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Critiquing an SLS opinion piece (Part 2)

Posted on: September 22, 2017

This is Part 2 of my smell something-say something rant on an op piece on the upcoming Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS).

In Part 1, I critiqued how the article:

  • made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  • perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  • stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”

In this reflection, I focus on how it:

  • claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  • quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

A social leveller
The article claimed that the SLS would provide “the same quality resources, regardless of their home background”.

It is very tempting to buy into the rhetoric that the portal will be a social leveller. The key idea is that everyone will have equal access to the same quality resources.

Will they?

Social levelling is an old and simplistic argument that has not come true for the decades-old edtech movement. It trivialises the complexity of access issues, among them socio-economic status, infrastructural preparedness, pedagogical nous, informed leadership, and rapidly evolving technology.

Uncritically citing social levelling is not researching and learning from recent history and parallel systems. The work of Cuban, Fullan, Hattie, and Reigeluth is a substantial but revealing start.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

One of the most recent statistics about Singapore households showed that as of June 2016, the Residential Wired Broadband Household Penetration Rate was 98.4%. This included households that might have more than one broadband subscription plan. On the surface, this could mean that most students will not have a problem with basic access.

Dig a bit deeper beyond the statistics that hide “realistics”: Teachers and parents prevent access because students and children are supposed to only “learn what is expected”. There is no or little room to learn by play, error, or experimentation.

Another realistic is the prevailing mindset that test is best. This is my way of saying that most of us cannot think and operate outside the box that is testing and chasing grades. The SLS is supposed to help reduce and perhaps remove that sort of behaviour.

However, a platform alone cannot and will not realistically do this. It will take political courage and will on the part of our leaders, pedagogies driven by progressive mindsets in teachers, and informed decision-making by parents and students to head in that direction. Social levelling does not happen only via a technological platform; it requires social interventions leveraging that platform.

Now consider another aspect of access and social levelling.

The same set of information-communication statistics revealed that Singapore’s Mobile Population Penetration Rate is 148.2%. Even the poorest of family units save for a phone. Given that 2G was phased out here this year, our population is technically on broadband.

However, a technical affordance does not guarantee social or pedagogical affordances. While a previous article mentioned that the SLS would be accessible on mobile, it did not say whether it was mobile-friendly or mobile-first.

Such a distinction is important. Any online resource that is mobile-friendly is designed for the desktop or laptop first. For example, I can only create and edit Google Sites in large screen format. When I publish the work, it adapts to smaller screens. However, elements like wide tables, animations, and videos might be optimised for the large screen and not appear properly on small ones.

A mobile-first design is just that — the design or redesign starts with a small form factor first. This approach is typical of apps made for emerging markets. More mature ones like ours are stuck in the desktop age.

Ask any teacher if they use their phones to do research. Then ask them to prepare resources and facilitate lessons using only their phones. The answers will be different because of the prevailing desktop mindset.

If you are not a teacher, then consider how stripped down banking transactions via apps are compared to the full web versions. Exceptions and mobile-first app designs might include transport and some e-commerce apps because their use is on-the-go.

My point is this: We should expect the learner of today to consume and create on mobile devices and platforms. If the SLS is designed for laptops or desktops, this creates another access barrier. So much for being a social leveller.

Learning styles and best practices

Experts like Dr Chan pointed out that not every student learns the same way. Teachers, then, cannot be expected to cater to varied learning styles, even with the portal.

They hope that besides benefiting students, the e-learning platform can aid teachers by having them share best practices and work together on materials with their colleagues from other schools.

I am going to sound like a squeaky wheel. Learning styles are a myth and there is no such thing as best practices, particularly in education.

I will oil the wheel and point out that I have written about the learning styles myth and claimed that we should not have best practices in education.

I return to Jon Stewart’s quote about being socially responsible. If you see or smell something, say something. Better safe than sorry.

People respond more quickly to an abandoned parcel in a public space because there is potential and imminent danger. The same people are less likely to respond to a warning like mine because the danger is not immediate and the impact is spread out over time.

The danger is still there, but we prefer a pat on the back instead paying attention to warning signs right in front of us. We are shortsighted that way.

1 Response to "Critiquing an SLS opinion piece (Part 2)"

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