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This news surprised me: A local university seemed to insist on in-person classes despite some staff and students being stuck overseas.

This information was published in a local newspaper on 18 August but was already reported on elsewhere on 10 August.

The TODAY paper reported that the university:

…is facing criticism because it is the only one of Singapore’s main universities where students and faculty staff members stranded abroad are unable to study or teach online until they are able to enter the country.

Staff and students are overseas and having trouble travelling to Singapore due to strict border restrictions. They have had to struggle with issues like dropping out, being put on no-pay leave, getting courses cancelled, etc.

The earlier article revealed that: 

…academics who have been granted compassionate leave, and thus allowed to teach classes remotely, will be paid only for the days that they teach.

…based on this payment system, a professor whose classes are clustered within two or three days will be paid only for those days, while another with the same number of teaching hours, but with classes spread across all five days of the week, will receive full pay.

As a former academic, I feel for the teaching faculty who are affected by bean-counting administrators and micromanagers. I borrow an argument from that same article on valuing teaching faculty: 

…academics do work, even on the days they don’t have classes, and that teaching online might even require more work in terms of planning and coordination than in-person lessons.

The university policies probably do not make sense. If teaching staff and students are stuck overseas for legitimate reasons and both have the capacity to teach and take classes online, why not do that? 

Have we learnt nothing from enforced remote teaching and learning due to COVID-19 lockdown? Why return to normal when you can do better?

Looking elsewhere, some faculty take to Zoom as a fact of life. Take Dr Inna in her tweet above as an example.

Teaching online is not a substitute for a campus experience. But it is better than cancelling classes, treating people like numbers in a spreadsheet, and implementing cruel policy.

If you wonder why online courses are perceived to be inferior to in-person ones, this article has some answers.

The author cheekily (but accurately) suggested four “entrenched inequities” that keep the value of online courses and instruction down:

  • The second-class status of pedagogy research
  • The third-class status of online courses
  • The fourth-class status of online-oriented institutions
  • The fifth-class status of the majority of online instructors

The devil is in the details and the author is a demonic writer. Every word sizzled and the full article is worth the read just for its frank critique of the status quo.

Whither online efforts? They wither because they are denied resources.

This is unsolicited advice that I offer to institutes of higher learning (IHLs) that rely heavily on the standard lecture-tutorial system even after COVID-19 lockdowns ease. I reflect on some planning considerations before a new semester starts.

Assuming that we can return to campus, I suggest some reductions for practical and pedagogical reasons.

Reduce or remove lectures. The halls cannot hold everyone if social distancing standards are to be maintained. Create or curate videos instead. This will have the long term benefit of shifting away from lectures as we know them.

Reduce tutorial class sizes. Like the note on lectures, this reduces human density. If a class is 30-strong, reduce it to 15 or 20. Why meet for tutorials? They (should) focus on learning content, not (re)teaching it. Tutorials offer social immediacy for the negotiation of information so that it becomes constructed knowledge.

Having smaller classes means faculty need to teach one class twice or there must be more faculty to handle the higher teaching load. Local IHLs have enough time and money to make this a priority. Making this move is a return to what makes makes an IHL valuable to society — a focus on the close nurturing of young adults.

I think of this nurturing like a hen brooding her eggs. There is only so many that one chicken can sit on and look after. Stuff any more under her and the eggs do not hatch.

Reduce face-to-face time by flipping the classroom (change what happens where) and flipping the learning (change who does what). The differences between the two are important, but the first lowers the need for face-to-face time and the second empowers the learner.

Reduce barriers to change. The barriers are not the ones already mentioned, i.e., requiring standard lectures before tutorials or large class sizes. They are also about mindsets about how an IHL educates.

One hidden barrier might be the focus on content delivery and the assumption that only experts should do this. Experts do not always make the best educators. They might need professional development on how to be instructional designers, facilitators, mentors, and evaluators.

One barrier that must be worn down is the operating model of in-person classes. While valuable, such a mode is not always necessary for consultative or cooperative learning. One need only deconstruct the efforts of online choirs to suggest what transfers to higher education.

Video source

Even the worst experiences of emergency remote teaching will likely have taught teachers and educators something about the value of proper online classes.

These lessons should inform the design of courses moving forward. If we do not change, we waste the time and effort of teaching and learning in lockdown. If we do not change, we risk making the same mistakes when another lockdown happens.


edX CEO Anant Agarwal shared a statistic at the beginning of his TED talk. About 155,000 people took an edX course offered by MIT. This number was larger than the entire alumni of MIT in its 150 year history.

But MOOC reach was not what Agarwal wanted to highlight. Instead, he described how experiments in MOOCs were informing university faculty on:

  • Going where the learner is at (online, mobile)
  • Designing blended and flipped lessons
  • Promoting active learning by designing interactive and self-paced lessons
  • Providing instant feedback
  • Leveraging on social learning
  • Getting students to learn by encouraging them to teach

In other words, relevant and progressive pedagogy.


The NMC’s Horizon Report for Higher Education 2014 is out.

Like the previous years, it highlighted trends over the next one to five years to look out for. According to the report, these two trends might drive change in a year.

  • Social media ubiquity (our e-Fiesta 2014 topic!)
  • Integration of online, hybrid, and collaborative learning (what a catch-all!)

