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Our daily rags sometimes do us a disservice by publishing articles like this.

A headline that reads “Eating too much fish while pregnant raises child obesity risk” is not only inaccurate, it is also irresponsible. The researchers highlighted that there was no direct link and said that making such a hypothesis was “speculative”. The study did not prove causation; it only suggested correlation.

The headline is what grabs eyeballs. It is clickbait based on fear or worry.

If not scientifically or research literate, the layperson typically does not distinguish between correlation with causation. Perhaps we need a SkillsFuture course on this because it is a valuable lesson in lifelong learning.

If not, then we might ponder the observation of one of the readers: The Japanese consume a lot of fish, and presumably that includes pregnant women, but they have a relatively low obesity rate. So what gives?

Rising above irresponsible reporting, I wonder if literacy in schools includes the sort of critical thinking that 1) distinguishes between correlation and causation, and 2) encourages questions with counter examples and data.

Is such literacy relegated to “cyberwellness” programmes or is it integrated in the context of actual content?

Reading an article like the one recently published by the Straits Times (More schools tap tech tools for learning [archive]) should raise critical questions instead of blind acceptance.

For example:

  • How many of the 360 mainstream schools in Singapore do this?
  • How common are such practices? How special are the lessons?
  • How transparent are the tools?
  • How different are they pedagogically and experientially from outdated practices?
  • How effective are such experiences?

The general public should learn to ask these questions to keep schools accountable. These questions matter because they affect our children and use our tax dollars (see this Hechinger report on the overall ICT masterplans; amounts are in US$).

What are markers that might reveal an article to be making a mountain out of a molehill?

When examining the health of, say, a freshwater ecosystem, the marker species are amphibians because they are the most sensitive to changes in the environment. A newspaper article can be more complex because the narrative can fool the casual reader. However, there are the equivalent of sick, missing, or dead frogs.

Future Schools

Nearly a decade ago in 2007, the Ministry of Education (MOE) named five pioneering “schools of the future” under its Future Schools project. These schools, picked as test beds for the use of educational technology, are, according to the MOE, “trailblazers” in engaging in information and communications technology (ICT) projects.

In later years, another three schools joined the initiative.

In the Singapore context, the first dead giveaway is the reference to the Future Schools [PDF]. Cosy up to closed circles and you will hear how this is an experiment that is not working. The model is not scalable because the context of each school is different.

Another barrier is poor communication. It is not as if the Future Schools do not share, it is that they do not share quite nearly enough and on a scale necessary for system-wide change. Hosting visits and dialogues is good; creating community is better but sorely missing.

I am aware of one teacher grassroots effort, a Google Educators Group, that meets regularly. All involved stand to benefit from the community because this strategy relies on buy-in and ownership, not policy and good PR.


The MOE has since observed that more schools – beyond the eight schools selected for the programme – have experimented with technology for learning and teaching. But it did not reveal the number of schools that do so.

Ignore the words like “trailblazers” and take note of phrases like “but it (MOE) did not reveal the number of schools that do so”.

Buzzword: Digital native

Educators told The Straits Times that students, being digital natives, are more involved when technology is used in their learning.

Another phrase that should set off alarm bells is the labelling of students as “digital natives” by any interviewee. This term has been roundly critiqued and criticised for more than 10 years (sample of criticisms). Even the originator of “digital natives”, Marc Prensky, has backed down somewhat and moved on to digital wisdom.

“Digital natives” is artificially divisive (us and them), not entirely based on critical research, populist, and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is often used in articles and speeches by people who do not know the history of the phrase nor why it has been rejected by thought leaders and progressive educators.

Buzzword: Engagement

“Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age,” said Dr Victor Lim, deputy director of technologies for learning at the MOE. “Technology can be used not just to increase students’ engagement, but also to… help them learn better.”

“Digital natives” is often used beside phrases like “Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age” and “Technology can be used… to increase students’ engagement”.

Any practitioner worth their salt will know that “comfortable use” of technology is not the same as responsible or effective use of technology. For example, being able to Google something on a mobile phone does not guarantee critical thought.

The use of “engagement” indicates a peripheral and non-critical use of technology. If a teacher needs technology to switch students on, the technology is likely a novelty. It could be bait for a lesson that is not meaningful to the learner.

Stanford don Larry Cuban has come out against the use of “engagement” [article]:

… he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained.

