Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘class

I will be facilitating a synchronous online portion of a class next Saturday. We will be using Zoom.

I am recycling some tips I have for video conferencing. I have added to my list following this excellent piece from Beth Kanter.

  1. Use headphones/earphones, preferably with a built-in microphone. This will prevent the audio feedback that creates echoes during the session.
  2. Mute your microphone (via Zoom software) when you are not using it. This prevents audio leaks which might interrupt the session.
  3. Use the texting tool as a communication backup.
  4. Choose a quiet place with strong and reliable Internet connection. Refrain from relying on a library or coffee shop.
  5. Set the physical space up so that you are not interrupted. It might help to create a sign for the door to inform other occupants of a shared space. Make your physical space comfortable for a few hours.
  6. Be camera ready if you are to appear video. You might be at home, but you are still attending a class in a social setting.
  7. Do not multitask. Stay on task whether it is asynchronous or synchronous. Use the suggested time-on-task in the instructions to guide your effort.

As I have the benefit of meeting the class in person this week, I intend to dedicate about an hour of our session to prepare for the Zoom-enabled class. We will:

  1. Download the Zoom client.
  2. Install the Zoom client.
  3. Join the Test Session.
  4. Use reactions* (e.g., thumbs up).
  5. Test the text chat.
  6. Set up your video* camera and audio.
  7. Test the breakout rooms (small groups) and screen sharing.

*Note: Might be disabled by the institute’s IT administrator

Every vendor of remote meeting or video conferencing software is taking advantage of the opportunities offered by COVID-19. Their potential clients want to move quickly to e-learning or e-meetings.

The “e” in this case is emergency first. As I will explain below, it is not necessarily electronic or enabling.

I was a distance and online educator when I worked on a Masters and then a Ph.D. in the USA. Last month, I conducted an online session for those affected by the Leave-of-Absence policy in Singapore. I have used different tools and platforms for online classes, so I watch videos like the one below with open and critical eyes.

The video above is a laundry list of affordances and claims to be a teacher-to-teacher analysis of Zoom. It might as well have been a soft pitch by the vendor itself.

Far better is one of my favourite teacher-techie’s (Richard Byrne’s) short explanation on how to get started with Zoom.

Video source

Byrne focused on the free version of Zoom and thus modelled a strategy that teachers with low or no budgets can follow.

One of my education partners had mandated the institutional use of Zoom. This means we have access to more features. Unfortunately, it might have administratively crippled it instead of pedagogically enabling it. How so?

Consider Exhibit A. The video conferencing toggles are off by default and I cannot change it in my own settings dashboard because the administrator.

Zoom features administratively disabled.

For me, this is like walking blindfolded into a physical class. I do not know if I am supposed to rely only on audio cues or if I can activate video conferencing once we are in.

Exhibit B: Another setting that makes no sense is how the integration with various online calendars is off by default.

Zoom features administratively disabled: Calendaring.

This makes little sense because an automated calendar reminder is the best way to join a synchronous session IMO. I shared this after I conducted a Google Hangouts session last month.

Exhibit C: The administrator locked the option that would allow my students to join the room before me. Like Byrne, I do not see the point of disabling this.

Zoom features administratively disabled: Join before host.

This would be like preventing students from entering a physical classroom before I do. Students who are anxious about being online for the first time need to test their connection and get comfortable first.

Should administrators and IT managers be concerned about bandwidth, privacy, and security? Of course they should. But these should not be their only concerns. Instructors, facilitators, and students have needs and concerns too.

If you are wondering why some educators choose to operate outside their institutional boxes, it is this: The top-down control is stifling. There does not seem to be room for open discussion and logical compromise. There does appear to be support for progressive pedagogy and powerful learning.

I cannot remember the last time I used Google Hangouts (GH). But it must have been a few years when it was new and I had remote interviews and consults.

Actually, I do not have to remember. As it is linked to Gmail, I looked at the chat feature and noticed video calls listed in 2016.

The rise of the novel coronavirus (now officially named COVID-19) had me digging deep into my free tools toolbox. I think GH blinked when it saw the light.

But in all seriousness, GH is simple and I intend to conduct a roughly three-hour make-up class for students affected by the leave-of-absence they served as a precaution.

I hope that the simplicity of GH means that we overcome the technical hurdle so quickly that it recedes into the background. That way we can focus on the pedagogy and learning, the content and the social interaction, the deconstruction and reconstruction.

This Instagram post by Edutopia challenged teachers and educators to describe their classes in just six words.

My response is: My classes go beyond the walls.

The issue of optimal class size refuses to go away. This is a good thing because it might just wear the opposition down.

If you play the numbers game and set policy with a spreadsheet from your ivory tower, you will point out that class size does not matter as much as teacher quality.

I do not think that anyone doubts that teacher quality is key. But even the best teachers will not be able to cope with large classes indefinitely.

