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Posts Tagged ‘singapore

I am a fan of reflective pieces like behind-the-scenes (BTS) peeks at people and processes behind prominent products.

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This televised townhall featured how the Moderna SARS-CoV2 vaccine was borne over the weekend. I wonder how many people watched and listened long enough for a lead scientist to explain how it took at least a decade of work and preparation for that to happen.

I also wish that people would read about the people behind the BioNTech and Moderna vaccines [NYT] [Reuters] [StatNews]. 

There was the lead scientist, Katalin Kariko, whose ideas and findings provided the foundation for both vaccines. Kariko struggled for years on how to deliver a therapeutic mRNA into cells. She could not get funding because her ideas were untested and she was demoted. 

Kariko’s emigration to the USA was also the stuff of movies. She hid money in her daughter’s teddy bear to avoid the US$100 export limit enforced by her home country of Hungary.

The couple behind BioNTech are of Turkish descent. BioNTech’s Chief Executive is Ugur Sahin and is described as “humble and personable”. The husband and wife team are medical professionals and were responsible for building on Kariko’s proof of concept and then getting Pfizer to produce their vaccine.  

By contrast, the story of the Moderna vaccine is fraught with infighting and Wall Street bro culture, e.g., putting money-making potential ahead of everything else. During the vaccine development, Moderna did not publish its findings; BioNTech published about 150 articles.

I am glad that Singapore is partnering with BioNTech in establishing a regional HQ and manufacturing facility here. Good people matter.

Rising above, I am reminded why something that looks quick and/or effortless really is not. There was a lot of toil, pain, and learning from failure that led up to the glam shot.

I am thankful to have received my first of two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 

I am particularly thankful to the education partner who nominated me. I work with more than one partner and the others did not do so even though I conduct courses for their educators or students.

Now I have a rant about a first-world problem. 

I received email notification from my education partner on 16 March that I was on a shortlist. I had to wait for an SMS that would invite me to schedule the two injections.

Eight days after that notification, I read the news that vaccinations were open to those aged 49-59 in the general population. Those who wished to get vaccinated could register here to get the same SMS.

As I had not received notice for the first (nominated) registration, I decided to try the general route as I belonged to that age group. The registration system at the time required me to verify my mobile number via a one-time password (OTP). 

The problem with that was the OTP took longer to arrive than they were valid for. This meant I could not register via the general invitation. My guess is that the registration system was swamped with requests.

I waited two days and tried again. This time the OTP requirement was no longer on the registration form and my request went through (see first SMS, below).

Later that same day, the nominated invitation arrived (see second SMS, above). I scheduled my vaccinations immediately and received the SMS confirmation below.

Strangely enough, I received another SMS six days later thanking me for my interest and assuring me that I would be notified if there were slots for booking. This was jarring given that I had already reserved my slots. 

We have a Smart Nation initiative. Have the administrators of the vaccination notification system read the memo? This was not the first round of invitations, registrations, and confirmations. According to this news report, 80% of 50,000 workers in the education sector had previously registered for vaccination appointments. How smart is the sub-system if it did not learn from the previous experience and improve the next one?

My reaction to yesterday’s news: It’s about time! If there is any frontline worker as precious as our “precious”, it is teachers.

The article lists the types of schools whose teaching and non-teaching staff will get inoculations. They range from pre-schools to madrasahs, but somehow exclude higher education institutions. Why?

To clarify, the ISP in this context is not another Internet Service Provider, but an Inclusive Support Programme.

I watched yesterday’s budget speech and that ISP caught my eye. The details are scant in the news report and I suppose that more will be revealed soon. So far, the ISP has this description:

This pilot integrates the provision of early intervention and early childhood services for children who require up to medium levels of early intervention support.

Many of these children are already attending preschools, and this programme will allow them to be more meaningfully engaged alongside other children…

The programme targets children under the age of 7, but we will need to know what “medium levels” of support means. That said, the attention given to the issue is a good thing.

My worry is that these programmes might be technology-averse. Every semester I meet pre and in-service teachers of special needs kids who tell me that they or their parent organisations have policies against technology use.

I counter with the fact that wheelchairs, hearing aids, reading tools, and a host of other “invisible” devices are already allowed. Why should something with a screen be treated with fear or disdain?

The most common reply is the much misunderstood and ill-defined “screen time”. I counter with asking how much screen time they engage in as working adults, if screen time has bad outcomes only, and whether stakeholders are taught management strategies.

This is why I hope that the ISP includes progressive professional development of special needs educators. If there is not, they will use outdated approaches and mindsets to address new problems.

The details in the article, Application installed on students’ devices does not track personal information, reminded me about some unanswered questions on student data management and learner self-regulation.

First, some background on the device management application (DMA) that will be installed in all student-owned devices. It reportedly does not keep track of “location, identification numbers or passwords”. It should not.

