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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.

If you see or smell something, say something. This applies to an abandoned parcel in a public space as much as a fishy opinion piece in a local newspaper.

The article was about the upcoming Student Learning Space (SLS) and had this byline:

A new e-learning portal to be introduced next year promises to make lessons more engaging. Experts say it can even be an education leveller, giving the same quality resources to all students, regardless of their home background.

I have five main critiques of the article: It

  1. made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  2. perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  3. stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”
  4. claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  5. quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

I share my thoughts on the first three point today (Part 1) and the rest tomorrow (Part 2).

Vague reference to observers

observers agree that learning has to be made more engaging, particularly for the younger ones, to keep them interested

Who were these observers? What were their backgrounds, areas of expertise, and biases? Did they all share the same observations?

The article dropped a few names and quotes later on, but it was not clear if these were the same observers. The quotes were about students actively getting getting feedback, not merely “engaging” with resources.

I am an observer who has been in education for almost 30 years and half of that time was as a critical advocate for educational technology. My views are plain to see as I blog openly. One of my consistent messages is this: I disagree with the current and dominant rhetoric of engagement.

The rhetoric of engagement
I understand the appeal of citing engagement. It is basic educational psychology to say that you must first pay attention to learn. Without that receptive channel, there cannot be inputs of information, much less the recreation of knowledge.

The type of motivation that the writer focused on was extrinsic. Following this logic, teachers need to make the lessons fun or interesting, and move away from — get ready for another cliche — chalk and talk.

Half of that reference is outdated. There is no more chalk in our classrooms, but there is still a lot of teacher-centric talk. Is “engagement” with content supposed to deal with the other half?

If so, the argument is incomplete. Extrinsically fueled engagement is only half the story. Motivation also comes from within. While extrinsic motivation is the low-hanging fruit offered by shiny bells and whistles, intrinsic motivation is more difficult to nurture. However, that internal drive is what creates habits of learning over the long run.

No portal, as good as it promises to be, can spark, identify, or nurture this intrinsic motivation. Only the learner and others around him/her can do that.

Focusing on short-term gains has a negative long-term consequence. Always providing “engaging” resources teaches students to be spoon-fed in a different way. Previously it was tell us what we need to know for the test and students would respond with the garbage in-garbage out strategy of superficial learning.

Now it might be show me, give me, tell me albeit in an engaging way. That is fine if the instructional design of the resources is based on principles solidified by rigorous research and critical practice.

But no matter how well-designed, providing a go-to portal creates dependence. It teaches students to eat processed fish fingers or to shoot fish in a barrel. Students do not learn how to actually fish (search) or decide on the quality of their catch (evaluate).

What is expected

Currently, the portal’s resources, produced and curated by MOE, are based on the national curriculum, which means students will be learning what is expected of them.

There is nothing wrong with having high standards for content. We take pride in being Number One is so many things that we expect these standards to be the norm.

However, it is presumptuous to limit our children to learn only “what is expected of them”. Do we have a future-proof crystal ball? Is the e-learning portal also one that peers into the future?

What happened to the other rhetoric about the VUCA world? How about even more rhetoric about being future-ready (an impossible state if you think about it)?

I am not against providing resources. I am against spoon-feeding by another name and method.

What should be expected is not just to consume, but to also to create. What should be expected is to not work in isolation, but also to collaborate authentically and meaningfully. What should be expected is not to be spoon-fed, but to also find and prepare your own food.

I find myself turning into a curmudgeonly old man as I write this. So I end Part 1 and seethe over Part 2 tomorrow.

You cannot make this up. There is no need to.

The tweet above aptly illustrates how learners today can be savvy, but neither smart nor wise.

I do not mean to say they are stupid. They are simply ignorant because they have not learnt new ways of seeing and doing things. Over time with smart teaching and wise counsel, our learners might gain new perspectives and habits.

They must be taught or they must have good models to emulate. They are learning machines as we are. But they are not magically or mysteriously digitally native. The “digital native” is a myth.

No educator worth their salt benefits from buying into this myth. Making false assumptions about the learners will be frustrating for both students and teachers. The teachers will have heightened and unrealistic expectations of their students, and the students will not learn optimally with technology-mediated pedagogies.

