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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.

Yesterday I reflected on how a field trip was a lost opportunity for modelling and teaching critical thinking.

Today I reflect on how I used a holiday book report to teach my son about metacognition.

In simple terms, metacognition is thinking about thinking. When a person steps back from a task or problem to consider alternatives, the strategising is a form of metacognition. When learners rise above a lesson and ask themselves what they actually learnt, that reflection is another form of metacognition.

When my son was given a book report to complete during the June school vacation, he started reading his book without considering what the instructions and his options were. This is what many students do: When told to do something, the dutiful take the straight path without question.

I asked him if he had been taught how to analyse questions or if he had been taught study skills. He replied that he had not.

I am giving the benefit of the doubt to his teachers since kids often do not see the point of such things when they are told. This is often because they do not get to practice those skills in a meaningful context.

My son’s book report was an excellent context and it was very well designed. He and his classmates could choose from a list of books instead of being forced to read just one book. They were also given several options to submit their report.

The options were varied, e.g., draw a comic to illustrate a key chapter, craft an alternative ending for the book, write a poem as a response, etc. In all options, students had to rationalise and justify their choices.

I was impressed with the design of the task because the teacher had incorporated learner choice into the report. I highlight choice and not learning “style” because the latter is a myth.

My son was about a quarter way through his book before he considered his options. When he decided on one, I asked him why he chose it and he struggled to articulate his reasons. In doing so, he had missed at least two opportunities to exercise metacognition.

When he did not read the instructions and options first, he failed to plan for his journey. That is like plunging into an actual journey without planning, research, money, schedules, or destinations.

The book report options were varied enough so that he could take advantage of his strengths or address weaknesses. He selected an option because it appealed to him. While that seems reasonable on the surface, powerful learning is about knowing when to leverage on what one is good at or face up to what one struggles with.

Our discussion on metacognition will not be the only one we have. This form of learning is a long process of self-discovery and awareness, and I will be there as a guide.

I reflected on the interaction I had with my son about cognition and metacognition.

Metacognition is arguably more important than cognition, particularly of the lower level sort, e.g., factual recall. It is easy to Google for information or find a solution in YouTube. It is not as easy, but certainly more important, to be able to decide if what you find is valid and reliable.

Facts will come and go. Students who face tests and exams are smart enough to adapt and rely on GIGO — garbage in, garbage out — as a strategy.

However, this form of schooling and assessments conditions them into that sort of pragmatic but lazy thinking. The more important types of thinking lie in metacognition. They need to be able to analyse, evaluate, reflect, and strategise. They need to focus on the long tail, not just the short game.

Reading an article like the one recently published by the Straits Times (More schools tap tech tools for learning [archive]) should raise critical questions instead of blind acceptance.

For example:

  • How many of the 360 mainstream schools in Singapore do this?
  • How common are such practices? How special are the lessons?
  • How transparent are the tools?
  • How different are they pedagogically and experientially from outdated practices?
  • How effective are such experiences?

The general public should learn to ask these questions to keep schools accountable. These questions matter because they affect our children and use our tax dollars (see this Hechinger report on the overall ICT masterplans; amounts are in US$).

What are markers that might reveal an article to be making a mountain out of a molehill?

When examining the health of, say, a freshwater ecosystem, the marker species are amphibians because they are the most sensitive to changes in the environment. A newspaper article can be more complex because the narrative can fool the casual reader. However, there are the equivalent of sick, missing, or dead frogs.

Future Schools

Nearly a decade ago in 2007, the Ministry of Education (MOE) named five pioneering “schools of the future” under its Future Schools project. These schools, picked as test beds for the use of educational technology, are, according to the MOE, “trailblazers” in engaging in information and communications technology (ICT) projects.

In later years, another three schools joined the initiative.

In the Singapore context, the first dead giveaway is the reference to the Future Schools [PDF]. Cosy up to closed circles and you will hear how this is an experiment that is not working. The model is not scalable because the context of each school is different.

Another barrier is poor communication. It is not as if the Future Schools do not share, it is that they do not share quite nearly enough and on a scale necessary for system-wide change. Hosting visits and dialogues is good; creating community is better but sorely missing.

I am aware of one teacher grassroots effort, a Google Educators Group, that meets regularly. All involved stand to benefit from the community because this strategy relies on buy-in and ownership, not policy and good PR.


The MOE has since observed that more schools – beyond the eight schools selected for the programme – have experimented with technology for learning and teaching. But it did not reveal the number of schools that do so.

Ignore the words like “trailblazers” and take note of phrases like “but it (MOE) did not reveal the number of schools that do so”.