“There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Here is a list of readings and musings on why engagement is fluffy.

Technology merely to enhance
I am against simple engagement because it is typically used alongside “enhancing” a lesson instead of “enabling” it. A tool that enhances is optional; a tool that enables is essential. Your phone can be optional or essential for your life and work. Guess how the modern worker and current student will describe their mobile devices.

If a tool is essential, a lesson cannot proceed and learning cannot happen without it. When the tools are essential, they are also transparent. No one bats an eyelid about using pens and books in the classroom because they are part of the environment and shape practices. The same should be said about current technologies in the classroom. The must enable, not merely enhance.

Buzzword: Future-ready

He added that the tools help students to achieve “future-ready” competencies, such as thinking critically as well as communicating and collaborating with others.

Another marker is the uncritical use of buzzwords like “future-ready”. What is this really?

Words are important because they hold meaning and are verbal contracts. Can you guarantee this state of being when the future is uncertain?

I have reflected before on why future-ready is a misnomer. Do not take my word for it, take Seymour Papert’s.

Sneak preview of my blog entry on a quote by #seymourpapert.

A photo posted by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Papert did not use the term future-ready. If anything, skills like critical thinking, clear communication, and effective collaboration are needed now. They are meaningful now. They are necessary now. The ability to keep learning variants of such skills starts now. There is no need to qualify them as future-ready.

The usual suspects

If you do not get this reference, you need to watch this movie.

I have nothing against the schools listed in the article. They are doing good work. However, the press does them and MOE a disfavour by citing the same schools over and over again.

To its credit, the press sometimes does include a new school among the usual suspects, preferably a neighbourhood school.

Buzzphrase: Technology is just a tool

“Technology is just a tool,” Dr Lim said. “It is the educators who make the difference.”

There is also harm in perpetuating old narratives like technology is “just a tool”. Technology is not just a tool; they are more like instruments. Instruments require care and constant practice to perform well with them. Technological instruments show the joy, art, and love of learning.

To use “just” is to say they do not have impact on their own and to not recognise that tool use is a socio-technical phenomenon. Marshall McLuhan put it best when he said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” One need only pay closer attention to how we walk, talk, and read with our mobile devices to see how our tools shape us.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

A photo posted by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

Very few will deny that it is a good teacher that makes the difference. There is no need to placate the fearful by reminding people, teachers included, that teachers are important. What should be said though is this: Any teacher who can be replaced by technology, should.

I return to my pond analogy to point out the markers.

  • The sick frogs are the Future Schools and using phrases like digital natives.
  • The missing frogs are the schools whose educational technology examples and strategies that remain unreported.
  • The dead or dying frogs are the old narrative of buzzwords that attract flies.

It is easier to just accept the news article as is. It is just as easy to ignore the article and this critique. It is more difficult to question the article for the good of the system.

Which have you been taught to do? Which would you rather do? What should you be doing?

Larry Sanger, one of the co-founders of Wikipedia, wrote an article in Educause titled Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age. It was a thought-provoking read and I started writing my thoughts on it but had trouble finishing them as there were two major fragments. Of the two, the one below is a bit more developed.

[image source, used under CC licence]

I was drawn to a small portion of the article where Sanger wrote:

There is no reason to think that repurposing social media for education will magically make students more inspired and engaged. What inspires and engages some people about social media is the passion for their individual, personal interests, as well as the desire to stay in touch with friends. Remove those crucial elements, and you merely have some neat new software tools that make communication faster.

I agree. I probably harp on this with anyone who is willing to listen! But as one who tries to integrate social media into teacher education, I also recognize how difficult it is infuse the social element. It is almost as if there is an educational Web 2.0 that is almost separate from a social Web 2.0. Why else do we have the Nings, Edmodos, Edublogs and TeacherTubes alongside other social tools (see graphic)?

Consider what LMS providers like BlackBoard do. In a bid to stay relevant, they include tools like wikis and blogs within the LMS. When I say include, I mean lock because the content is limited to a very small audience who upon completing a course or leaving an institution will no longer have access to. Yes, it is sometimes important to keep interactions localized or even private. But when you do this (and only this) with teachers-to-be, you model a process that they follow later in their own practice.

We need to model more authentic processes that take advantage of what teachers and their students already do in real life. They are tweeting or blogging or sharing on Facebook. Sometimes they are doing so in selective circles, but the tools are designed to be open (not closed and controlled like an LMS) and membership is open to any and all interested parties.

