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Posts Tagged ‘pandemic

This reply and the original tweet reflect brutal honesties about romanticised aspects of higher “education” and office work.

If you are a white-collar office worker, you might have a cubicle. A large part of work is fencing yourself off from others and staring at a screen — much like working from home with Zoom.

If you are a university student, then attending mass lectures is the norm. Your institution might make video recordings of these lectures available online so that you can watch them on your own schedule. Or you might attend a Zoom-based lecture.

An aside: The photo of the lecture hall is of a local university. It was taken well before COVID-19. It is so large that there are smaller screens halfway up the hall. I recall using it several times for briefings of large numbers of students or student teachers.

Back to the message: Both the photos might make you think about how we can be alone together. Furthermore, being face-to-face does not automatically make work or education better. This mode does not guarantee that we are more productive or studious. 

There are other social, environmental, and other factors that make face-to-face interactions desirable, e.g., immediacy, convenience, structure. But there are other factors and conditions that make going online better than being face-to-face, e.g., more time to think through tasks/problems, not needing to commute, greater freedom.

If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we might realise that returning to “normal” is not good for everyone in every circumstance. Lockdowns due to the pandemic tried to teach us that. Has that lesson even registered?

This tweet and its embedded article gave me reason to revisit my pivot.

It offered some reasons why schools should reopen for kids to resume in person classes. Among them were:

  • School closures had “significant” impact on “skills attainment and earning prospects…  physical and mental health” (no evidence, just statement of presumed fact)
  • Access to online learning is uneven (true in many SE Asian contexts, less so here)
  • There were “increases in anxiety, depression and self-harm” and “increased loneliness, difficulty concentrating” and “poor eating habits and disrupted sleep patterns” and “increased the risk of domestic violence” and “more screen time has exacerbated the risks of online harm” (again all stated as evidence without giving any)

In short, this was a list that the Pessimists Archive would have a field day with. It included tired reasons for reopening in-person schools and vilifying online education.

There is just one thing I fully agree with about this tweeted headline. Online learning is no substitute, but not for the reasons spelt out in the op piece.

Online education is not yet a common substitute because it is: 

  • called upon mostly in emergencies like a fire extinguisher would
  • relegated to the exception instead of integrated as part of a norm
  • held to the standards of what is possible or desirable in-person instead of evaluated on its own merits

I am not saying that schools should not reopen when they can. They should because they serve critical societal and economic functions. And since I work mostly from home, I would like my wife (a teacher) and my son to give me my work space back. 😉

I am saying that we should not vilify online education when you have not given it a chance to bloom, cross fertilise, and create newer and better versions of itself. This is, after all, what we did with schooling. 

Video source 

Video source 

The easy thing to do with videos like these is to show them to students who complain about going to school and telling them how grateful they should be.

The more difficult thing to do is to draw out meaningful questions, generate discussion, and educate our students on empathy and action. 

This tweeted declaration and its elaboration in the news article seem obvious, do they not? That edtech should serve educational purposes must be as obvious as how we fall down because the earth sucks.

But the answer to the question on the purpose of edtech depends on who you ask.

  • If you ask a vendor of the technology, it might be to sell as much as possible for as long as possible.
  • If you ask a university administrator, it might be to fulfil a budget line item and to follow procurement procedures.
  • If you ask a teaching staff, it might be to pivot as little as possible so as to recreate a face-to-face experience online instead.
  • If you ask a student, it might be to make the best of a bad situation — campus shutdown during the pandemic — and get as much out of the tuition fees as possible.

The president of the university from whom the headline quoted elaborated:

…we use technology to make the best of the situation, and we deliver the best experiences that we can until such time that we can pivot offline.

So if you take that out of context, it might be to salvage a bad experience and hope that normalcy returns.

For me, what is obvious is that learning outcomes are not always the concern or priority, no matter what anyone might claim. It is not what you say that matters, but what you do.

It should be obvious that all stakeholders need to learn from the shared experience, i.e., realise that some of the differences are better, and not return completely to normal by adopting what worked better. That should be obvious, should it not?

This tweet triggered my response.