Buzzword: Digital native

Educators told The Straits Times that students, being digital natives, are more involved when technology is used in their learning.

Another phrase that should set off alarm bells is the labelling of students as “digital natives” by any interviewee. This term has been roundly critiqued and criticised for more than 10 years (sample of criticisms). Even the originator of “digital natives”, Marc Prensky, has backed down somewhat and moved on to digital wisdom.

“Digital natives” is artificially divisive (us and them), not entirely based on critical research, populist, and ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is often used in articles and speeches by people who do not know the history of the phrase nor why it has been rejected by thought leaders and progressive educators.

Buzzword: Engagement

“Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age,” said Dr Victor Lim, deputy director of technologies for learning at the MOE. “Technology can be used not just to increase students’ engagement, but also to… help them learn better.”

“Digital natives” is often used beside phrases like “Many of our students are comfortable with the use of technology even from an early age” and “Technology can be used… to increase students’ engagement”.

Any practitioner worth their salt will know that “comfortable use” of technology is not the same as responsible or effective use of technology. For example, being able to Google something on a mobile phone does not guarantee critical thought.

The use of “engagement” indicates a peripheral and non-critical use of technology. If a teacher needs technology to switch students on, the technology is likely a novelty. It could be bait for a lesson that is not meaningful to the learner.

Stanford don Larry Cuban has come out against the use of “engagement” [article]:

… he says engagement is a “fluffy term” that can slide past critical analysis. And Professor Cuban at Stanford argues that keeping children engaged requires an environment of constant novelty, which cannot be sustained.

“There is very little valid and reliable research that shows the engagement causes or leads to higher academic achievement,” he said.

Here is a list of readings and musings on why engagement is fluffy.

Technology merely to enhance
I am against simple engagement because it is typically used alongside “enhancing” a lesson instead of “enabling” it. A tool that enhances is optional; a tool that enables is essential. Your phone can be optional or essential for your life and work. Guess how the modern worker and current student will describe their mobile devices.

If a tool is essential, a lesson cannot proceed and learning cannot happen without it. When the tools are essential, they are also transparent. No one bats an eyelid about using pens and books in the classroom because they are part of the environment and shape practices. The same should be said about current technologies in the classroom. The must enable, not merely enhance.

Buzzword: Future-ready

He added that the tools help students to achieve “future-ready” competencies, such as thinking critically as well as communicating and collaborating with others.

Another marker is the uncritical use of buzzwords like “future-ready”. What is this really?

Words are important because they hold meaning and are verbal contracts. Can you guarantee this state of being when the future is uncertain?

I have reflected before on why future-ready is a misnomer. Do not take my word for it, take Seymour Papert’s.

Papert did not use the term future-ready. If anything, skills like critical thinking, clear communication, and effective collaboration are needed now. They are meaningful now. They are necessary now. The ability to keep learning variants of such skills starts now. There is no need to qualify them as future-ready.

The usual suspects

If you do not get this reference, you need to watch this movie.

I have nothing against the schools listed in the article. They are doing good work. However, the press does them and MOE a disfavour by citing the same schools over and over again.

To its credit, the press sometimes does include a new school among the usual suspects, preferably a neighbourhood school.

Buzzphrase: Technology is just a tool

“Technology is just a tool,” Dr Lim said. “It is the educators who make the difference.”

There is also harm in perpetuating old narratives like technology is “just a tool”. Technology is not just a tool; they are more like instruments. Instruments require care and constant practice to perform well with them. Technological instruments show the joy, art, and love of learning.

To use “just” is to say they do not have impact on their own and to not recognise that tool use is a socio-technical phenomenon. Marshall McLuhan put it best when he said, “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.” One need only pay closer attention to how we walk, talk, and read with our mobile devices to see how our tools shape us.

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We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.

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Very few will deny that it is a good teacher that makes the difference. There is no need to placate the fearful by reminding people, teachers included, that teachers are important. What should be said though is this: Any teacher who can be replaced by technology, should.

I return to my pond analogy to point out the markers.

  • The sick frogs are the Future Schools and using phrases like digital natives.
  • The missing frogs are the schools whose educational technology examples and strategies that remain unreported.
  • The dead or dying frogs are the old narrative of buzzwords that attract flies.

It is easier to just accept the news article as is. It is just as easy to ignore the article and this critique. It is more difficult to question the article for the good of the system.

Which have you been taught to do? Which would you rather do? What should you be doing?

This week there were at least two critiques on Horizon Reports following the release of the 2015 Higher Education report. 

Downes and Watters both lamented the poor pattern and continuity of the projections on educational technology. 