I firmly believe that the control desired by teachers and administrators in using such tools cripples their use. The strength of a social tool is its use in social and informal contexts. Take those away and you have a formal and boring lesson.

For example, make blogging a requirement, even at an infrequent interval, and it becomes a chore. But motivate them to write about what interests them or to comment on a meaningful event and it gets to their core. The challenge for the teacher is then to design the task so that content, skills and/or attitudes are learnt as they engage socially. Sometimes the learning happens as they interact; sometimes it happens after.

Social media offers no magic to inspire, engage or make lessons more meaningful. It is the technology-mediated pedagogy that does the trick.

[image source, used under CC licence]

I have mixed thoughts on this article, Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching by Lisa Lane.

The article is based on the premise that course management systems (CMS) like Blackboard have an inherent pedagogy, which is limited to traditional forms of teaching, and this in turn impacts instructors. I do not agree fully with the premise, but I agree with much of the rest of the article even though it is built on that premise. It is an insidious article!

I think that the premise is technologically deterministic, that is, the outcomes of using a tool are defined by its design. But as I wrote earlier, there are technological, social and pedagogical affordances of modern technologies. Affordances are not guarantees of use. The pedagogical affordances of a CMS are but one aspect that influence its use. How they are used socially can make a difference.

Technology is largely neutral even if it is designed to harm. Let us take an ammunition round for example. It is designed to kill. It can be used in a mindless mall shooting. It can also be used to hunt in order to feed a family.

There are limits to a CMS but it is still neutral. It allows the pedagogy of the instructor to take centre stage. If you only know a delivery-oriented model, you will use a CMS that way. If you have constructivist leanings, you will use a CMS to that end. So while I agree with Lane that a CMS limits users, I think it does not determine how they teach.

I agree with her that novice instructors may know no other way of teaching than to attempt to deliver content. I also agree that CMS tend to support that model of teaching and that learning how to use a CMS might be a barrier to developing your own teaching style. So I agree with her advice to novices to ask themselves what they want to do first, rather than do what a CMS demands of them.

[image source, used under CC licence]

If you do, you might abandon an institute-sanctioned CMS like me. The CMS is Blackboard here in NIE. I stopped using it after one semester in 2006 and have been using blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools in my courses since 2007. Why? I started blogging and using wikis in 2004 and began to see their potential for learning.

BlackBoard did include some of these tools as add-ons (in a desperate bid to stay relevant I might add), but they are closed off to the rest of the world. Worse still, my trainees would not have indefinite access to them. Worst of all, my trainees would be put only in the shoes of students, unable to administer, customize and add to the tool itself. I did not realize it then, but I was trying to get them to use what all of us already have access to: Get your own blog, your own wiki, your own online mindmap, your own VoiceThread, your own Google Docs, etc.

A technology learning curve is expected of any tool. It would help if the curve was shallow and short and if pedagogy took centre stage. Bringing in tools that students or teachers-to-be are already using is logical and necessary. (Think about Facebook as an example.) First, the tools are relatively easy to learn. Second, the learning and tinkering is already done outside of class. Third, you can focus on formal learning processes and content with your students or trainees. Finally, the learners expect to be able to use them at work and at play. This way learning becomes naturally seamless instead of just constrained to a time and place.

It’s about killing a few birds with one stone. A stone that has an expected use, but if used innovatively, might redefine how we teach.

[image source, used under CC licence]

Education Week’s article, Mobile Learning Makes Its Mark on K-12, is mistitled. Mobile learning hasn’t made a dent!

The article starts by stating the need for large scale research to determine impact that will convince decision makers to adopt mobile devices so that they become the norm rather than the exception. It then outlines oft cited reasons for not adopting these technologies: the cost of mobile computing devices (MCDs), teacher training, curricular integration, and suitable instructional content.

But even if you handed these things for free on a silver platter at the end of a red carpet, teachers might not bite. If they do, they will have to change their pedagogy to suit the technology. Case in point?

As more educators have started to move beyond the simple mobile applications for education, such as multiple-choice quizzes, flashcards, and polling, they are learning that adapting existing lessons to the miniature viewing area of a cellphone or personal digital assistant does not always work.

