Another dot in the blogosphere?

Watch these two short videos.

Video source

Video source

What do these two videos have in common?

None of the items in the first video was real. They were all computer generated. The orangutan in the second video was also a product of computer-generated imagery (CGI).

A few years ago, they said that it could not be done. If it could, people wondered if we would still need actors, props, and other movie-making paraphernalia.

Video source

If you have watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, you have an intermediate answer. Actors like Andy Serkis (the main protagonist, Caesar) do motion capture. They are still part of the process, but the other half of the work is down to the computer animator.

Video source

We might react viscerally to such change. We argue that machines and animations cannot replace people or replicate nuance. Not yet in entirety anyway.

As with most technology-led change, the push and pull factors are initially efficiency-oriented. Movie-making with CGI will be cheaper and faster, and for certain scenes or genres, the only way.

Over time, it will be harder to tell the difference between what is “real” and what is CGI. We move away from efficiency to effectiveness. The videos above are already a testament to this.

Initially our minds are tricked into believing what is real. We are then convinced it is real. Eventually it does not matter when we believe it is real. Then heart understands what the mind already knows.

Many people also react emotionally to people using mobile devices as social intermediaries, kids learning in ways we do not understand (e.g., gaming, YouTube), teachers being pushed off the sage stage. These are the same people who might cite dystopian “realities” from science fiction movies like WALL-E as if they are inevitable.

They might not understand that we shape our technology and then the technology invariably shapes us.

We are not going to lose our humanity because we embrace technology. The technologies enable us to do things, and to teach and to learn in ways we could not before. They enable us to focus on better things if we use them wisely.

Instead of focusing on what far-fetched bad things might happen, why not focus on more plausible good?

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edX CEO Anant Agarwal shared a statistic at the beginning of his TED talk. About 155,000 people took an edX course offered by MIT. This number was larger than the entire alumni of MIT in its 150 year history.

But MOOC reach was not what Agarwal wanted to highlight. Instead, he described how experiments in MOOCs were informing university faculty on:

  • Going where the learner is at (online, mobile)
  • Designing blended and flipped lessons
  • Promoting active learning by designing interactive and self-paced lessons
  • Providing instant feedback
  • Leveraging on social learning
  • Getting students to learn by encouraging them to teach

In other words, relevant and progressive pedagogy.

This reflection is a response to a slow chat question on #asiaED about the role of assessment in systematic change.

The question was:

My response was:

The layperson’s likely view of assessement is summative tests and exams, typically of the high stakes variety, because that is what they have experienced. As its name implies, summative assessment is perceived and practiced as a terminal or downstream activity.

Informed educators might point out that formative assessment (on-going feedback) is more important for learning. Educated instructional designers will tell you that assessment or evalutation should be developed before content. Wise educational consultants and leaders will tell you that assessment is a key leverage point in systemic change.

Assessment is actually an upstream component. Change that and you affect processes downstream like teaching, learning support, learning environment design, and policy making.

Imagine for a moment that exams were removed and replaced with learner portfolios. Now imagine how teaching, teacher expectations, teaching philosophies, teacher professional development, and teacher evaluation might change.

I would like to answer a question directed at me:

I cannot say for sure how assessment should change and I do not think that data collected from such assessment only serve as leverage.

Consider an example of a change-in-progress and my suggestions on how to implement change and avoid pitfalls in the process.

There are at least two significant assessment-related changes in Singapore now. One is an emphasis on values-based education (instead of focusing on just grades) and the other is evaluating of the importance of a degree.

Added after initial posting, a timely tweet from a local rag:

These changes were a result of:

  • parental feedback on the unnecessary stress of high stakes testing (particularly of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)
  • the recognition of grade inflation (particularly at the GCE A Levels)
  • the mismatch between what employers need and what universities produce
  • new and visionary leadership at the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore

All these placed pressures on what we understand and value as traditional, summative assessment.

That said, MOE is not going to sacrifice the sacred cows of tests and exams. But it has started emphasizing other processes and measures.

Values-based lessons are being integrated into previously content-only lessons [news article after its announcement in 2011]. Primary school students can get into Secondary schools of their choice based on non-academic talents with the Direct School Admissions (DSA) scheme.

Experts of systemic change might label these efforts as piecemeal change. They do not profoundly disrupt existing processes and are instead implemented in periodically and strategically in an attempt to create overall change.

However, critical observers might also note that significant and sustained change tends to happen with disruptive interventions. Examples might include:

  • the impact of antibiotics and anaesthesia on medical practice
  • the effect of the printing press on schooling and the spread of information
  • the influence of smartphones on banking, commerce, education, entertainment and gaming, information consumption, content creation, and socialization.