There is an underlying assumption that needs to be questioned: That edtech trends can be predicted with certainty of implementation and schedule. This is like saying you know where the horizon is. By the time you get to where you think it is, the horizon has moved. 

The New Media Consortium reports make disclaimers against these of course, but how many people actually read the fine print? My guess is about as many as do the iTunes user agreement.  

The basic methodology might also be misunderstood. The reports are often results of modified Delphi methods. Each set of experts or panels may be independent of another year’s report. These reports are not longitudinal studies, they are snapshots of thoughts. This could explain the lack of continuity.

Each panel is likely to have an agenda or include influential members with agendas. I hinted at this in Singapore’s first (and only?) report two years ago [1] [2]. The main “sponsor” had an e-book agenda and it featured prominently in the report. But e-readers and slates replacing paper and unnecessarily heavy school bags remain a futuristic fantasy in the average Singapore school.

I do not disagree with the critiques Downes and Watters. I hope I have added to the pool of insights and shed a sliver of light on why there does not seem to be continuity. 

These insights are important if Horizon Reports are taken from their descriptive domain and co-opted by administrators or policy makers to prescribe change. This has already happened with PISA scores and rankings. Such studies and reports are not gospel truth; they merely shed spotlights and laser points on large systemic issues.

During my vacation in Vietnam, I managed to read parts of the Innovating Pedagogy 2014 report by the Open University UK.

The report cited an author who wrote:

There must be an ‘industrial revolution’ in education, in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education. Work in the schools of the future will be marvelously though simply organized, so as to adjust almost automatically to individual differences and the characteristics of the learning process. There will be many laborsaving schemes and devices, and even machines – not at all for the mechanizing of education, but for the freeing of teacher and pupil from educational drudgery and incompetence.

The quote sounds current, but it was written by Sidney Pressey in 1933. That is just over 90 years ago. He was pushing for technology-enabled change then just as we are now.

The pushes for change will persist because of the inertia of governors and the governed. But as technologies evolve to become more powerful, connected, and intuitive, I hope that pull factors drive change instead.

The messaging then changes from “This is why and how you must change!” to “We want this change. What is stopping us?”


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.

Yesterday I reflected on the Horizon Report. I mentioned some things that surprised me. Here are some excerpts that did not.

From the executive summary comes this statement about mobile devices (p.4):

Students do not learn to use these technologies in school, but on their own and at their own pace. Tools such as mobile apps breed discovery of new information for users, and there is a need for schools to leverage and promote these informal learning experiences while integrating them with in-school learning.

On authentic learning (p.4):

The Singapore advisory board also felt that schools do not sufficiently incorporate real-life experiences in their curricula. Models such as challenge based learning, which encourages students to solve local and global problems, are interesting to schools, but have not gained enough traction and are not yet widespread. In order for students to be engaged in the material they are learning, there is a need for it to be tied to their own lives and the community around them.

Elsewhere in the report was the disconnect between learning and assessment (p.19)

There is a disconnect between the goals of assessment and personalised learning. As personal learning environments and other models of individualised learning are gaining traction in schools, forms of assessment for these models are lagging. Whereas the goal for personalised learning is to create experiences that appeal to a student’s specific learning style, pace, and needs, many current assessment tools focus on scalability and the capacity to extract data from a standard set of assignments — such as multiple choice tests and papers. The major challenge ahead for assessment is to capture ways to measure the quality of learning from different types of student outputs, including videos, and other rich media.

On formative assessment (p.20)

Assessment is an important driver for educational practice and change, and over the last years we have seen a welcome rise in the use of formative assessment in educational practice. However, there is still an assessment gap in how changes in curricula and new skill demands are implemented in education; schools do not always make necessary adjustments in assessment practices as a consequence of these changes. Another assessment gap is related to the lack of innovative uses of digital media in formative assessment. Many tools are still tied to outdated LMS and do not have the ability to assess critical data sets, such as 21st Century Skills acquisition.

On educator adoption of educational technologies (p.20)

Most academics are not using new and compelling technologies for learning and teaching. Many teachers and administrators have not undergone training on basic digitally supported teaching techniques, and most do not participate in professional development opportunities. This issue is due to several factors, including a lack of time, a lack of expectations that they should, and the lack of infrastructure to support the training. Many think a cultural shift will be required before we see widespread use of more innovative ideas and technologies. Many caution that as this unfolds, the focus should not be on the technologies themselves, but on the pedagogies that make them useful.

The Horizon Reports are named because they offer projections. But the selection that I have highlighted tell us what is already happening now.

It does not (and should not) take an external report to tell us these things. But I hope that the validation prompts action.

Click to see all the nominees!

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