The number gamers might point out that the quality of the student-teacher interaction is what matters. So will the ones urging for smaller class sizes — this will increase opportunities for such interaction.

I see your quantitative bet and I raise with my qualitative point. In the meantime, our kids deal with the consequences of our gamble.

Tags: ,

Today I continue my reflection on the CNA article and video, Regardless of Class.

The video segments on what kids thought about the “class divide” caught my attention the most. There were clips of children aged 9 to 11, and older students aged 15 to 17.

Video source

The whole video is proprietary on CNA’s site, but most of the segments featuring both sets of kids are in the YouTube video above.

The footage and editing sent a clear signal: The younger kids were perceptive and honest about the class divide; by the time they were older, the gaps were
brutally obvious.

The video, particularly in its longer form, made for uncomfortable viewing. Rightly so because the full video was designed to create cognitive and emotional dissonance.

Such dissonance might lead to questions like:

  • How is our schooling system creating and perpetuating such class divides?
  • What might we do to mitigate this?
  • If schooling is, as one teacher pointed out, a symptom and not a cause of social divides, what other contributing factors of social divides might we also need to address?

After repeated and reflective readings of the article and viewings of the videos, I am convinced that what happens at and to the family unit is crucial.

Disadvantaged adults pass their status on to their children and it is difficult for the latter to break out of their structural and social strata. Adults with greater means not only pass their privilege to their offspring, they also find ways to boost what they have.

Fundamental to what adults and parents do is their attitudes and mindsets. Are they defeated by or defiant to their lot in life? Do they believe they have a right to a better life and is this right reserved only for some?

So I wonder simplistically: We have SkillsFuture now; do we need AttitudeFuture and MindsetFuture as well?

We might have the SkillsFuture programme that is supposed to provide post-schooling and lifelong resources for learning. But after reading the article and watching the video linked to the tweet below, I wonder if we need something akin to AttitudeFuture or MindFuture.

Here are a few things I took note of and have thoughts on, particularly from the article linked from the tweet.

I have no doubt that the “class divide” is a critical issue that might potentially disrupt what Singapore stands for. So I was not surprised that this threat was identified by almost half of the 1,036 survey respondents.

That said, “class” is insidious and hard to define. It has multiple contributing factors and layers like education, socioeconomic status, family background, etc. I wonder if respondents had the same things in mind when they thought of class.

Other factors like race and religion were identified as threats to social cohesion by about a fifth of the respondents. However, these perceived factors might have a disproportionate effect in reality.

I am reminded of a tweet from satirical Twitter account, Werner Twertzog:

A third of the population can act on another third while the last third remains indifferent. A minority or a seemingly small threat can have a disproportionate impact.

This does not mean that the class divide less impactful. The class divide is also worsened by indifference, which is why the article and video are important to consume and process now.

I am still ruminating on the article and video. Both provided much to reflect on even though they undoubtedly present only snippets and snapshots of a complicated and nuanced social phenomenon. I think I will focus on what school children and teachers think and do in the next part.

An issue that refuses to go away is that of class sizes in Singapore schools. It should not until our leaders relent.

Our current Education Minister provided at least three main objections to reducing class sizes (reducing student:teacher ratios):

  1. Studies elsewhere showed little or no benefit
  2. Teacher quality was more important than class sizes
  3. Local schools already have some autonomy to make small but strategic changes

No study on the effects of reducing class sizes is perfect or absolutely generalisable. Each study will have its own context, constraints, and focus areas. Each study will also suffer from inadequately answering these questions:

  • What are the measures of success and why were these selected? (Academic results are not the only and best measure.)
  • When are the measures taken? (The effect of class size reduction takes time and can be easily undone if not consistently applied over the entire student experience.)
  • What of the less measurable or even immeasurable benefits of small class sizes like teacher morale, social bonding, mentoring and apprenticeship, etc.? (These “intangibles” are just as important, if not more so, when trying to increase the contact time between a teacher and every learner.)

No one in their right mind or in the face of good data will argue that teacher quality is paramount. A great teacher might strategise how to allocate her time and energy in an unfairly large class. Now give that same teacher smaller classes and what might happen next?

That question needs to be answered even though most people have good guesses or be able to cite anecdotes. This is why other ministers in parliament have suggested that we have official trials of our own. Our schools, our teachers, our contexts, our findings.

As for giving schools the option to decide what to do with teacher deployment, the fact of the matter is that they have always had that option whether it was policy or not. After all, which school principal would not see that disadvantaged kids need more time and attention? Which teacher would not provide small group or one-on-one coaching?

The official answers to a concerted and official reduction of class sizes avoid the crux of the issue: Make it policy to reduce the student:teacher ratio not just administratively, but also realistically.