I predict that e-portfolios will rise in importance as a means of recording and evaluating (not just assessing) both the processes and products of learning.

e-Portfolios are a systemic and disruptive change in that they:

  • start and end with the learner
  • belong to the learner
  • emphasize processes and not just products of learning
  • showcase holistic or other attributes (not just academic ability)
  • promote lifelong, career wide learning

The battle to create acceptance, buy-in, and hopefully ownership of what we now label as alternative assessment will probably last a decade or more. During this time, it might be tempting to try to collect evidence during a trial or a full blown implementation of the effectiveness of e-portfolios to convince stakeholders that the change is making a difference.

However, this is not a wise move. Efforts to do this would repeat the mistakes of the slew of early educational and action research comparing the effects of intervention A (for example, traditional instruction) and intervention B (technology-assisted instruction). There are far too many factors that influence learning outcomes, attitudes, values, etc.

If data on newer forms of assessment need to be collected, analyzed, and presented, I suggest that they be part of a much larger plan. Such a plan could include:

  • having regular conversations with stakeholders
  • creating a shared vision among stakeholders
  • relating success stories to create buy-in
  • developing informed, forward-thinking, and informal leadership
  • providing financial and implementation leeway for unforeseen obstacles

In summary, assessment is an important leverage point and an upstream component for changing educational systems. Data on disruptive changes like the adoption of e-portfolios for assessment and evaluation can be leveraged on to convince stakeholders. However, such data should only be part of a larger and sustainable plan.

A few weeks ago, Agatha Tan wrote an open letter to her school principal to highlight gender stereotypes she felt were needlessly perpetuated by a school vendor.

The debate is old and I will not add to it. I am just glad that Agatha’s action opened the floodgate to an issue that would otherwise have been swept under the carpet.

But there was a comment in a Facebook conversation that troubled me.


To provide a bit more context, the comment was in support of the vendor instead of Agatha. What disturbed me was that it was a conversation among teacher educators, teachers, and their associates.

It showed a lack of understanding of the fundamental purpose of schooling and education. The two are not synonymous.

At its core, schooling is about enculturation and therefore about the constraining, limiting, and controlling. There is a purpose and place for this in larger society, but that is not all school is for.

School can be a gateway to a larger education. Education starts before school and continues after it. An education can also happen independently of school. If we do enough, education can and should happen in school.

Education is about unshackling us from general ignorance and specific prejudices. It is about gradually gaining freedom from one’s own biases and learning to take the perspectives of others.

From a cognitivist perspective, being educated might be about seeing the structure and connections of concepts in someone else’s mind.

From a constructivist perspective, having an education is about continually negotiating meaning with others so that what you know is broader, wiser, and more open.

From a connectivist perspective, an education is dependent on the relationships and links you have with a variety of people and resources. The greater the quantity, quality, and variety of associations, the more educated you are.

Whatever your perspective, being educated is not just knowing the semantic differences between being schooled and being educated. It is about how your education shapes your philosophy and mindset.

If teachers or instructors do not know the differences, they might not have read deeply enough about this fundamental issue.

If they refuse to see the differences, they are ignoring the need to change, to admit they were wrong, or simply to learn.

In the case of Agatha, a student has valuable lessons on the method of communication, the power of social media, the mindset of youth, and a fundamental issue in our society.

If we are schooled, we will act in one or a very limited number of ways. If we choose to be educated, we will be open to a variety of actions and we will find those that free us from bias and baggage.

Recently I read a kiwi teacher’s blog entry, Teachers Don’t Own Their Own Content!

This reminded me that most teachers do not seem to know that the copyright of whatever they create as employees of a school (on in Singapore’s case, the Ministry of Education) belongs to the school (or MOE).

In 2012, the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS) created a handy infosheet on Copyright for Educators.

Part 16 spells this out clearly:

The copyright to works created in the course of employment belongs to the employer. Hence, while a Government school teacher may be the creator of resources in the cluster repository, MOE is actually the copyright owner. Likewise, an independent school which directly employs its own teachers owns the copyright to works created by them in the course of employment.

When the resource creator leaves, the copyright is still owned by the employer (whether MOE or the independent school in this scenario). The school can continue to use the resources, as well as control how others use it.

Our kiwi counterparts have the New Zealand Government Open Access and Licensing framework (NZGOAL) which “seeks to standardise the licensing of government copyright works for re-use using Creative Commons“.

I could not find a similar umbrella body or policy for Singapore. But I know of or have found local university resources that are shared under open access, e.g., NUS, NTU, SMU.

UNESCO’s Global Open Access Portal neatly summarizes Singapore’s progress in being part of the movement that offers openly accessible resources. At the moment, our contributions seem to centre around Institutional Repositories (like the ones I linked to earlier) and a vague reference to a National Library Board (NLB) initiative.