The next two trends might take three to five years:

  • Data-driven learning and assessment*
  • Learners as creators

The last two trends might take more than five years for change and are the most vague of all:

  • Agile approaches to change (another catch-all)
  • Evolution of online learning (yet another)

Following a similar 2-2-2 pattern, the group also highlighted edtech developments in their document:

  • Flipped classroom
  • Learning analytics*
  • 3D printing (really?)
  • Games and gamification (at least they are listed as two separate entities)
  • Quantified self (what?)
  • Virtual assistants*

Unlike other years, this report also mentioned challenges for the adoption of educational technology:

  • Low digital fluency of faculty
  • Relative lack of rewards for teaching
  • Competition from new models of education
  • Scaling teaching innovations
  • Expanding access
  • Keeping education relevant

Here are some of my preliminary reactions.

A lot of what gets listed depends on who the NMC includes in the expert panel, how aware they are, and what agenda they have. It is worth looking back at previous reports (see 2013’s report for example) for clear patterns and outliers.

That said, anything to do with technology is difficult to predict because technology companies and policymakers can shift the goalposts overnight.

I am not sure why trends and edtech developments were separate or if they are different at all. For example, the items I asterisked (*) are all linked. Some might argue they are one and the same, but at different phases or based on different understandings and implementations of the same thing.

I am glad to see the “challenges to adoption” in this report. While previous lists might have seemed like wishful thinking and crystal ball-gazing, the addition of the challenges injects some reality.

A cruise ship can carry much more than a speedboat, but it is not nimble. It is more stable in choppy waters, but it is not immune to a tsunami.

Traditional universities are like ships while MOOCs and bodies that offer open learning opportunities are like speedboats. I draw this analogy because of something I am experiencing.

I am offering to design and facilitate a “flipped classroom” course for middle managers in schools. Administratively, there are necessary hoops to jump through and these take time.

Even though I have done the necessary documentation, I will have to wait till January 2014 before the course appears on the radar of teachers. After that, it can take a year (two semesters) before a course gains critical mass.

If I had offered to do a MOOC through existing platforms, I would likely be asked: Can you run this course next week and can you offer it to a few thousand participants?

I am not criticizing the university system as there are processes in place to ensure rigour and reputation. But I wonder if the ship can redesign itself to operate more nimbly.

I imagine the ships scaling down on unnecessary ballrooms, gaming areas, and cinemas, and instead offering mobile devices to passengers (or leveraging on those that they carry already). I imagine cruise operators asking passengers what they like and dislike in order to improve their services.

This is similar to removing lecture theatres and other rooms that are costly to maintain but whose use is losing relevance in light today’s expectations and enabling technologies. This is like realizing what learners want and responding quickly to new but important needs.

Why get everyone in the same place and at the same time when you can drop the place, time, or both? Why not create models of teaching that actually address the needs of learners?

“Pedagogy before technology” is a refrain that I espouse. I say this in the context of integrating technology for learning and designing mobile apps.

So I was glad to read someone else write about why technical training for faculty is a waste of time. It is a good read!

Such training is a waste of time for many reasons. Teaching well is not important. Churning out research is more important. Technical training is not the same as meaningful, contextual use.

That aside, there are some faculty members who are passionate about teaching and changing with the times. With these folks in mind, there is a word missing from the title of that article. That word is “unless”. Such training is wasteful unless the pedagogical gains are made clear first.

Much of CeL’s training has been technical and this is a historical practice that is difficult to displace. When an outfit set up with only one academic staff member (me) and almost 20 non-academic members (my team), this makes the task of changing mindsets and practices even tougher.

So we began the journey of change.

One change was for my staff to rationalize WHY before telling HOW and WHAT. For example, why do I need to learn this new tool or method? Why is this strategy better?

Another was expanding our audience to include non-academic staff. This not only helped a previously ignored group, it also helped my team see that they need to appeal to the immersive use of the tool. It was another way of appealing to the WHY first.

Now we have revised some of our workshops and sharing sessions.

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The academic staff sharing sessions used to be just that: Teaching staff would share their experiences and stories. In the sessions going on this week, academic staff share their practices (more of the WHY) while CeL staff follow up with the technical HOW and WHAT. We call this the half-and-half sharing sessions.

In a new Blended Learning series, we will offer pedagogical tidbits to academic staff in a bid to get them to bite. We do this by sharing blended teaching strategies in our collaborative classrooms with Web 2.0 tools and Blackboard.

There is at least one more strategy that we hope to implement soon. It has something to do with this…

That was my response when I read the Straits Times article Varsities making more lectures available online (click image below for archived copy).

They are still just lectures. They may be very efficient, but they are not very effective. They are an industrial age model trying to hobble on a catwalk that belongs to information age models.

In theory, the lectures might be useful to someone without the means to get a university education. But the walled garden prevents access. In the age of open access, this strategy of offering lectures online but building a fence around them is already outdated.

Institutes of higher learning (IHLs) need to make money, but they need not do this with lectures.

Ask anyone who has a university education what they remember or value the most and they are unlikely to mention lectures (the exceptions being the one or two really good or really awful ones).

No, IHLs offer the campus or university experience and this typically happens outside lecture halls. More often this happens in canteens, field trips, meals with faculty and areas for play.

Lectures are typically for the dissemination of information. The rest of the university experience develops the creative and critical capacity of an individual. If anything is to be put online, it should be the equivalent or even better experiences that develop creativity and critical thinking.


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