But the DMA will “capture data on students’ online activities such as web search history… and device information such as the operating system”. If forensics can use those to identify a person, is that not “personal information”?

Consider how your typing rhythm can already be used to identify you or how the different sounds of a keyboard can be used to figure out what you are typing. Raw data generated by a person can be identifiable and personal data.

According to the tweeted news article, a petition against the DMA from around 6,000 individuals did not dissuade the powers-that-be. The authorities argued that data collection and remote monitoring is necessary to protect children from undesirable sites and behaviours. Cue scary sounds and imagery of pornography, gambling, predators, and screen time.

For argument‘s sake, let’s assume that the data is absolutely secure from hackers. It is, however, available to “appointed DMA vendors”. What might the vendors do with such data? They could use it to develop more applications that profit them (example: plagiarism detectors use student-papers for free but charge a fee for its service).

If the vendors slide on integrity or if data is hacked, the online preferences and habits of our students becomes a trove of ad targeting, market development, data bundling and reselling, etc. We need only examine our own experiences with entities like Facebook — we are not the customer, we are the product — to see how this might happen.

Declaring that student data will be securely stored, stringently controlled, and lawfully protected does not guarantee that the policies on all three will not loosen over time. Consider a recent lesson on how TraceTogether data was supposed to only be for COVID-19 contact tracing, but now can also be used to investigate seven forms of serious crimes.

The declaration also does not indicate an expiration and/or expunging of user data. Bluetooth data from TraceTogether is deleted every 25 days.

Another question to ask about data use is: What will MOE/vendors do if the monitoring results in red flags? The alerts could be due to truly nefarious activities (example: the youth who recently self-radicalised and wanted to attack Muslims) or legitimate research on terrorism. What systems are in place in terms of algorithms and human monitors? What constitutes are reasonable response?

Perhaps my questions have already been answered but have not been made public. Perhaps my questions might provoke some reflection.

But I certainly want to provoke some thought and action in the area of student self-management. Might using tools like the DMA create a reliance on them? Such tools trigger extrinsic motivations, e.g., fear of detection for visiting unauthorised sites or waiting for pings from the system to meet deadlines.

We need such tools to be scaffolds. Scaffolds are removed from buildings as they are constructed because they stand on their own. What else will be put in place to ensure that our students learn to stand independently and think responsibly on their own?

I know of a few schools that rely on educational and social scaffolds instead of DMA-like tools. Students use their phones and computers like we might at home. These devices are unencumbered as we wish or as locked down as we make them. We decide.

The message that tools like the DMA as all-powerful and monitoring might provide some comfort to the public. This is disingenuous because more nuanced questions have not been addressed about their use. Equally, not enough emphasis has been placed on actually nurturing independent and responsible learners.

Today I continue yesterday’s reflection with the second of two news articles on edtech initiatives in Singapore schooling in 2021.

The second article summarised the first initiative:

…all secondary and junior college students will undertake home-based learning at least two days a month from the third term of next year…

In my reflection yesterday, I surmised that this was part of a habit or mindset forming exercise. But this news article put the frequency of the so-called home-based learning (HBL) more plainly, i.e., two days a month. Is this frequent enough to form a habit or shape a mindset? Perhaps time will tell.

This second article introduced another initialism, PLDs, which is short for personal learning devices. To the uninitiated, Singapore loves initialisms and the PLDs refer to laptop computers or tablets (more accurately slate computers).

The good and bad news is:

Junior colleges (JCs) and Millennia Institute can choose to tap the Ministry of Education’s (MOE’s) bulk tender to purchase personal learning devices (PLDs) for their students…

Why good? The bulk purchase lowers the cost to the students. Why bad? Low cost does not guarantee high quality. Despite improvements to procurement procedures and the selection of providers, bulk purchases often lead to defective or lower quality devices. That is just how buying in bulk works.

If you do not believe me, take an anecdotal or even a scientifically random sample of teachers with officially provided laptops. Then find out how many have their personal laptops and why they prefer their own.

Teachers are paid well enough to buy alternatives, but students do not have that luxury. They might also have to buy what their schools choose for them. And on that there is more good and bad news:

…expected out-of-pocket expenses from students will be kept to a minimum as students may use their Edusave account to buy the devices.

Under current Edusave disbursement rates, secondary students receive $290 a year, amounting to between $1,160 and $1,450 for four to five years of education…

So the good news is that students can tap their Edusave accounts to pay for (or offset the cost of) a device.

Here is possible bad news: If students do not have enough in their account, might they be allowed to pay for the device in instalments? Given that a device might not last “four to give years” or even lose relevance before that period, will there be enough for a second or third device?

