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First Principal Fellow from Singapore and the success of the SUTD Educational Fellowship programme

02 Sep 2020 | Nachamma Sockalingam Nachamma Sockalingam, Program Director, Learning Sciences Lab, Office of Undergraduate Studies, Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) became the first Principal Fellow from Singapore. She shares her thoughts on initiating the 'SUTD-AHE Educational Fellowship Programme' and her Fellowship journey.

Destination or new beginnings?

I was absolutely elated to see the email from the Advance HE Fellowship team that I was approved as a Principal Fellow recently. I also learnt that I was in fact the first Principal Fellow from Singapore amongst the approximately 120 Principal Fellows from Australasia and over 135,000 Fellows globally.  

To add to this, four other academic colleagues who went through the SUTD-AHE Educational Fellowship programme at the same time had also been also recognized as Fellows. It is not that everyone who applies to Advance HE will get their Fellowship, so I was really happy to see the 100% results.

I felt that my efforts over the last two years has been well worth the effort. I see these outcomes as a beginning of a new chapter for me, my colleagues, my university and perhaps other universities in Singapore and maybe beyond.

My journey

So how did I get to know the Advance HE fellowship program, and start up the SUTD-AHE Educational Fellowship Programme and apply for the Principal Fellowship?

While Advance HE Fellowship is global, the outreach in Asian countries is still in the growth stages compared to other countries. This is understandable as Fellowships are not the typical pre-requisites to teaching in higher education in Asian countries. Most Asian universities use other metrics and pre-requisites. But this is changing now. More and more universities are seeing the value of the professional development in teaching and professional recognitions such as the Advance HE Fellowships in contributing to the quality of education.

Having been an educational developer for over 16 years in Singapore, and having started up two Teaching and Learning Centres, and introducing Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) in three universities, I realised that more could be done to recognise and reward faculty and staff members for their involvement in SOTL and continual professional development efforts in teaching and learning.

While there were existing schemes of recognitions such as grants and teaching excellence awards, these were primarily at the institutional or national levels, and were typically only available to faculty members. These may not include staff members who support faculty members in higher education, and I felt that this group should also be included for quality educational practices.

As the founding Program Director of Learning Sciences Lab, Office of Undergraduate Studies at SUTD, my responsibility is to take care of the educational development needs of faculty members. So I wanted to identify an international and prestigious recognition scheme that will add value to our faculty members with a scope for sustainability and scalability.

I started researching on suitable initiatives and identified Advance HE Fellowship in 2017 to be the most inclusive and rigorous since it caters to instructors, teaching assistants, staff etc. and is based on a sound teaching and learning framework which aligned with our institution’s philosophy.

I invited local universities in 2018 to collaborate on establishing a joint national level Advance HE Fellowship through several meetings and discussions. While other universities were keen, we could not launch this as a national initiative. But these discussions and colleagues have a played a part in our journey. You can read more on this here:

I continued to engage the multi-level stakeholders at SUTD and we went through “Invitation to Quote” for the Educational Fellowship Programme and the team found Advance HE to be the most suitable amongst various applicants.

I was recognised in 2019 as one of the nine inaugural International Fellows by the International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL) and this achievement helped in boosting the awareness on Fellowships as international recognitions of teaching quality, and my University was willing to support the Advance HE program at the university level. This programme got the approval and support from our Associate Provost for Education and the HR Director.

Thus, SUTD became the first autonomous university in Singapore to launch this Educational Leadership Programme at the university level. You can find more information on Educational Development in Singapore and at SUTD here (see page 28).

I had applied for the ISSOTL fellow to understand more on the Fellowship procedures and to be familiar with reflective portfolio preparation so that I can support my colleagues. This was professionally developing myself to support others.

On a similar note, I attempted the Advance HE Principal Fellowship application since I will be facilitating the SUTD-AHE programme, and felt that it will be good to have the credential and be knowledgeable on the application preparation etc.

This SUTD-AHE programme is meant to build the leadership capability of senior and experienced faculty members in teaching. This programme provides opportunities for nominated faculty members to undergo mentorship to prepare their reflective portfolio for the fellowship submission by working with me and in peer groups.

The recognised Fellows will in turn will work with me at Learning Sciences Lab to mentor other faculty members at SUTD in teaching. Our aim is to expand to teaching assistants and also staff members in future.

As we know, chartering new waters and pioneering is not easy. But once that “four minute barrier” is broken, it becomes more possible for all. My hope is that more universities in Asia will also be keen to initiate such an educational Fellowship programme as it would add value.

Next stop

I feel that the value of the Fellowships is in providing an opportunity for continual development. Water that is stagnant will only become putrid. The value of the SUTD-AHE Fellowship programme is not about the one certificate but in providing multiple opportunities to continually develop through the various categories of Fellowships.

Also, the value created is multiplied when implemented at the institutional level, rather than at just the individual level as it leads to a community of practitioners. This will benefit the teachers, learners, university and the society at large by contributing to quality education.

We look forward to expanding on this work and continual learning.

Nachamma Sockalingam is the founding Program Director of Learning Sciences Lab at Singapore University of Technology and Design and an international educational consultant in higher education. She has 16 years of experience in education development at institutional/national and international levels. Nacha is also a Skills Future Fellow, and ISSOTL Fellow.

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