By Ben Hanneford-Smith, Head of Business Development, EtonX

In Asian schools, student success is no longer just a question of getting top subject grades. Over the last few months, attending different education events like GESS in Jakarta and Learning & Teaching Expo in Hong Kong and visiting markets across South East Asia, I’ve seen that their international schools are becoming aware of the region’s fast-growing soft skills gap. They now want advice and ideas on how to close it.

Asia’s policymakers, politicians and bosses have sounded the alarm on soft skills in the workplace.  The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is already automating and robotising work processes across Asia – making job security a thing of the past. Oxford Economics research has predicted that 28 million jobs could be displaced in the top six ASEAN economies alone.

Politicians have called loudly for curriculum changes. Singapore’s Minister of Education Ong Ye Kung has called for students to gain ‘real world’ skills while Indonesia’s Minister for Economic Affairs Darmin Nasution recently stated that vocational aspects of school curricula need to be properly aligned with the digital economy.

And all the time, bosses’ expectations are changing. Research of the region’s CEOs found that nearly three-quarters (72%) think soft skills are more important than hard skills. This goes up to 86% when asked about their companies’ future needs.

But the big question now is what can secondary schools, so focused on academic results for so long, do to practically bridge that gap? It still seems that the sheer speed and scale of change that has left most schools struggling to respond.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs research looked at this problem in 2016 and again in a report in September 2018.  It said that schools needed to make better use of their existing classroom technologies to simplify life skills learning. They also had to make these subjects much more appealing – with new edtech products and apps.

The heads and teachers that I met are starting to get the message. They want creative and flexible ways to embed soft skills learning into their lessons or vocational subjects.

Three things stood out when I discussed the soft skills challenges and demonstrated our live online soft skills courses for schools in subjects like Verbal Communication, Critical Thinking and Entrepreneurship (studied in classes of eight, with students in different schools and different countries).

First, schools were enthusiastic about bringing practical subjects, such as Verbal Communication, CV Writing, and Interview skills, as online offerings into their curriculum, especially because they have been created with Eton College which is very well regarded in the region.

Second, teaching professionals found the online approach to teaching and practising soft skills innovative. They were surprised by the way that high-quality streamed video in virtual classrooms replicates the enjoyable and sociable nature of a physical classroom and, in many ways, improves on it. They saw that in a virtual classroom, every student is visible to the tutor and each other so the discussions are easy and there’s no skulking in the back row.

Third, teachers and parents want more accessible vocational courses. Whether it was schools’ associations wanting to make soft skills accessible to their K-12 students, or smaller schools that simply struggle to find the right edtech to make soft skills teaching viable (especially so of remote islands in the Indonesian archipelago, for example), teachers and parents could see how online courses accessible on a simple Internet connection can now be slotted into and around school timetables.  Accessible courses could be a game-changer in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand which already have a long tradition of spending on after-school activities or extra-curricular courses.

My recent visits to Asia have shown me that the soft skills gap is at last being understood and schools at grass roots are acting on it and can see edtech’s potential. With Asia Pacific recently named the best in the world at collaboration and team working there’s huge potential for the region’s students to balance life skills and academic attainment to thrive in the workforce of the future.