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I had two meetings with Blackboard (BB) representatives earlier this week and I need to vent.

I learnt about a new pricing model and their move towards learning analytics. I could rant about the first but I’ll limit myself to the second.

First, I’ll say that learning analytics as described by the NMC in the K-12 Horizon Report 2011 is an important forecasted trend. I borrow from their report to explain the purpose of learning analytics:

Learning analytics loosely joins a variety of data- gathering tools and analytic techniques to study student engagement, performance, and progress in practice, with the goal of using what is learned to revise curricula, teaching, and assessment in real time.

Imagine being able to determine in real time what difficulties a learner is having and addressing those needs based on the artefacts that a learner creates. In other words, the focus of learning analytics is learning and the learner.

BB showcased a prototype learning analytics tool. To their credit, the prototype system seems robust and all data is not sent to a remote server for processing. This will avoid data privacy issues and prevent groups like marketers from accessing this information.

But what the BB representative demonstrated left me with a “big brother is watching you” feeling.

Big Brother 2009 Italy by _mixer_, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  _mixer_ 

I did not get a sense that BB understood that this was a tool for educators, not just administrators and policy makers.

Why do I say this? With BB’s analytics tool, you can find out how many staff have not created discussion forums, which courses embed YouTube videos or compare how one cohort of students performs against another. From a systemic point of view, this tool is great for reporting corporate-type KPIs.

But I think that the point of learning analytics is to figure out what types of learning are taking place, if it is happening at all and assist the educator in analyzing the needs of the learner.

I think that BB’s prototype system has the capacity to do this. But what was demonstrated did not focus on the learner. It focused on what a university provost or systems administrator might be interested in, e.g., which faculty use the LMS and how often do users log in?

For me, this was a good example of the type of thinking and practice that makes an LMS go wrong. Where was the learning in the LMS? This was about administrating and policymaking. This was also about impressing someone in higher management who is ill-equipped to make a fully informed decision.

Don’t get me wrong. It is important to have policies in place that promote things like meaningful mobile learning. But you get there by first examining what happens at the level of the learner and the class. You should not be looking at tables or charts from an ivory tower equipped with a monitoring system designed to keep you at a distance.

To the tech luddites I say: There is no more debate on whether technology should be infused, integrated or embedded into education.

There is a saying in Singapore: If you don’t study hard, you will fail. If you do study hard, you may pass.

Applying this to educational technology, I say that if you don’t integrate technology meaningfully, you will get left behind. If you do, you might just keep up and reap the benefits.

Worse still, if you don’t integrate technology properly, you do a disservice to your students. You won’t be modelling positive behaviours and taking advantage of mistakes (yours and your learners) so that they become teachable moments. You certainly won’t be building a bridge to our learners’ world.

If we don’t integrate technology, we will not show our learners how to responsibly tap the rich resources, how to contribute meaningfully to the collective and how to think or react when they experience something negative.

It’s time to shut up and just do something about it. Never mind if it means more work or if you fail. You will get better at it, the process gets easier and you will learn from your experiences.

There should be no more debate about the role of technology in education. If there is a debate at all, it should centre on how well we integrate technology, not if we should integrate technology.

I’ve borrowed that phrase from this tweet:

My reply to that tweet was it was doubly wry because I interpret the “Oo” to be a reference to a local journalist’s surname and “kidding” a reference to his child-rearing.

What am I talking about?

In the 25 May issue of Digital Life, Oo Gin Lee critiqued Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement that those under 13 should be able to legally get a Facebook account in the name of education. Gin Lee did not see the point of using Facebook in education (see excerpt below).

I am not here to argue whether Zuckerberg was being altruistic or if this was a shrewd business move.

I will say that Gin Lee is an “ultra-conservative fuddy duddy dad”, but he is entitled to be that if he practiced that as man of his house. And only in his house.

But he is also a journalist and he has a very broad platform from which to project his opinions. Opinions that the layperson might not distinguish from fact. He is a writer of all things tech and I thought he should know better.

Or should he?