On a related note, Steve Wheeler calls these MCDs “child friendly technologies”:

Such devices, including Nintendo game consoles (Wii and DS), mobile phones and iPod Touches can be identified as ‘child-friendly’ technologies, because they are fun and culturally relevant to children, yet they are perceived as either troublesome, or having little relevance in a formal education setting. Teachers often use technology to support their own teaching, but may often fail to see the relevance of child-friendly tools as a means to support children’s learning. Further, many schools have banned the use of such devices due to a perceived threat of misuse and abuse.

So these are some of the barriers for not adopting mobile technologies in meaningful ways. But what are the costs of not adopting mobile technologies logically and meaningfully? Somehow we collectively think of ways to maintain the status quo.  We react less quickly when implementing change (not for the sake of change, mind you, but for the good of our children).

In the Singapore context, I can think of one strategy to galvanize the troops. Parents recognize the importance of getting a head start, e.g., enrichment classes and tuition. If we could sell the idea that having and using MCDs (these child friendly technologies) in class is not just useful but critical for the education of their children, then half of the battle is won.

Yes, I am referring to the same parents who use their phones to arrange business deals, get information on where to eat and how to get there, monitor the stock market, receive the latest news, update Facebook, conduct online banking, ad nauseum.

This isn’t exactly breaking news. But I only just found out that the School Technology Innovation Centre (currently occupied by the Centre of Excellence for Learning Innovation) will be located beside the MxL (which I used to run) right here in NIE.

[source, click screencap for larger version]

So what could I possibly have against it? Not much. I am glad that we will have this venue. It will showcase possibilities (and I hope some realities) that teachers might appreciate.

But I think that every school should be innovating using the resources and within constraints they have. Yes, it helps to have a place to help you think outside the box and to meet other practitioners, but surely any room filled with innovative people can do the same. I think I get some good ideas meeting up with folks in the canteen, hallway or even the restroom. I get the best ideas via RSS, Twitter and Facebook and I can do this anytime and anywhere with my iPhone!

I also think that a centre tends to be viewed as a template to be applied elsewhere. Having been to different schools to conduct workshops for teachers, I am brought to “special rooms” that look and operate like other special rooms. Yes, it helps to have certain layouts and technologies in place, but innovative practices should not be tied to a particular place; they should be transferable elsewhere.

STIC sounds like stick. Some group must have thought itself very creative with the acronym, but it may not have considered the connotation of a stick as punishment (as in the carrot or the stick) or a hindrance (a stick in the mud).

But most of all I object to the “school” in STIC. I think what STIC wants to stand for is technology-mediated pedagogies that enhance and enable better teaching and learning. Why? Currently, the majority of “School Technologies” are far from being innovatively used. Their associated affordances and pedagogies make them sticks in the mud instead. I am talking about rarely or improperly used IWBs. I am talking about death-by-PowerPoint pedagogy.

The focus could instead be on learning and learning technologies. This would then challenge teachers and parents to think about how to create, manage and evaluate learning that takes place anytime and all the time, whether in school or not.

[image source, used under CC licence]

Chris Dawson recounts a conversation at the Education Worldwide Summit where two students, one 15 years-old and the other 17, shared their thoughts on social media in education.

Most schools (ours included), frown upon teachers “friending” students. Unfortunately, that has ended badly in enough cases to just make it a generally unwise practice. However, as Miss Smith [one of the students] pointed out in our discussion, there are already mechanisms within Facebook (pages, discussion boards, and other messaging applications) that support communication around a given topic (say a class or a club) without requiring a friend relationship in Facebook.

When I mentioned Ning and the other social media tools that educators often try to leverage to provide social functions without the worries and stigma of Facebook, both students were clear: it’s been tried before and it won’t be successful because students are on Facebook anyway. The utter ubiquity of Facebook certainly makes it a compelling platform for continued learning beyond the classroom. Students have no motivation to check yet another social site; they can barely be bothered with Twitter, let alone 4 Nings for their classes. One more page on Facebook, though? This makes sense.

He goes on to mention how the students weren’t particularly interested in using Facebook in class, but saw it instead as another way to communicate and collaborate when they were out of the confines of the school.

He also makes a good observation that working Facebook-style is reflective of today’s working world. I think that it will also reflect the social lives of these students when they join the workforce.

So if school is meant to prepare our students for work and society, then why aren’t we finding ways to integrate social tools like Facebook into everyday teaching?

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