This means not just taking the total number of students and education officers in Singapore to get that ratio. It means providing a range of smaller numbers that each school can target given its context and constraints. It means focusing on better ways of teaching and learning, not on simply crunching numbers.

Yesterday I outlined why the powers-that-be in Singapore have refused reduce the number of students in classrooms. To oversimplify matters, the almost Freudian response is that size does not matter. It is what you do in the classroom that matters.

They have a point. We seem to top international tests even though that might have to do more with our regime of teaching to the test than class size. Current technology like adaptive content delivery and testing might reduce the need for teaching and coaching, but these are not common in classrooms (quite the opposite really).

The most important rebuttal that those-in-authority might have is that the quality of our teachers is more important than class size. Here they might cite the work of John Hattie while conveniently ignoring the critique.

The quality of our teachers is very important and it is very high in Singapore. I know because I was a teacher and am a teacher educator. But our teachers are far from perfect and one need only engage in regular “canteen talk” to make that clear.

How do solar panels fit in? In yesterday’s reflection, I mentioned the issues of reducing class sizes and adopting solar energy in Singapore are cyclic issues and dependent on right timing.

Suggestions that Singapore take solar energy seriously appeared in the news for more than a decade. From the layperson’s point of view, this made sense since sunlight is something we have plenty of. Contrary to our national education refrain, people are not our only natural resource.

However, the initially high cost of solar panels was a barrier, as was the availability of surface area. When the idea to use buildings like our HDB flats to house these panels was raised, it was rejected because the returns then were not cost-effective.

Fast forward to today and we have trials to use water reservoirs for floating panels, the Apple Singapore being fully solar-powered, more HDB flats having solar panels, and at least one electricity provider whose primary source of energy is sunlight.

A decade ago, these realities would have been a pipe dream. There was so much opposition to an idea that made so much sense. Its main obstacle seemed to be cents and dollars. With cheaper and more efficient solar technologies, that barrier was removed.

The issue of reducing student-to-teacher ratios reappears in the news periodically, just like the adoption solar energy did. We recognise it is cyclic, but when might the timing be right? What might be the straw that breaks the classroom camel’s back?

One of several topics about Singapore schooling that gets raised cyclically is the call to reduce class sizes in schools.

A Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) raised this issue earlier this week and it was not the first. One need only scan Google search results on “reduce class size singapore” in the general findings and news sections to see how frequently and far back this goes.

The most often cited reason for reducing class sizes is the attention that teachers can spend on each student. Fewer students means potentially more attention. This might then reduce dependence on remedial and enrichment tuition — the bane that is Singapore’s shadow schooling system.

Of late, our plummeting population growth has resulted in rounds of school mergers. This has tempted observers to suggest that the resulting “excess” of teachers be removed by increasing the teacher-to-student ratio, i.e., reduce class sizes.

However, our Ministry of Education probably sees things differently. It will not say this publicly, but trimming the fat is a good way of getting bad teachers out of schools. The problem with this is that some very good teachers get caught when they pull this plug.

The MOE has and will cite its own data of low student-to-teacher ratios. For example, here is a tweet from @singapolitics in 2016 and an extract from the article last week:

In August, (Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng) had told Parliament that the average form class size in primary and secondary schools last year was 33 and 34 respectively, while the median form class size was 32 in primary schools and 36 in secondary schools.

However you make sense of these numbers, they probably have more to do with obtuse calculations, Singapore’s low birth rate, and policy changes.

Step into a mainstream primary or secondary school classroom. You are unlikely to see 16 students in an “average” primary school classroom and 13 in an “average” secondary school classroom.

The numbers hide the fact that you can get such ratios by totalling the number of teachers and students while not factoring how many teachers are actually in active service. Speak to school leaders and managers and you will realise the manpower struggles they face every academic term. The most honest response I have come across in a parliamentary session was this one in 2013:

our PTR (pupil-teacher ratio) has improved from 26 in 2000 to 18 in 2012 for primary schools, and from 19 in 2000 to 14 in 2012 for secondary schools…

But a PTR of 18 in our primary schools does not mean that our class sizes are 18 in our primary schools – it simply means that we have one teacher for every 18 students, or two teachers for every 36 students, etc. The same PTR can result in different class sizes – as it depends on how we deploy our teachers.

Combine this fuzzy math with our falling birthrate and the policy decision to have smaller class sizes in Primary 1 and 2. Now consider how schools also have special programmes or interventions that temporarily reduce class sizes, e.g., dividing a class for mother tongue lessons into two or three classes, or having smaller classes for a few at-risk students at strategic periods. These schemes reduce student-to-teacher ratios, but they should not be confused with a reduction in class size across the board.

The long story told short is that the reply to having smaller class sizes is no.

What does this fuzzy math and resistance have to do with the use of solar panels in Singapore? It is cyclic and about leveraging on good timing. More on this tomorrow.


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: