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Posts Tagged ‘schools

I had an uncomfortable gut feeling when I read this CNA article about biometric payments being available to schools here in 2018.

I had to dig deep for why I was uncomfortable. After all, I am all for technology making lives better. And therein lay the problem: In doing good, there was also the potential for harm.

The good is the sheer convenience of going cashless while being able to track spending. This might be the start of basic financial literacy.

According to the news article, the system has safety measures:

Fingerprint information will not be stored on the device. Instead, the prints will be encrypted and stored securely in a cloud database.

Anti-spoofing technology will also be put in place to ensure that the fingerprints are real and that the person making the payment is present.

This is the trifecta of data accuracy (reading), data security (keeping), and data integrity (reliably identifying). If just one to fails, the system’s users are harmed. Take the recent Instagram hack, for example.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the three data concepts are sound in practice. What is the harm then?

To answer this question, we need to ask at least one other question: What else can vendors do with the data that is accurate, “stored securely”, and reliable?

The short answer is lots. One needs only look at what Facebook and Google did (and continue to do) with our data. They offer their services for “free” to us because our data serves up advertisements which make these companies money. Lots of it.

One needs only to casually search for data breaches and infringements involving these two companies. For example:

The last item was not so much about the privacy of data as about the use and manipulation of data. That is my point: Assuring stakeholders that data is accurate, authentic, and safe is not enough; it is the lack of transparency and foresight about what can be done with that data.

Students are particularly vulnerable because adults make decisions about their data and the kids have no say in the biometric scheme. By this I am referring to the scheme being employed as a Smart Nation initiative, not the choice of whether to join the scheme.

The issue is so serious that the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has tips for teachers about student privacy. These include:

  • Making digital literacy part of the curriculum
  • Advocating for better training for teachers
  • Getting parental consent
  • Selecting technology tools carefully
  • Building community of like-minded privacy advocates

A Smart Nation needs people to make smart choices. To do that, people need good information. Where is the information about how the data might be used both intentionally and peripherally? What promises and standards of practice can service vendors and providers be held to? Where is the public debate on the data privacy of the especially vulnerable?

 
Primary 1 to 5 students stayed at home because of the PSLE oral exams for Primary 6 students late last week. When the first group of students needed to access e-learning resources from MCOnline, the service provider’s website crashed.

Parents complained, e.g., “the website is not available for public access” and “it took us 10 hours to finish a one-hour task”.

Even when the service was available in the past, one parent said, “The website is often very slow during peak hours to the point that it kicks you out”. Another parent, who also happened to be an educator, was resigned to saying, “I’m so used to this”.

I could point out tongue-in-cheek that MCOnline servers went on MC (medical certificate, the excuse slip for missing school, duty, or work). Instead, I shall point out the excuses and non-answers.

An unnamed MC Education representative said that a third-party arrangement to increase capacity “was not activated”. Why not? There was no reason given in the article for this oversight.

Will the service provider be held accountable for this outage just like the telco providers are? The article did not mention this either.

As information about the Student Learning System (SLS) was released last week, the attention turned there. Unfortunately, the focus was on access during emergencies. That might be why e-learning in Singapore actually stands for emergency learning.

An unnamed spokesperson from MOE said that the SLS would take advantage of cloud technologies. She also mentioned how the SLS would be compatible with most devices.

The first answer was vague. Just what are cloud technologies to the layperson? Which CMS or LMS provider does not depend on cloud technologies today? Since they do, why did a crash happen anyway? What is to prevent the SLS from suffering the same fate?

The secondary mention was a redundant non-answer. What is the point of multi-device compatibility if none can access the resources when servers are down?

We do not need redundant answers. We need more “redundant” servers to share the load. This is the sort of cloud technology the spokesperson probably meant. But this answer is still vague.

A better example might be to draw on what online users already experience with YouTube or Amazon. The uptime of these services is about as reliable as our power and water supply because they rely on “cloud technologies”.

Can MCOnline and the SLS promise the same reliability? These are services that we pay for with our tax money. Compare that with free and open services like YouTube. These are paid for by advertising that might be linked to our personal data, but that is not the point.

The point is that access and reliability of online learning resources come at a price. Neither cost is transparent to the average user. However, freely available services like YouTube are subject to scrutiny. Google, the parent company of YouTube, was recently fined 2.4 billion euros by the EU for anti-trust issues.

So I ask again: Will our online learning service providers be held accountable for outages like the telco providers are? Or is learning at home not as important as learning in school?

Let’s see if we put our money where our mouth is…

Lady Gaga sang that we are Born This Way. I say we are also schooled a certain way.

