Another dot in the blogosphere?

This video with the clickbait title follows the Betteridge Law. This is any headline asked as a question that can be answered no.

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The answers are more nuanced. After reviewing some research, Hank Green concluded by pointing out that the differences of gamers and the nature of games mattered first.

Something similar could be asked of and answered about any technology enhanced or enabled process, e.g., do iPads improve grades, does access to social media harm socialisation, do algorithms teaching?

The nature of people and what they do matters. Let’s not be tricked by the press squeezing the low-hanging fruit and vendors leveraging on what you do not know.

Just as video games do not cause the type of violence you read about in newspaper headlines, the good that you see in technology-mediated interventions are not the due to technology alone. It is part of a socio-technical system and the social part is too rich and complex to have a simple answer.

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I find Rube Goldberg machines fascinating. They are basically just chains of immediate cause-and-effect, but when well done, the whole is better than the sum of its parts.

So how did this Japanese group make a better Rube Goldberg machine? They added a narrative to it. The rolling balls were characters in a story that featured friendship, misadventure, a rescue, suspense, and a happy ending.

It is one thing to build a creative and intricate Rube Goldberg machine; it is another to let a narrative drive it. But ask almost anyone which they will remember and they are likely to say the one with the narrative. We are just programmed that way.

Now what do your change initiatives look and sound like? Be they piecemeal or systemic, is there a narrative that drives it? Does your change process look like a checklist, a spreadsheet, or a story? What connects and moves people? What is your next move?

Last week, news broke that seemed to rock the schooling and teaching worlds in Singapore.

The number of tweets about the school mergers, analyses [example], and opinion pieces [example] practically overshadowed the other hot topic of a few church leaders serving prison sentences.

Systemically speaking, the school mergers are a response to a generational change. The long story short is this: Singapore schools, junior colleges in particular, are feeling the impact of declining birth rates over the last 25 years. If you play just the numbers game, fewer kids mean smaller student intakes means fewer schools — and arguably fewer teachers — are needed.

If some teachers are worried now, they might look back with the benefit of hindsight of how their friends and relatives were retrenched during downsizing exercises in other industries.

While some of these job losses and changes might be due to cyclical events like the ebbs and flows of our economy, you cannot ignore the larger scaling down efforts due to declining birthrates.

The cyclic events are like hula hoops in that what goes around comes around. But the hoops are tumbling under the gravity generated by the birthrate slope.

The changes in school resource allocation might be driven primarily by population dynamics now. In the years to come, the changes might be due to automation as enabled by rapidly evolving technologies.

It might be difficult to see how teachers might be replaced with technology because teaching is such a human and subjective task. But we already know of people who teach “robotically” or we might be aware of vendors trying to offer automated solutions. The latter include “analytics” platforms and services that monitor, diagnose, and remediate students on-the-fly.

So how might teachers and policymakers respond to impending change? The current response provides some clues and I counter with alternatives.

The latest merger response is thinking inside the box. The numbers game is typified by comments [source] like:

Currently, there are 23 schools offering a JC programme including Integrated Programme schools. All eight JCs involved in the latest merger exercise can each take in up to 800 students annually, however their enrolment numbers have fallen – one of them, in fact, has a student population size of only between 500 and 600. Without the mergers, the Year 1 intakes at some of the JCs could fall to as low as 200 or 300 in the coming years.

In light of the impending mergers, Serangoon JC, Innova JC, Tampines JC and Jurong JC will not take in any JC1 students next year.


The ministry reiterated that falling cohort sizes would limit the co-curricular activities (CCAs) available at schools, as the CCAs require a minimum number of students in order for learning and participation to be meaningful. At secondary schools, declining enrolment could also affect the range of subject combinations which students can take in upper secondary level.

School mergers meet the number quota. These in turn allow school curricula and programmes to operate as they normally would.

This seems to solve the problem because the numbers look good in a spreadsheet and policy document. However, these measures still operate inside the box of business-as-usual (others might point out that this business is cruel).

Why not take the opportunity to try something different that leverages on other changes or helps educators work towards a fuzzy future?

Some outside the box ideas include, but are not limited to:

  • Co-curricular activities (CCAs) in centralised venues
  • Boutique programmes
  • Having more than one teacher per lesson (team teaching)

The centralisation of some CCAs is already partially outside the school box. Schools that do not have the numbers or resources send their students to other providers and venues. Think about sports like sailing, canoeing, dragon boating, bowling, shooting, wall-climbing, etc. Non-sports programmes might include computer programming, geocaching, community service, new media production, and more.

The affected schools and zones might adopt the boutique approach in that they embrace smaller class sizes. These run not on the efficiency-driven model but on one of effectiveness instead.

