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Posts Tagged ‘singapore

I watched Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and Finance Minister, Mr Heng Swee Keat, deliver the Fortitude Budget in Parliament yesterday. It was the fourth budget speech for the Singapore government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I also monitored my Twitter stream for takeaways by the major english language newspapers. None of them mentioned the schooling and education related headlines from DPM’s speech.

With regard to home-based learning (HBL), DPM announced a greater role for artificial intelligence (AI) and learning sciences. As there were scant details, I presume that AI will play a role in learning analytics while researchers in the learning sciences will be consulted on e-pedagogy.

DPM also announced an “accelerated timeline” for all secondary school students to receive digital devices. This was initially announced in March and the device could take the form of a tablet, laptop, or Chromebook. The goal then was for all secondary 1 students to own a device by 2024 and all secondary school students to have one by 2028.

There was no firm timeline in the budget speech for both announcements. We do not yet know what an accelerated timeline means for the ownership of devices, nor do we know how long the changes to HBL will take.

All the changes are urgent and important. They are needed immediately and over the long haul. While these changes might not be as tweet-worthy to the newspapers, I aim to read and summarise what I learn in the weeks to come.

This Reddit thread was one response to the Boston Dynamics robot dog making its rounds in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park. It was there to monitor social distancing and to remind park users to do the same.

The title of the thread — Dystopian robot terrifies park goers in Bishan Park — reveals a state of mind that I call dy-stupid-ian.

I have said this in edtech classes I facilitate and I will say it again: If your only reference for artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics is the Terminator franchise, then your perspective is neither informed nor nuanced.

The entertainment industry likes to paint a dystopian picture of what AI and robots will do. There is even a Black Mirror episode (Metalhead) that featured similar looking dogs. Somehow fear and worry embedded in fantasy are entertaining.

An education about AI and robotics is more mundane and requires hard work. But most of us need not be programmers and engineers to gain some basic literacy in those fields. For that, I recommend two excellent sources.

Video playlist

Video playlist

At the very least, the videos are a good way to spend time during a COVID-19 lock down.

A news article led with the headline “More than a third of GCE coursework subjects to have assessment tasks reduced”.

If you read the details, that “more than a third” is stratified. The 12 academic subjects are:

  1. N(T)-Level Music Syllabus T
  2. N(T)-Level Food Studies
  3. N(T)-Level Design & Technology (Revised)
  4. N(A)-Level Food & Nutrition
  5. N(A)-Level Design & Technology (Revised)
  6. N(A)-Level Design & Technology (Legacy)
  7. O-Level Food & Nutrition
  8. O-Level Design & Technology (Revised)
  9. O-Level Design & Technology (Legacy)
  10. O-Level Exercise & Sports Science
  11. O-Level Drama
  12. A-Level H2 Theatre Studies & Drama

If the subjects share anything, they are performative or skills-based.

If anything at all, this is a reminder not to play the quantitative game. The qualitative details matter.

If you actually read the article, this segment might give you pause:

SEAB said the move aims to “alleviate stress on students and teachers… without compromising the validity of the assessment”.

If I was to challenge that statement, I would simply cite the examples in the same article about not performing group drama pieces or sports science students forced to work with truncated training plans.

If this reduction is possible with compromising on quality, why was there that much assessment before?

If such a reduction is possible with skills-based subjects, might the same be said about the other subjects? If the immediate answer is no, why (really!) not?

If the examination board is “allowing special provisions” like “footage recorded as far back as last year”, might the COVID-19 lockdown be a push to portfolio-based evaluation instead of paper-based assessment?

Mainstream schools in Singapore are starting their June breaks in May because the COVID-19 pandemic has given us the ability to time travel.

Actually, no. This switch was administrative juggling to reduce HBL or home-based learning (more accurately, emergency remote teaching) to just under a month. How so?

Kids have been on HBL since 8 April. If the school vacation was not brought forward, HBL would have continued till at least 29 May because the end of the lockdown was extended from 4 May to 1 June. So the school vacation covers the remainder of the extended lockdown.

One emerging problem is that some teachers are trying to keep the kids occupied with school vacation activities. Why? The teachers and parents say their kids will be bored.

On one hand, you might understand the response — some parents are bald from tearing their hair out trying to be teaching assistants, IT support, cheerleaders, etc. So any distraction sanctioned by a teacher might provide welcome relief.

On the other hand, why should teachers organise the vacation time of students? Yes, the circumstances are different in that everyone needs to stay cooped up at home. But should kids not be taught that being bored is not a bad thing?

Feeling bored can be the start of planning, creating thinking, storytelling, exploration, and experimentation. The best teachers of such thought and actions are the kids themselves. They might need some guidance or supervision, but they must learn to try and to learn from mistakes.

Kids might not be able to step out much during a lockdown, but this does not mean they cannot explore. Many of the same tools that enable HBL (e.g., video conferencing, text, shared notes, audio and video platforms, video games) might provide remedies for boredom and opportunities to learn outside the curriculum.

Our kids might already feel caged with the lockdown and school holiday projects they need to complete. They need to feel bored because this means they have the time to hear themselves breathe. This is liberating. Their teachers and parents do not have to plan everything for them and the kids learn to operate independently.

Let our kids feel bored. It is evidence of a break and an opportunity to keep themselves meaningfully occupied.

The most recent measures added to Singapore’s COVID-19 circuit breaker redefined “essential services”.

When the restrictions started two weeks ago, getting your fill of bubble tea and having a haircut were essential. Now they are not.

I am not complaining nor am I worried because I did not buy into the bubble tea fad and I can get a haircut later. But I am worried about some smaller food & beverage (F&B) outlet owners and the possible parallel future of school edtech.

According to this government article, “standalone outlets that only sell beverages, packaged snacks, confectioneries (e.g. sweets, toffees) or desserts will be required to close their outlets” (more detailed list here). These are typically owned by young, gung-ho, and creative types who rent shophouse space in HDB estates and areas that can only be described as outliers.

The large and franchised chains like Starbucks or Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf are not affected as much because most outlets operate in malls. They can still sell their wares via takeaways and deliveries. The small and independent outlets have to shut down completely.

Here is a message from Lee’s Confectionary, a patisserie that I visit almost every week:

Message from Lee's Confectionery about the extended circuit breaker.

The independent F&B outlets are the ones who need to most help. They do not have parent bodies that might absorb the impact and share the load. They rely on viral social media marketing, word of mouth, and reputational capital because they carved niches of their own. But they were the first to be dropped.

What is the parallel with edtech in schooling that is currently defined by emergency remote teaching and possibly later by actual online learning? I worry that the established vendors of content and “learning” management systems, or sellers of popular tools like Zoom, will continue to get deference over niche platforms or tools.

Such a move is a “safe” bet from an administrative and policy point of view. Those in charge of purse strings can bargain for the best price of implementing a platform over large systems. In terms of policy, having just one or very few platforms is easier to monitor and control.

But such a mindset is outdated. It counters what open, online, and distance education expert, Martin Weller, described as essentials for moving forward: openness, decentralisation, and distribution.

An oversimplified version of those three principles put into action is: Do not put all your eggs in one basket. CMS and LMS strain when accessed concurrently. These platforms are rarely designed with progressive pedagogy, e.g., they are designed largely for consumption instead of creation/co-creation. None of the standard platforms can assure stakeholders that they can implement tests and evaluations in the way schools currently do.

Yet the incumbents are preferred over the niche and nimble tools or providers that pioneering teachers already rely on. It is not that niche and nimble tools are actively discouraged. It is that they are not prudently encouraged. I wonder when we might see a clear shift in of mindset built on empowerment and trust.

Let’s not kid ourselves — school vacations are not guaranteed breaks, particularly for teachers.

We have four breaks in the mainstream Singapore schooling system (primary, secondary, junior college): Two one-week breaks (in March and September), a roughly four-week mid-year break in June, and long-ish break in November and December. The number of weeks in the last break varies by schooling group.

But the breaks earlier in the year are easily swallowed by school activities, e.g., remedials, chaperoned visits and trips, planning for the next term, exam preparation, etc. It is all too easy for a four-week June break shrink to just two weeks.

The COVID-19 “circuit breaker” has been extended by a month and the June school break is now in May. This means that home-based learning (HBL) — our version of emergency remote teaching — ends on schedule (4 May) instead of carrying on until June.

In theory, this will give teachers time to prepare for another possible round of HBL if we do not get our COVID-19 cases down as a country. Most teachers might also welcome an earlier break given how they were thrown into the maw of HBL. But other teachers will not have it as easy.

Our education minister shared his thoughts on Facebook. He acknowledged the longer than normal school Term 3 in June and rationalised the need for an additional break. Fair enough. Then there was this:

If you are teacher in charge of a critical cohort, e.g., students taking their PSLE or GCEs, you may need to work through the brought-forward break and then continue with the extended term when it resumes in June.

If you do not think that teachers already have a lot on their plates, consider what this might do to already frayed nerves. As they support their students, who will support these teachers? An education minister sets policy and it is left to school leaders and managers to enact this. Will the latter group empathise by first remembering what it was like to be pushed around by policy?

We can rationalise our national “circuit breaker” and make sacrifices, but we also thank and take care of those in the front line. An unintended effect of the extended “circuit breaker” might short-circuit some teachers. These are the same ones who do not ask to be thanked. They just want their leaders to take care of them too.

Last Friday afternoon, our Prime Minister provided an update on COVID-19 measures. It seemed to be hotly anticipated given how embargoed letters leaked and panic buying reared its ugly head again.

Video source (144-second mark)

You would have to be living under a nicely landscaped rock in Singapore to not know that the response to COVID-19 is circuit breaker. This seems to be our way of not saying social isolation or lock down.

An actual circuit breaker prevents a surge of electricity from destroying anything plugged in at home. A socio-economic circuit breaker restricts human socialisation, and hopefully viral transmission.

Unlike an actual breaker, the switch is not just all or none. Essential services like food providers, water and waste management, utilities, hospitals and clinics, transport, and banking will keep operating. All workers who can telecommute will do so, but those that cannot will have to stop working. We are, in effect, doing what the some of the modern world is already doing.

Video source (292-second mark)

The switch flips off on Tuesday (tomorrow) for gainfully employed workers. Social services like schools and institutes of higher learning (IHLs) will adopt home-based learning (HBL) starting Wednesday for three weeks (8 April to 4 May 2020).

Even though the announcements came at the end of what is the work week for many people, it provided some lead time to prepare. Unfortunately, some chose to participate in our national pastime of queuing, which defeats the purpose of circuit breaking.

Perhaps some folks think that the novel coronavirus has also been schooled to follow the rules and schedules here. It has not and concentrating people like that has led to social commentary like the tweet below.

But as usual, my mind stays with what happens in schools and IHLs. If social distancing is critical now, why make students attend classes today and tomorrow? Why not require them to stay at home and give these two days to teachers to prepare for the onslaught over the next three weeks?

The weekend would have provided time for caregivers to make arrangements for their children. Teachers could still have reported for work for two days and in the absence of lessons could have focused on:

  • Sharing resources, takeaways, and mistakes from the one-day HBL
  • Offering quick tips and ideas on technical how-tos
  • Planning better ways to conduct emergency remote teaching
  • Revising existing plans and schemes-of-work to accommodate emergency remote teaching

Can these procedures be done in just two days? I have facilitated this in less time, so I know this is entirely possible.

Are these explorations necessary? Definitely. Even though emergency remote teaching is not the same as facilitating online learning, it is not as easy as flipping a circuit breaker switch. You cannot simply change the medium and expect the method to remain the same or work as well.

Have you survived the first week of home-based learning (HBL)?

For some this experiment to keep kids away from school one day a week has been disruptive.

Just imagine what the situation would be like if we were in total lockdown. Actually there is no need to imagine — just read about or ask our counterparts elsewhere in the world who are already experiencing this.

The news article chose to focus on woes of work-from-home caregivers. I choose to critique the actions of planners and administrators.

The article stated that “some schools chose to structure the home-based learning lessons around the pupils’ usual timetable”. Why insist on trying to conduct business-as-usual in unusual and challenging circumstance?

It should not have been a surprise to learn that IT systems were stretched because so many kids were trying to access the same set of resources all at once over the same period. Think of it as a benign Distributed Denial-of-Service attack on servers.

Anyone worth their e-learning consult salt would have advised planners to flatten the curve. We need to spread the COVID-19 infection rate over time to ensure that we do not overtax medical capacity. Likewise, we need strategies to prevent the taxing of human and IT capacity.

Even though parents might complain about the need for different platforms (e.g., Google Classroom, Zoom, SLS, and eZhishi) this was a good way to spread the load.

A bad strategy, however, was to try to stick to existing timetables and/or to simply recreate face-to-face experiences. This means doing things conventionally (e.g., waking up early, taking attendance, saying the pledge) instead of doing things differently.

Strategies that could work better are 1) to allow schools to decide which days to conduct HBL, and 2) rely on asynchronous modes of learning. Both reduce IT load and empower schools.

The first strategy could allow a school to decide which groups of staff and students to stay at home, e.g., lower academic levels on Tuesdays and upper levels on Thursdays. While this means that some people are still in school, it also means fewer are travelling and mixing while still benefitting from what schools do well.

Schools have their own overall timetables that incorporate non-lesson events like meetings, white spaces, and professional development. Letting schools decide which days (and perhaps reporting these days to higher-ups for accountability) reduces disruption and frustration from administrators and teachers alike.

Teaching and learning asynchronously means not recreating class periods. It means creating opportunities and resources that students can use at any time of the HBL day. Most schools already do this with dedicated “e-learning days”. These happen any day of the week, do not make peak demands on IT servers, and are already standard plays.

But I caution against just copy-and-pasting e-learning days. Asynchronous sessions are not simply hands-off sessions. They need to be carefully and meticulously designed so that students can manage semi-independently. They should be designed with at least one synchronous check-in or “office hour” consult.

The old adage is that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. I say that if you fail to consult, you get that result. It is not as if we have not collectively tried new things or made mistakes. You need to consult people who have institutional memories and experiences to avoid repeating mistakes or taking missteps.

I stand by what I tweeted yesterday about this newspaper article.

The article on the impact of COVID-19 on the local tuition industry focused on revenue and preparedness. What it missed was how context for learning and practice is key.

The writer had a very small sample of mathematics and economics centres that were doing well. This was in contrast with how a studio-based chain for music, art, drama, and dance lost clientele. How logical is such a comparison?

First, there are different types of “tuition” here — remedial tuition for kids falling behind; enrichment classes for those who want to (or are pushed) to go far ahead in curricula, or to go beyond prescribed curricula.

Remedial tuition might be more of a necessity than enrichment now that we need to restrict our socialisation. The WHAT of tuition (content or skills) is not as important as the WHY of tuition (remediation vs enrichment).

Next, performative tasks and skills are best taught and learnt in person. These rely not just on practice and repetition, but particularly on modelling, observing, coaching, and remediating.

If that is hard to understand, consider learning to ride a bicycle or to swim by watching videos. You could learnt these skills this way, but that ignores the social strategy and context, e.g., close coaching and positive peer pressure.

Academic pursuits like learning mathematics concepts and practising problems do not absolutely require such a strategy and context. You need only recall what Khan Academy is able to do with video-based tutorials.

This is not to say that academic subjects do not require social learning strategies. They do. My point is that the article was making illogical comparisons by highlighting how some agencies were doing well while others were not.

The article also did not pursue an underlying problem. Either the parents were not entirely honest or the journalist did not include this thought: Tuition is a form of child care.

Some parents would rather pay for their kids to be taken care of by someone else and some place else during the work day. They do not want to pay (or pay full price) if their kids get tuition via a computing device while at home.

This would require us to take an ugly look at ourselves in the mirror. But as long as journalists or their editors shift our gaze, we will not reflect on what matters.

If you visit this John Hopkins University visualisation of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) cases, you might discover how Singapore seems to be disproportionately affected.

Instead of focusing on the misinformation, disinformation, or panic buying of groceries, my mind turns to how this affects teaching and learning.

Most schools and education institutions reacting to the spread of the novel corona virus here share the same state — an unpreparedness to embrace online and e-learning. This is despite having a wealth of online resources that serve as a proxy for content delivery.

I anticipate that if teacher, administrator, and policymaker mindsets do not change, we will not be prepared for the next virus (or equivalent). Online platforms and content do not matter if they are used peripherally or only in emergencies.

We might take a leaf out of the YouTube book (irony intended) to learn how to be better prepared.

YouTube is an everyday phenomenon. Students need not be told to refer to it or search it. They do so on their own. They need it and want it. If that online resource was cut off, they would revolt.

Compare this with curated, designed, and aligned resources in content management systems. They are prescribed like medicine — used only when someone else thinks it is necessary as well as sparingly or strategically.

The current mindset of schooling still relies on an expert and teaching model. We need this because schools have a role to play in enculturating our children, i.e., transmitting information, values, and skills. But it is largely answer-driven.

The forward-looking mindset shifts towards learning. This means starting with complexity, not textbook answers and oversimplifications. The means recognising that learners, no matter how young, can and should continue learning by first asking questions and then learning how to find answers.

I dare say that if we manage to rely on a learner and learning-driven model, we will collectively create that paradigm shift that experts like to talk about. We will learn on demand, not just teach on supply. We will learn virally.

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