system allowed us to offer synchronous lectures, but laboratory classes were a challenge. With La Trobe’s help, we successfully reconfigured our program to allow students to study from home. We supplemented the practical component with video demonstrations and practical-related assignments.”

With the gradual easing of circuit breaker restrictions in July, face-to-face teaching has returned to PSB Academy with smaller classes, PPE and social distancing. Remote learning continues for those students still stuck overseas. It’s not been easy, but, in this new world of pandemics, border closures and travel restrictions, it’s clear that the partnership between La Trobe and PSB Academy has weathered COVID-19 and found its new normal.

Charles Ong is not surprised. With a PhD in chemical engineering from the National University of Singapore and 20 years’ teaching experience, Dr Ong has led academic programs in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and chemistry – and knows a good partnership when he sees one. He describes the La Trobe-PSB partnership as “exemplary,” the poster child for transnational education that works.

Established in 2015, the partnership offers PSB students the opportunity to study one of La Trobe’s world-class science programs in chemistry, pharmaceutical science, biomedical science and molecular biology. Singapore-based faculty staff (pictured with Charles Ong below) deliver the courses, supported by La Trobe staff in Australia. Students graduate with a La Trobe University degree. “Together, we are providing high quality and affordable Australian degrees for students in Singapore,” says Dr Sonia Reisenhofer, Associate Provost (International).

PSB Academy signed a renewal agreement in June, with plans to expand the course portfolio: La Trobe’s Master of Biotechnology and Bioinformatics will be offered in 2021.

Dr Ong and Associate Professor Michael Angove (La Trobe Academic Program Director of the partnership) believe that a combination of expertise and collegiality is key to the partnership’s longstanding success. “The PSB and La Trobe teams are collaborative in every way,” says Michael Angove. “We are committed to ensuring that our students excel in their studies and attain the skills they need to prepare them for the new world of work.”

This spirit of collaboration has helped La Trobe and PSB to navigate unchartered waters during COVID-19. “La Trobe prepared all the online materials before the pandemic really hit,” says Dr Ong, “and we worked together to find the right teaching and assessment solutions for our students.”

The somewhat unexpected result? New innovations and a better student experience. “We’ve undertaken regular student surveys throughout the pandemic,” says Dr Ong. “We’ve discovered that a large percentage of our students enjoy online learning and like the convenience of studying from home. And the more reserved students seem to be finding their voice online. At our recent remote orientation session, we were inundated with questions, which was amazing.”

“We have to celebrate the achievements in an otherwise challenging year,” he adds. “Online delivery has helped us to engage with our student cohort in new ways, and we’ve become more effective as a result. While a hands-on approach to science inspires life-long learning, and will continue to be an important part of our program, our new normal will, undoubtedly, be blended.”

Discover more about partnerships with the College of Science, Health and Engineering on LinkedIn and Instagram.