Maybe Gin Lee has a point: That is how a layperson (or even a teacher) imagines how Facebook might be used in education. They bring their own personal experiences like posting mundane comments to their walls as something that will also happen in an educational context.

I see some teachers using Edmodo (education’s equivalent of Facebook) like an LMS. Why? Content delivery or following the rigid structure imposed by an LMS is what they know and transfer.

Gin Lee also opted to block Facebook for the reasons he mentioned in his article. Why stop there? Block Google and YouTube too if the point is to shield little eyes and ears.

But doing that is taking the easy way out. It is also myopic. You lose teaching moments like learning how to analyze and evaluate information you come across. You lose opportunities to model and pass on positive values. You can’t stop a child from growing up and you can’t stop them from learning how to circumvent your barriers.

Some newspapers thrive on controversy to sell their rags. Where there is none, they create it; where there is little, they stir things up. This article certainly got me thinking.

But I wish that more of them would not just publish what people want to hear but also what they need to hear. Don’t just reinforce ideas that Facebook is just for social leisure. Try to educate the masses on how it might be leveraged on for social learning. That would be an article worth reading and a paper worth buying!

I got a bit steamed when I read yesterday’s ST article, MOE seeks ways to beat the heat in class. It is looking into ways of cooling schools in our hot and humid clime.

Singapore’s mrbrown was not impressed. I’m not either, but for different reasons.

The first might be an error in reporting. Or it might be that I don’t understand north-south orientations:

Given that most schools don’t have a think-outside-the-rectangular-box shape, a north-south orientation is like a lower case “l”. This would mean the building absorbs the most heat throughout the day. To reduce heat absorption, the building needs an east-west orientation on its long axis; the windows need a north-south orientation (i.e., be facing north and south).

Then there is the reason for the move in the first place:

A lack of focus and the ability to stay awake are not just because of the heat. How about a more reasonable start time? How about reducing the amount of “hot air” that is generated during teaching?

My suggestions? Make use of our plentiful sunlight to partially or fully power fans and air-conditioners. This might be expensive initially but it can pay for itself in the long run.

The other two suggestions I hinted at aren’t going to happen any time soon. We are held captive by the private bus companies and many teachers don’t know any other way of teaching.

End of nit-picky rant.

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50mm f/1.4 vs fiber optic light by vissago, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic License  by  vissago 

I normally blog my reflections, about what I am reading or about what I experience and observe as a teacher educator and as the head of the CeL. Today I blog as a Singaporean geek trying to hop on the local fibre optic bandwagon.

I was overjoyed when I first heard of the plans to lay in place fibre optic infrastructure in Singapore. This could replace the dated infrastructure for phones, cable TV, Internet access, video conferencing, etc.

I waited patiently for my area to get the upgrade. When the time came in January this year, I was probably among the first in my apartment building to get the fibre optic cable and termination point installed in my home.

But then I had to wait some more. What for? More testing and for service providers to actually provide service to my area. So I waited patiently again.

Earlier in this April, service providers flipped the switch in my area and I arranged for StarHub to activate the service in my home and to provide the proprietary equipment, an optical network terminal (ONT) as well as a free wireless home gateway (WHG).

The ONT splits the TV and Internet/voice signal. The WHG is like an elaborate router that you connect your wired computers, home phone, network attached storage and wireless devices to.

At least that is what I think they do because the information provided by Starhub online and by personal communication is poor. I had to search forums high and low for early adopters who shared this information.

The other reason is that the service as promised to me on Apr 23 was not delivered. A customer service representative called to tell me that it was a “technical fault” at their end. He could not elaborate on what that meant and I was left to imagine forgetfulness, incompetence and robot mutiny as possible causes.

So we arranged for an alternate installation date in May and I sought compensation. Why? If I had cancelled the appointment, I would be charged an additional fee. But if there is a technical fault, StarHub somehow reserves the right to charge me for the bad service. I should be charging them for the inconvenience, my time and my advice (see last paragraph).

I refused to pay any service and installation charges and got my way. But in order to do that, I had to get very angry (but reasonably so) on the phone several times. I kept demanding to speak to someone higher up who could make a reasonable decision.