Many who have never telecommuted for work have had the opportunity to do so during the current pandemic. They might miss aspects of office work, but they might also have learnt to appreciate the lack of commute, the greater independence, and a better work-life balance. Maybe.

Teachers and educators who were forced to teach outside their classrooms might also miss their physical domains. But some have taken the opportunity to learn to flourish during remote teaching and online learning.

Whether office workers and teachers do well under the new circumstance and whether they bring good learnt habits back to work when “normalcy” resumes depends on who they are. Sadly, we have diminishing returns.

The ones who do well with change is a small group. Those that learn from this experience and transfer what they learn is an even smaller group. The smallest group include those that persist in learning long after the current pressures are gone.

Today I try to link habits of an app use to a change in teaching.

Like many Singaporeans, I have had months of practice using the location aware app, SafeEntry, to check in and out of venues. We do this in a collective contract tracing effort during the current pandemic.

You cannot forget to check in because you need to show the confirmation screen to someone at the entrance. However, you can easily forget to check out* because, well, you might mentally checked out or have other things on your mind.

Therein lies a flaw with the design and implementation of the app. Instead of making both processes manual, the app could be semi-automatic. It could have a required manual check in at entrances, but offer automated exits.

How so? The mobile app is location-aware. It has a rough idea where you are and can suggest where to check in. This is why the manual check in is better — the human choice is more granular.

However, when people leave a venue, the app could be programmed to automatically check them out if the app detects that they are no longer there over a period of, say, 10 minutes. I say give the option to user for a manual check out or an automated one.

*The video below reported that checking out is not compulsory. But not checking out creates errors in contact tracing, i.e., we do not know exactly where a person has been and for how long. This not only affects the usability of the data but also inculcates blind user habits.

Video source

For me, this is a lesson on rethinking teaching during the pandemic by using awareness as key design feature. It is easy to just try to recreate the classroom room and maintain normal habits when going online or adopting some form of hybrid lessons.

But this does not take advantage of what being away from the classroom or being online offers. The key principle is being aware of what the new issues, opportunities, and affordances are, e.g., isolation, independence, customisation.

Making everyone to check in and out with SafeEntry is an attempt to create a new habit with an old principle (the onus is all on you). This does not take advantage of what the mobile app is designed to do (be location aware).

Likewise subjecting learners to old expectations and habits (e.g., the need to be physically present and taking attendance) does not take advantage of the fact that learning does not need to be strictly bound by curricula and time tables.

The key to breaking out of both bad habits is learning to be aware of what the app user and learner thinks and how they experience the reshaped world. This design comes from a place of empathy, not a position of authority.

While it might have seemed like I was picking apart this opinion piece on providing universal Internet access yesterday, I support most of its ideas and the principles it was based on.

For example, one of the concepts was that it was not enough to simply provide devices and broadband connections to all households. We also need to drive behavioural change, e.g., utilising the connections and devices productively and ethically.

Providing hardware and software without good “humanware”* leaves users open to potential harm. For example, they might not know how to secure their devices against hacks.

Equitable access to broadband connections and devices also does not ensure access to information. Users need to be taught how to work remotely with secure video conferencing or to participate in online learning.

*I consider the practices, attitudes, and values that are socially transmitted and negotiated to be humanware.

One barrier to the installation of humanware is another divide: The access to timely advice and reputable sources of information. Consider the importance of using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

VPNs are not created equally even though most claim to provide secure and private Internet surfing experiences. Rerouted traffic goes through a VPN provider’s servers and what they do with all that data is not immediately transparent to the average user.

VPNs also allow users to access information they need or want even if an overriding policy prohibits it. This does not have to be an illegal act.

I have a Netflix subscription and was looking forward to the interactive episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. According to the actress who plays Kimmy, it was released in the USA over two weeks ago.

The episode has been delayed indefinitely in Singapore (see screen shot below).

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt interactive episode delayed.

This past week I visited Netflix hoping to watch the special episode. The page oscillated between displaying the “safety” message and telling me it was not available in my region.

I know Netflix dubs episodes in different languages to reach larger audiences, but the last time I checked, I spoke english in Singapore. I still do.