I have met and tried convincing my fair share of administrators and teachers who do not process Prensky’s claims of the so-called “digital native” more critically. I am quite certain most have not even read this original work in 2001. That is a long time to believe and implement policy blindly.

I urge anyone who has not questioned the use and assumptions of “digital natives” to read this excellent critique, Digital Natives: Ten Years After, by Apostolos Koutropoulos. A friendly debate over lunch is not going to cut through over a decade of hardened myth. Perhaps a slow but deep burning will.

I stopped tweeting about or recommending any Horizon Reports after being privy to the processes behind one such report and reading the work of Audrey Watters [latest example].

I had insights to Singapore’s 2012 Horizon Report. Almost five years ago, I described how the trends identified then were heavily influenced by entities with edtech aspirations and how the trends were out of sync with other reports.

Audrey Watters has always been critical of the reports because the trends are disjointed. For example, a likely trend mentioned five years ago is not the norm now. While this might be due to the difficulty of forecasting, this does not explain why one long term trend appears in one report and not in a later report as a mid term trend.

This lack of continuity might be due to the fact that the self-selecting groups that form the leadership and advising boards come from different sectors. They are like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant based only on which part of the elephant they can feel.
 

 
My simple-minded critique of the Horizon Reports is that they are aptly named. You can try walking to the horizon, but you will never reach it. You cannot. You will only see more horizon.

You can also walk in any direction depending on the paths and barriers in front of you. As a result of doing this, you will see different things as you change directions.

Viewed this way, the reports are meanderings of guides who cannot be sure where to go and what to anticipate. The takeaway? Woe to anyone who buys in to what these blind men say as they cling on to different elephant parts.

 
John Hattie’s work on effect sizes and analysis of meta analyses is widely known in most education circles. His recommendations on what makes for effective teaching are probably in many instructor preparation programmes and policy documents. One of his best known works is his book, Visible Learning.

However, his work is not without its flaws and has its share of critics. The latest collection comes courtesy of this blog post.

The main objection seemed to be the questionable statistical methods that Hattie employed in his studies. What seems to have held fast are some of his recommendations on how to improve teaching by focusing on the learner and learning. But any logical person and academic worth their salt will ask if we can accept good conclusions drawn from questionable techniques.

I think such conversations are not missing the forest for the tress. They are trying to burn down the wrong set of trees.

You do not need research to understand and implement the logic of Hattie’s umbrella concept of visible learning. No teacher can read the minds of their students. I have not met any mind-reading teachers, and if they could, they are no longer teachers because that talent is more lucrative elsewhere.

Since we cannot see internal processes in learners, Hattie’s advice is that we externalise them. We start by designing learning outcomes in the cognitive realm that are observable and/or measurable. Then we get learners to demonstrate what they claim to know or be able to do: Perform, create, critique, compare, contrast, etc.

What might be researched instead are the effectiveness of different methods of designing visible learning. Do not burn the forest of visible learning. Clear it of diseased trees or invasive and harmful species with methodical research.

Side note: I have a critique of the critique. The author of the blog post seemed to imply that catering to learning styles is important. He needs to examine the literature and research that establishes learning styles as myth.

No, I am not referring to the SLS that is Sim Lim Square, although that place is worthy of a rant. I am referring to the recently announced rollout of the Student Learning Space.

I cannot critique this article on the SLS in one tweet. Hence this longer critique.

I present segments from the article and share some thoughts.

“The aim is for students to take greater ownership of their learning and to work together with their peers.”

This is a worthwhile aim. However, I wonder if students should actually be exploring and using other already available resources to do this. The fact that such resources are NOT already under one roof, curated, or sanitised is the point. How else better to prepare them for higher education and work?

The path to ownership is paved with learner agency and empowerment. Such characteristics are not found neatly stacked on a shelf or conveniently packaged online.

“learn at their own pace, revisit concepts and read up on other areas of interest”

Uh, one word: YouTube. Another word: Wikipedia.

These words are not neat and tidy like teaching. Instead, they accurately mirror the messiness that is learning.

“developed with industry and external partners to offer real-world context”

Um, another word: Buzzword.

“Real-world” examples and contexts are crucial and sorely missing, so making lessons more real is worthwhile.

I hope that the providers of SLS have learnt from the plethora of examples in YouTube and social media like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram what to do and what not to.

If not, they are just using a buzzword for effect. The effect is like a firework. It is spectacular when it explodes, but it does not last long and the scene fades back to black.

I still wonder if providing a portal is wise in the long run. Is this not just more elaborate spoonfeeding? Or perhaps the giving and regurgitation of fish?

“rolled out progressively to all schools from next year (2018)”

Starting when next year? After the main exams so students can do cool and fun but not test-relevant things?

The official announcement mentioned 62 trial schools, but no specifics on when. My guess is that you cannot get shot down if you do not hold up timeline targets.

“teachers can share lesson ideas and strategies within and across schools”

Will this be done like the way it was about a decade ago? It was mandatory for some to share resources like test papers in online repositories. The “ideas and strategies within and across schools” was poorly conceived and implemented because competition was stronger than collaboration.

I hope the Ministry officials learnt from this faux pas. It must have the right people to provide that institutional memory and who have the willingness to not be yes-men or women.

I also wonder if the goal is to emulate teachers who already blog, tweet, and create YouTube videos. If so, they must nurture a mindset and culture that embraces openness, humility, interdependence, creativity, critical thinking, and reflectivity.

If not, they might be creating conditions for another mistake. An expensive and very public mistake.

 
I wonder about articles like this in which “thought leaders” were asked to make predictions about gamification. None tried defining it and distinguishing it from, say, game-based learning or serious gaming.

That is a good strategy because when you are asked to gaze into a crystal ball and make predictions, it helps to be as vague or as general as possible so that something hits the mark.

I also wonder why there seem to be examples of “gamification” from everywhere else except schooling and education. For example, take this article from a site that says it is about e-learning.

The examples were about Dropbox, LinkedIn, Duolingo, Google News, Zappos, and a steel company. Only one example, Duolingo, was about language, but the paragraph was so short it could be covered in two tweets.

To be fair, the very short paragraph linked to a longer review. However, a review of an app and service is not the same as an argumentative article on good and bad examples.

So why are there relatively few examples of gamification in schooling and education? I suggest that their implementations were and continue to be:

  • Unsuccessful
  • Closed
  • Ungeneralisable
  • Not sustainable

Successful implementations tend to get published; failed attempts rarely are. Ask anyone who has tried to do this in educational magazines or academic journals. No one wants to look bad even as they try to look good by learning from failure.

Schools and universities tend to operate in a closed manner, both inwardly and outwardly. This not only is the reason why there are calls for them to be more open to the “real world”, it is also why you do not hear about gamification efforts, if any.

As much as one classroom looks like another, the students and prevailing culture in each school makes it difficult to generalise success or failure factors from one context to another. This is why we cannot have more Finlands and Singapores in the schooling systems of other countries.

Gamification efforts tend to be “lone wolf” efforts. These are driven by individuals with the talent, ideas, and capacity to take risks. The rest are happy with the status quo or unwilling to risk bad results or a dip in student feedback on teaching.

Some from the second group might try something new, but once bitten are twice shy. So efforts like gamification, rightly or wrongly implemented, are not sustainable.

Gamification is not sustainable for at least two more related reasons: Vendor platform and bad design. Edtech vendors need real trials and often seek groups in schools and universities to try something for free or a low fee for a short period. When the trial runs out, so does the patience of an administrator or decision-maker.

Earlier this month, I explained why such vendors take the safe route. In doing so, they offer much of the same disguised as different. For example, getting points and leaderboards simply recreate grades instead of focusing on formative feedback. Since little or nothing changes, the new effort is not sustainable because it is no different from the old method.

So if you wonder why you do not hear gamification news from schools, wonder no more. The efforts there might not have been successful or are not sustainable. If you hear anything, you cannot be sure it is generalisable. If you hear nothing, that is the norm from closed systems.


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