Case in point: In the low-hanging fruit category of technology in Singapore schools comes this report.

I wondered why 85% of schools using technology to take attendance was newsworthy, so I asked and answered my own questions.

What do the attendance tools look like?

While most schools use mobile systems for attendance-taking, which can also be accessed on a Web browser, others rely on a biometric system that requires students to get their fingerprints scanned when they enter and leave the school compound.

Some tools rely more on the teachers while others depend on the students. Some might create sharable data while others do not. Despite these differences, any and all tools are part of that 85%.

Without knowing how these systems work and what their strengths and weaknesses are, how more informed are you as a result of reading the article?

How concerned are you that a vendor might have access to your child’s data and attendance? Did your child’s school provide you with a copy of a policy document? Did you sign a release document? If not, why is there not a newspaper article on that?

Are the attendance systems more accurate and reliable?

Not necessarily, no. Sometimes the problem is human:

“We tried out biometric, but faced issues with having to remind students who forgot to mark their attendance at the terminals,” said Madam Azizah Rabunam, who heads the school’s department of information and communications technology.

Other times the problem could lie more in the technology.

My son’s school has gates like the ones at MRT stations. If students do not check in, they do not get in.

If this sounds perfect, it is not. I have access to my son’s attendance records and the system occasionally does not record either his entrances or his exits.

It is particularly odd when the system does not register his entrance but records his exit. How does a person leave without entering? On a few rare occasions, the system marked him absent.

When I alerted my son’s form teacher, she mentioned that teachers verify attendance again in class. So much for efficiency.

What purposes do the attendance tools serve?

A Ministry of Education (MOE) spokesman said such systems can help schools better monitor truancy, absenteeism rates and trends related to latecomers.

In other words, these systems are core to what schools are for: To condition and to enculturate our kids. This is a necessary evil if we are to have a compliant workforce.

What is the point of my reflection?

Now we can swallow whole the claim of the article that:

The different systems also reduce the administrative workload of school staff.

We just have to take the collective word of newspaper, MOE, and vendors. After all, we have been schooled that way.

In August 2016, the Singapore Health Promotion Board updated its documentation for the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme. If the programme has a mission statement, it must be this (from programme site):

Research has shown that food preferences are generally acquired during childhood and that eating habits acquired after adolescence are more resistant to change. The school environment plays an important role in nurturing and sustaining good eating habit. In view of this, the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme (HMSP) seeks to enhance the availability of healthier food and beverage choices in schools.

School canteen stall owners generally toe the line during normal school operating hours. But some might operate outside those lines when they can.

My son had to attend extra classes Monday through Saturday during the school “vacation” last week because of the upcoming PSLE. He told me that the canteen uncles and aunties sold french fries and fizzy drinks like Sprite.
 

 
Were they doing this to make a quick buck? Might their excuse be that the junk food items were morale boosters? Might they reason that they did this only rarely so they were not really doing anything wrong?

Who can blame them if they have self-interests to think of, they retain old mindsets that are not challenged, and there is seemingly little monitoring?

The same could be asked about the implementation of our latest ICT Masterplan. The fourth iteration was released a year ago without much fanfare. However, in this case there is even less pressure.

There are guidelines and principles. There are even metrics from the previous plan. School ICT heads will know what I am talking about, and if they are honest, they will acknowledge that such data and soft policies do not make a dent.

The ICT Masterplan and the Healthy Meals in Schools Programme suffer similar problems. If they are viewed as policies, rules, or guidelines to follow, people will look for loopholes. If the words are not enforced, they will be ignored. If there are spot-checks and periodic measures, they are predictable and can be prepared for, just like exams.

What needs to happen is a shift to ownership of better teaching and learning as enabled (not just enhanced) with ICT, and better eating habits as enabled by an environment promoting healthier food. Both address mindsets first, not behaviours. Both seek to replace an old culture of practice.

Both need non-traditional leadership — from the ground up. Both need social pressure, not just periodic measuring, testing, monitoring, and punishing.
 

 
To be fair, the 4th ICT Masterplan is crafted in a way that embraces such forms of ownership, leadership, and cultural change. However, they are just as easy to ignore in favour of french fry or instant noodle teaching.

Such teaching is fast, efficient, and seemingly filling. But like the unhealthy food, this results in long-term harm. Schooling is favoured over educating; the schooled are exam-smart and dependent on such meals; the next generation are prepared for the teachers’ past instead of being able to shape their future.

There is a saying that hindsight is 20/20. People who say this mean that things look clearer once you get past them. It is easy to look back and see what you have accomplished.

It is also easy to paint a picture rosier than actually was. Our memories are more fickle than we would like to admit. One of my favourite sayings is: Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

Like it or not, we forget more than remember [Decay Theory]. We Instagram-filter our memories as we snapshot them [Interference Theory].


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So when ISTE2016 made this declaration, I clap and I caution.

Let us celebrate successes, but not congratulate ourselves prematurely. Things may have changed, but they are not representative of every context, even in the so-called first world.

For example, participants at ISTE were having wifi issues.

We know of teachers who are still behind or trying to get over the “how to use tech” barrier. If you conducted a study, I would wager that a significant portion of “professional development” gets stuck at technology awareness and basic training.

Singapore embarked on the ICT Masterplan 4 this year, but teachers still complain about access and connectivity. They are not just talking about technology (poor signal, blocked resources), but also about policy and practice.

I mention these not to play down the achievements of any system attempting and embracing change. It takes guts, persistence, and time for change to happen and there will always be laggards and brickbats.

But let us not give naysayers fuel for their fire.

I say we admit we have failings, address them, and learn from them. I say we not whitewash underlying problems. I say we challenge rhetoric with reality.

There is a common phrase that thought leaders in education often use: Schools are disconnected with the real world.

They do not mean this literally, of course. They are referring to the bubble that schools create and operate in. For example, one only need look at math word problems, high stakes tests that you cannot retake quickly, and the general teach just-in-case approach.
 

 
Schools are part of the real world in the sense that students and teachers face real issues and problems. There is bullying, adjusting to change, learning on the run, dealing with difficult people, keeping to deadlines, following instructions you do not understand or believe in, etc. Now consider what the students face!

However, schools might not be as connected to the wider world as they could be. One need only think of mobile phone restrictions or outright bans as punitive measures for controlling human behaviour.

Today the phone is a key communication and connection tool, but some schools demand it be left out of the tool kit. As a result, both teachers and students do not learn how to use it effectively and responsibly for teaching and learning.

The adults and kids have already adopted behaviours about mobile phone use from home, their ride to school, the mall, and everywhere else but school. These behaviours are not what the school needs. For example, schools do not need people looking down at their phones while they walk, sending hateful texts, and using resources irresponsibly. The realms outside school — the real world — do not teach rationales and counter-behaviours.

So in that sense schools should not be part of the real world because it has to shape a better world. In order to do so, schools have to be better connected to the wider world so that they can problem-seek and problem-solve. They can start by officially welcoming mobile phones.

To make a better world, both teachers and students need to negotiate new behaviours with their phones in school. Schools might start with some questions. How might schools:

  • connect with the wider world with these devices?
  • leverage on phones to create a better world by communicating, sharing, and critiquing?
  • help students find things out by themselves?
  • help students find themselves?
  • help students help others?

Does anyone learn anything from school-sanctioned e-learning days? Do the kids learn? Do the teachers? Do the administrators?

As an e-learning practitioner and director before, I had enough data, knowledge, and authority to say the answers to those questions was no. I have even described many e-learning events as more e-doing than actual e-learning.

Now I ask these questions again because I only have anecdotal answers.

From my regular interactions with teachers, I find that:

  • schools still schedule e-learning days.
  • teachers require students to work only according to that schedule, e.g., students are not encouraged to access or complete e-tasks outside that time.
  • the tasks are equivalent to conventional worksheets.
  • the content might be superficial or peripheral, or are easy enough to be repeated in class.

How many times do we need to test if kids can do things online that they already do in school? They already have strict school structures and class schedules for that.
 

 
Do people not see that the point of e-learning is to:

  • provide flexibility?
  • push creative pedagogy?
  • accommodate different learning needs?
  • nurture independent learning?
  • test the effectiveness of something different?

This should be the operating principle of any technology-mediated learning: It is a means of change for the better. Schools should not be doing the same old thing in a different medium.

So in the case of e-learning, school authorities and teachers should not be focusing on dealing with problems that will reduce over time. In Singapore’s context, these might include technology access and procedures to access e-platforms. These issues will not disappear entirely, but they should not be what we concern ourselves with.

Instead, we should be dealing with e-learning issues that will persist. Amongst many things, kids need to be taught how to independently or collaboratively read, listen, watch, analyze, evaluate, create, share, and critique online. These are skills and values-laden processes.

If they are not taught these, I question the validity and quality of the e-learning. The students are very likely going through the motions of e-doing instead of actually learning something valuable.

So I ask again. What do the kids learn? What do the teachers learn? What do the administrators learn?


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