Hattie conducted meta analyses that concluded class size reduction only had a very small effect size of 0.2 (effect sizes of 0.2 and below are considered small). However, arguments persist for smaller class size (lower student-teacher ratios) thanks to conflicting research.

We already reduce class sizes for students with special needs or students who are not academically blessed. They undergo programmes that leverage on their strengths and alternative methods like e-portfolios, experiential strategies, and most importantly, closer teacher attention.

One boutique strategy is to have more than one teacher in each class. I do not mean administratively having two form teachers per class. I mean having two or more teachers in class during each lesson, i.e., team teaching.

This is already the norm is some Normal or Normal Technical subjects. This might also be the case when “special needs” students are integrated with “normal” students.

Having more than one teacher per class could address many issues:

  • The bean counter’s problem of having a surplus of teachers per school goes away because of the lower student-teacher ratio.
  • The teachers of the same subject could take turns to teach different sub-topics.
  • Team teaching could be part of teacher mentoring in terms of content expertise, classroom management, school culture, etc.
  • Teachers can share the workload of providing feedback and grading. A smaller burden could lead to more personalised attention to students.
  • Team teaching could allow teachers to specialise in different types of students and meet specific learner needs, e.g., some students need more remediation while others need more challenges.
  • Having less administrative work and a shared academic load could contribute to the ever elusive work-life balance.
  • Teachers finding better balance, deeper meaning, and more time to reflect and develop professionally all point to better retention and job satisfaction.

If the balance tips to a better quality of life, perhaps teachers might create more life (wink!), and possibly contribute to an increase in birthrate. The falling birthrate was officially the root issue after all, so anything to cause a sustained rise is good, is it not?

We cannot keep applying old rules to new changes, or using the tired excuses like “not efficient” or “not cost effective”. We should not have to wait until times are dire and resources are low to try something different.

We still have plenty and we can afford to change. If we do not try now, we might not be able to afford it when dire change arrives.

Reading this article from my RSS feed, Bon Voyage Copy Machine, reminded me of a process I led as head of an e-learning centre several years ago.

Like most departments, mine had a fax machine and photocopier. They were largely redundant because we did not send faxes or need much by way of paper copies.

If some ancient entity demanded it, we could rely on an online service to send the odd fax. We also needed paper copies only when a similarly outdated department inside or outside our organisation required it.

We calculated the costs of maintaining both a fax and copy machine. In the case of the fax machine, the taxes alone from the annual phoneline subscription far exceeded the cost of our yearly usage. The photocopy machine needed paper, toner, and servicing. Paper was relatively cheap*, but the cost of toner could buy a new machine.

*Paper was cheap, but wasteful. The copier was LAN-linked and people from other departments could accidentally send print jobs to our machine.

So we got rid of our fax machine by writing in to folks in charge. My assistant also calculated the cost of getting rid of fax machines across our entire organisation and having just a few shared ones in a central location. The savings were substantial, but the suggestion to centralise fax machines was ignored because convenience and being in the comfort zone mattered more than cost and change.

We invested in a newer and networked copier that would scan and send e-copies to our computers and phones. This reduced the cost of consumables. It took a while for other departments to follow our lead, but they had an easier time because we had already battled with written proposals and were a case study of cost-savings.

The cost of staying in the past is not just overtly financial. There is also the hidden cost of maintaining change resistance and inertia. The financial cost is easy to see on a spreadsheet and justify to an administrator or policymaker. The stubborn costs are not.

Like it or not, the world has moved away from cassette tapes, film rolls, and diskettes. We should add to this lot the fax and copy machines. Unless you operate in a museum, they are as obsolete as the thinking behind their use. If you can find reasons to justify them as a worker today, you might be obsolete too.

Does your mind go off on tangents after reading, watching, or experiencing something? Mine does.

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After watching this video on how a thin piece of rapidly spinning paper cuts through tough objects, I thought of a trick question I used to ask people: What is the hardest substance known to man?

Anyone sufficiently schooled might say diamonds. I tell them that it is paper. After all, paper builds bridges and destroys cities. It starts, maintains, and ends lives. Then we have a discussion about what that means (spoiler: blue prints, blind policies, birth certificates, money, death sentences).

That used to work. Now people might just watch this video and take things literally.

What is the point of paper qualifications (as in academic attainments) if you cannot make qualifications (as in exceptions to the rule) about paper?

Whether you read about it, Google it, or ask an expert, you will probably get definitions of blended learning that are actually about blended instruction. The definitions are also likely to be flat and one-dimensional because they focus on the modes — offline and online — of instruction.

I use the term blending to refer to how both teaching and learning can be designed and driven. I take care to separate teaching and learning because they are not the same set of processes.

Poor blending can lead to the teaching of content that does not result in desired learning outcomes. On the other hand, carefully designed and skilfully implemented blending is more likely to lead to powerful and meaningful learning.