There is so much more that we can do and there is no need to wait. As individuals, we can create and share under Creative Commons (CC) licences. Creative Commons Singapore seems up to date with version 4.0 licensing as of this entry.

Presentation source

Here is something I shared a few years ago on CC with preservice teachers in NIE. It is shared under CC BY NC SA license, of course.

As a teacher or educator, you do not have the copyright to items you created. But that does not mean that you cannot take ownership of your work. With CC, you do that by specifying how others can use your work when you share preemptively.

Giving away so that you have stronger ownership might seem counterintuitive. However, all CC licenses include Attribution. You are tied to what you create even if the copyright of that artefact belongs to your employer.

The open and sharing-is-caring nature of CC is also aligned to the broader purpose of education. To free, and ideally, to offer what you have for free.

In the Singapore context, code switching might refer to a person’s ability to alternate between different forms of the same language.

For example, in a formal context like a meeting or presentation, a person might speak proper, standard English. In an informal context like lunch with colleagues or a neighbourly chat, that same person might speak Singlish.

This happens intuitively for those that actually have at least two switch positions. The problems that language purists might have are when users do not know when to switch according to context and if there is only one code to choose from (typically Singlish).

Those are problems for language experts to discuss.

There is behavioural code switching that all of us should be concerned about.

Oriental City Food Court by Route79, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License   by  Route79 

We used to clear our food trays after eating at fast food joints or other eateries. I am not sure when, but a generation of people have stopped doing it. This has become the norm so much so that signs and posters that urge patrons to return their trays are happily ignored.

Most schools require students to clear their trays when they are done in the canteen. The kids do it or pay a penalty of some sort. So it becomes normal or expected behaviour.

But these same kids nonchalantly leave their trays behind when they are done at fast food restaurants or food courts. There is no legal or social penalty for doing this after all.

They have learnt to code switch their behaviours. This is a sad thing.

What is sadder is that some adults justify or defend this behaviour. They might point out that this is how kids behave at home because their maids do the clearing.

They might also say that tray-clearing provides employment for the “aunties” and “uncles” at these places. But they fail to realize that these jobs would not be necessary if they cleared their own trays or that these folks could be better deployed.

Worse than this behavioural code switching is if there is only one not-clearing code or if the switch is stuck in that mode.

In the grand scheme of things, this sounds trivial. But the little things count because they all add up.

When we eat out, I make it a point to clear my own tray. I make sure my son does the same too. We can do our part in making our place a little kinder and cleaner.

I am not sure which is worse: Viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses or envying the seemingly greener grass on your neighbour’s lawn.

That was my initial reaction to this tweet and the SMH article linked to it.

If you peer over the fence or put on coloured spectacles, there is a risk that you lose focus on what is important.

Context is important. You cannot simply transplant ideas from one context to another. I mentioned this in a tweet conversation with someone from the UK recently.

Something contextually important is that the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore, hires teachers and sends them over to the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore, for initial teacher preparation. The supply meets the demand simply because MOE dictates both.

Attributing credit or blame to any other factor like PISA scores, teacher employment, or teacher surplus, in some other context is failing to make a valid comparison.

Basic facts are important. If a reporter cannot get basics right, you start to wonder if the rest of the article is flawed.

For example, SMH cites a Dean in NIE as “the head of Singapore’s teacher training institute”. I left NIE just a few months ago, but I am confident that the Director of NIE is still in charge. (I can hear the jokes and gentle ribbing taking place in certain halls and circles there if the SMH article makes its rounds there.)

Research is important. The reporter and editor might have been in a hurry to publish the article, but there is no excuse for bad research.

The initial figure of “as few as 20 per cent of (teacher) applicants” getting through the interview process might be correct. The starting salaries of our beginning teachers are indeed relatively high [1] [2]. However, entry success and high starting salaries do not mean that we have the “best and brightest” to pick from.

Information on what percentage of top students from a graduating cohort enter teacher preparation can be hard to come by. But they can be found out by conversations with very-important-people or by trawling university sites that might share such data more openly.

As a professional courtesy, I am not going to share what I was provided by way of official statistics and conversations with people that matter. Suffice to say that Singapore’s teacher selection cutoff is no where near Korea’s, particularly among primary/elementary teachers.

The issues of teacher quality and placement should not just revolve around the numbers that administrators and policymakers like. Singapore does not recruit dimwits to be teachers, but we cannot (and do not) claim to lure our brightest either. We take in people with a passion for schooling and educating kids.

Passion is hard to put numbers to. But it is probably the single most important factor that keeps a teacher going no matter the salary or the teaching conditions.

So instead of getting a false impression after rubbernecking a neighbour or reading a tinted newspaper article, I suggest an unfiltered examination of context and a fine-toothed search for facts that actually matter.

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