So to others who might be taking the plunge, I share my experience as a warning and offer that tip on dealing with a stubborn service provider.

To Starhub (sometimes known in by the local Twitterati as S**thub) I offer this advice:

  • Train your customer service representatives to deal with conflict and give them the authority to make decisions. This will reduce unnecessary phone calls and email.
  • Speaking of phone calls and email, know when to use what. Things like terms and conditions are best elaborated upon in email, not over the phone.
  • Provide professional looking and editable PDF forms instead of those that look like they were rescued from a fire or prepared by a three-year-old. I don’t want to have to print out the forms, fill them in by hand, scan the forms and send them to you. You serve me, not the other way around!
  • If you make a mistake, admit it and be open with it. This reduces frustration and creates trust.

Warning: Rant ahead…

Today, I blog as a parent whose child has started Primary school. But my perceptions are nowhere complete and I stand to be corrected.

I wonder why Science is not offered as a subject in the lower Primary levels. If Science is embedded in the other subjects, I’d be happy because then the subjects are not taught or learnt in silos. But there is little evidence that Science is taught or integrated into Math or English. There is some bad Science as I will illustrate later.

Science, or more specifically, the initial inquiry process of Science, is something most kids take to naturally. As they discover the world around them, they ask what something is, how something happens and why.

Good kindergartens seem to leverage on this by providing experiences and lessons on Science. Kids also learn about the world around them on their own, with the support of resources provided by their parents or from the books and computers in the local library. Just listen to kids talk about dinosaurs, exchange strategies on Plants vs Zombies or share what they read in Kids National Geographic magazine.

But when my son entered Primary 1, he did not get a formal or integrated Science curriculum. I did get a flyer from the school offering optional reading materials thoughtfully prepared by tree-killing publishers. Those materials were vastly inferior to resources freely available online.

My son’s school does have a LEGO NXT programme that is integrated with the rest of the curriculum, but that seems to happen much less often than the serendipitous Science lessons he gets outside school by watching kid-friendly TV, reading magazines and books, searching the Internet, making personal discoveries during our walks, etc.

I could start writing about how deschooling seems to make even more sense, but something else grabbed me by the eyeballs.

There was bad “Science” embedded in at least one English lesson (see highlighted questions in the worksheet). Kids should know that a kangaroo’s pouch is not tiny (a whole joey fits in there), that all rabbits do not have white tails (duh!) and that leopards do not have spots on their skin (it is their fur that creates the pattern).

I doubt that there is a conspiracy to squash the natural curiosities of kids by excluding Science from the early Primary curriculum. But there are factual errors in the existing curriculum that do no favours to Science.

I like “teach less, learn more” because doing that is an art. But I dislike “teach mess, learn flaw” because that is just irresponsible.

Last week I read in the Nanyang Chronicle about NTU’s plans to upgrade its campus so that it has more progressive feel to it.

Progressive was my word for what I read. The article talked about a Holland Village like feel, collaborative classrooms and informal learning spaces.

I am glad that the planners realize that the classrooms of the future are not always actual classrooms. The informal learning spaces are nicer, higher tech versions of the BBQ benches that currently litter the campus. The article also mentioned professors chatting with grad students at restaurants and cafes. That’s more like it!

But the article also briefly mentioned smart boards. There is nothing smart about them and their use is rarely ever smart (just like there isn’t anything truly interactive about an IWB).  They focus on teacher talk instead of focusing on learning. And the first sort of focus doesn’t last very long.

Just look at the cost of maintaining the status quo. In Singapore, the cost of one smart board or IWB with projector is about the same as five low end first generation iPads with accessories and key apps, an AirPort (to create a wireless LAN) or a mobile 3G access point, and at least a year’s subscription of 3G access.

Most modern classrooms already have projectors. If they really need to, learners can project or share online artefacts on a screen that is not a smart board. At the very worst, create a very low cost IWB with a Wiimote! [comparison of vendor and Wiimote whiteboard]

So much more can be done and learnt with mobile devices in the hands of learners. Put these disruptive technologies in the hands of learners or encourage their use! That would be the smart and progressive move for me.

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