The rules for not streaming the interactive episode were not known, they prevented access, and they did not make exceptions. This was despite the comedy being mild. How mild? This IMDB parent’s guide stated that “’Shit’ is used once in season 4.”

I resorted to using my VPN service to watch the episode. As it was a choose-your-pwn-adventure special, I watched it with my wife to enjoy the different routes it took.

So what it my point? VPNs provide access to what you want or need even when obtuse or outdated policies hold you back. In my case, I enjoyed some harmless entertainment. In the case of a worker or student, a good VPN might not only provide a more secure web browsing experience, it could also provide a richer one. But only if this humanware is first installed and constantly updated.

Access is not just about the hardware and software, it is also about the know-how and know-why of humanware.

This opinion piece by two academics about digital access as a universal right and basic utility could not be more timely. But I seek to balance it with some critique.

The article cited a statistic that might surprise those who view affluent Singapore from the outside:

According to Professor Jean Yeung’s recent Straits Times article on her study of a nationally representative sample of over 5,000 children aged six and under, although the Wi-Fi penetration rate is near universal in Singapore, 8 per cent of families in her study who lived in rental units did not have a connection, and 44 per cent lacked a computer or a laptop at home.

The authors pressed with this statement:

As local media reports revealed, the home-based learning experience was highly uneven across families.

Whereas affluent families fretted over higher order concerns such as the quality of online instruction and children’s excessive screen time, less well-off families grappled with basic problems of device ownership and Internet access.

I agree, but I think that that we should not be looking for equality, i.e., treating everyone the same. We should be striving for equity, i.e., provide more help and resources for those that need it more. This is not just a semantic argument. It is a pragmatic one because it shapes the actions we take.

U-Save 2020.

Consider a system we already have in place, U-Save — vouchers that eligible households receive to offset the cost of utilities. The government provides more financial aid to those living in smaller apartments and less to those in larger ones. This is based on the working principle that the less well off live in small apartments and need more assistance.

The authors of the article then proposed that a system like Wireless@SG be extended to every home:

With our Nationwide Broadband Network successfully in place, offering broadband access speeds of 1Gbps and more, extending free home Wi-Fi to residential areas will not involve more than a concerted coordination with telcos outfitting every home with modems and wireless routers.

Our other utilities — electricity, gas, water — are not free and their infrastructure needs to be maintained. Wired and wireless infrastructure need to be maintained and upgraded. The latter tend to be the first to fail and make headlines compared to the more established utilities, e.g., StarHub and M1 each had a major outage in April and May respectively during our circuit breaker (our shelter-in-place).

Making Internet services “free” will place the burden on taxpayers. The same taxpayers will also likely have to put up with inferior customer service since there is no commercial pressure to compete and improve.

The authors then addressed the need for digital devices:

The current NEU PC Plus scheme offered by IMDA is generous and well-intentioned.

Yet, as with all mean-tested programmes with conditions, coverage will fall short. Some who need it will not apply while some who apply will not be given.

NEU PC Plus programme by the IMDA.

[Image source]

They then pointed out how disadvantaged families tended to choose mobile phones over computers because phones cost less. Computers, if present at home, were old and shared.

Financial cost is not the core issue. A Chromebook or mid-range laptop costs less than a high-end mobile phone. You might even be able to buy two or three Chromebooks instead of fully-specced iPhone.

The pressing issue is that learning resources and platforms tend to be optimised for computers. Computer screens are larger and computers have more processing power, storage space, and extendibility (think peripherals).

I argue that there an urgent need to shift the mindsets of teachers, instructional designers, and platform developers. The shift is mobile first (or even mobile only). This means that content delivery, curation, and creation, as well as cooperation and communication, be designed with the affordances of a phone or slate first.

Such a shift highlights another need: Access to professional development for learning and platform designers to operate with such a mindset. If we design first for mobiles, we reach all who have access to mobile devices.

Thinking and doing mobile first is not reaching for low-hanging fruit. If designers and developers currently operate on the desktop paradigm, it can be challenging for them to do otherwise.

But if they do, they might discover how the many affordances of a phone — location-awareness, orientation in 3-D space, augmented audio and video among them — provide opportunities that level the playing field.


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