Today I condense my scattered thoughts on good blended instruction. I might share a story on blended learning in a another blog entry.

Three Dimensions of Blending.

I offer a model of blended instruction that borrows from instructional design principles and TPACK. While the common definitions of blending are flat, I share one that has at least three dimensions to give it shape and form.

The dimensions of blending are mode, content, and pedagogy. The dimensions are broad design considerations that are shaped by instructional contexts. These elements are represented in the diagram above. I describe each dimension and provide examples to illustrate them.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Mode.

The mode of instruction is the first dimension and is essentially the same as most definitions of blending. In blended forms of instruction, an educator teaches and facilitates both offline and online.

The educator does this by leveraging on the strengths and suitability of each mode. The educator’s ability to do this depends on his or her experience, depth of knowledge of technology and content (second dimension), and range of pedagogical know-how (third dimension).

Three Dimensions of Blending - Content.

The second dimension is the ability to blend content knowledge. This is a multi-faceted element that accounts for the motivation for learning content and subsequent application of that content.

One way to start thinking about blending content knowledge is how one topic links seamlessly and logically to another. This should be considered not just from an expert’s perspective, but more critically the learner’s frame of mind. The learner should be taught in a manner so that the seemingly separate elements become part of a coherent whole.

Another way of understanding this dimension is to consider how information becomes knowledge, and how that knowledge is used. Meaningful learning is rarely decontextualised or standalone; if there is no context for application, there is unlikely to be any long-term learning. For example, the delivery of a mathematical concept or a new operating standard for work is empty if it is not embedded in why it needs to be learnt as well as how and when it can be used.

Such learning embraces complexity. Whether the content is the black-or-white variety (e.g., compliance standards, emergency drills) or many shades of grey (e.g., ethics in any field, geopolitics), learners often need to combine hard skills with soft ones; draw from different resources from other fields; and factor in their own prior experiences.

Yet another form of content blending is cross-or multi-displinary learning. By this I do not mean that English is the language for the delivery of game programming principles. I am referring to the fact that programming projects need proposals, timelines, budgets, presentations, and more. Peripheral processes and soft skills could be taught with central processes and hard skills.

In short, the blending of content recognises that what the teacher knows needs to be combined with other content areas, social learning processes, and meaningful contexts.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Pedagogy.

The third dimension of blending is pedagogy. This is partly the skilful application of x-based approaches as the content and context require, and as the technology allows. Some examples of x: Problem, case, scenario, team, game, mobile, social media, station, outdoor, etc.

The pedagogical dimension should also include the ability to design and implement suitable forms of assessment and evaluation, provide feedback, and draw out learner reflection.

The three dimensions of blending are dictated by contextual considerations which are often limiting factors. For example, budget, policy changes, sector (schooling, higher education, military, private), etc.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Context.

The context often determines the extent and quality of blending. For example, a paltry budget often leads to a one-dimensional, mode-only blending. There is content offline and online, and while this might look good on paper, it is not meaningful to learners if it does not have sufficient authenticity and complexity, or include timely interaction with content, peers, or experts.

Alternatively, budget or policy might dictate that instruction is separate from assessment. For example, when money is no object, the one who teaches might not be the same as the person who assesses. When budgets are tight or if there is policy to try automation or trial “analytics”, learners might be subject to low-level quizzes that are not aligned to performance outcomes.

Three Dimensions of Blending - Sweet Spot.

My ideal model of blending requires that all three major design elements — mode, content, and pedagogy — are factored into the context of instruction and application. Well-designed blending is the sweet spot that marries critical practice and rigorous research on blending.

However, reality bites hard. Practical realities and unquestioned practice might have led to one-dimensional implementation of blended learning. While such teaching practices might be efficient or even impressive on paper, it might not be as effective in terms of learning.

Instructional designers, educators, managers, and decision makers need to honestly evaluate their existing designs and processes for blending. They could start with a simple models like the three dimensions of blending.

This is a sort of oldie but goodie, 14 Hilarious Homework Excuses from students.

I asked a question in my tweet and I suggest some answers. Warning: My answers are not funny. They are actually quite sad.

  1. This is the way things have always been done.
  2. I know no other way. There is no other way.
  3. You can show me better alternatives, but I will reject them (see #1 and #2).
  4. I do not want parents to complain that their kids do not have homework.
  5. It is business (busy-ness) as usual: I am busy, parents are busy, so kids must also be busy.
  6. If I suffer, they must suffer. Suffering builds character.
  7. Practice makes perfect.
  8. We could not finish all the work in class, so they must do the work at home.
  9. Like blood, sweat, and tears, homework is manifestation of effort or lack thereof.
  10. All the above prepare kids for work.

Where is the reflective and critical practice around homework? What does research reveal about homework? Dare you read and learn from these curated resources?


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