Thankfully, there are provisions:

For Singaporean students on the MOE Financial Assistance Scheme, further assistance will be provided, said MOE, in the form of a subsidy before the student’s Edusave funds are tapped.

Should the Edusave balance still fail to cover the remaining device cost, MOE said it will provide further subsidies to these students to bring their out-of-pocket expenses to zero.

Finally, here is a procedure that seems to be a norm. Apparently, students must:

…allow the school to install a device management application on their device, similar to that installed on school-selected devices.

The application allows schools and parents to monitor device usage by restricting certain applications from being accessible by students, managing screen time and allowing the teacher to monitor students’ screens during the lesson.

Such a management application is good for getting technical support, e.g., remote diagnostics and troubleshooting. But this is potentially invasive. To use the car analogy I introduced in my first reflection, this is like allowing traffic lights, CCTVs, and road barricades into your home.

As there is no description of such a management tool nor an openly shared third-party evaluation of it, I cannot say anything more that what I have said about the secondary use of TraceTogether data [1] [2]. This data was supposed to be for COVID-19 contact tracing, but now it might be used for the investigation of serious crimes.

My point? There is designed and intended use of an application. There is also emergent and unplanned use. How do we ensure that the latter is not abusive by being unreasonably limiting or invading a student’s privacy?

There were are two news reports released at the end of 2020 about the impact of edtech in Singapore schooling in 2021. I focus on one today.

It is important to read all of both articles. It is also important to highlight segments that might need scrutiny instead of glossing them over.

From the CNA article:

HBL (home-based learning) days will also be less structured than a typical day in school to allow students to exercise initiative in learning. Students who require closer supervision and those who lack a home environment conducive for learning, or need access to certain school facilities may return to school on HBL…

If the intent of HBL is to get students to develop “mindsets and habits for self-directed learning”, then call it that instead of HBL since self-directed learning can take place anywhere. Confusing it with what happens at home (or what should happen there but cannot) makes HBL a misnomer. Independent and self-directed learning can take place anywhere. It is not place dependent.

Mine is not an argument about semantics. Yes, the words we use hold meaning — we need to say what we mean and mean what we say. But consider how “HBL” or “independent” might be questioned when practiced. If a child is supposed to participate in HBL but goes to school instead, why call it home-based? If the activities designed by teachers are over-scaffolded or the students are not empowered with choice, how is it independent?

The article also reports conflates HBL with blended learning. Most teachers seem to understand this as combining face-to-face and online teaching. Do they also know that blending should include the seamless integration of content areas and learning (not just teaching) strategies? More of my distillations of blended learning are listed here.

Do not get me wrong. I like the fact that COVID lockdowns have pushed us to make more independent and online learning a habit or even a norm. According to the report, this will:

… account for about 10 per cent of curriculum time at secondary schools and up to 20 per cent at junior colleges and Millennia Institute… This translates to around once a fortnight across terms, excluding examination periods.

I fear the repeating of mistakes from the past when numbers like 10% and 20% of curricula or curricula time were used to determine what e-learning materials should be created from conventional materials. This was an issue we failed miserably with in the late 90s and early noughts because we built up repositories but not changes in pedagogies or expectations.

All that said, I am glad that the MOE is ensuring that:

All secondary school students will own a personal learning device by the end of 2021, under the National Digital Literacy Programme…. This will be rolled out in two phases, with 86 schools receiving the devices by Term 2 of 2021 in the first phase, and 66 schools receiving the devices by Term 3 in the second phase…

But having a personal learning device without a suitably fast and reliable Internet connection is like having a car without fuel. Neither student nor driver is going anywhere. Thankfully, a strategy similar to the one used in lockdown will be employed again, namely:

The ministry is also working with the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to provide subsidised broadband access for students from lower-income households…

Even with the car and fuel, a driver needs to operate the vehicle responsibly. We have driving school and road rules to shape this mindset and skillset. I am sure that schools will do the equivalent for online learning. But I wonder just how heavy handed the regulations will be:

To ensure that the devices are an “enabler for learning” rather than a distraction, device management applications will be installed in each device to “provide a safe and more regulated digital environment”…

To suggest any specifics now is speculation. But users of most work or school-provided devices might know the pains of locked down devices. While this is understandable in a few circumstances, e.g., security or secret work, this is not always a good blanket rule.

There are several schools that take a different route. They require students to purchase their own devices and teach them how to use them responsibly. The lock down is not an administrative or technical one. It is a continuous lesson in personal responsibility.

I am glad that our new Minister for Education and the MOE are taking the locked down schooling experiments in their stride. I hope that administrators and teachers do not respond with a locked down mentality. This is a wonderful opportunity to free our collective pedagogy from the shackles of the past. If we want independent learners, we need independent thinking adults as well.

It has been more than a day after Channel News Asia (CNA) reported this parliamentary exchange. We found out that TraceTogether data — collected by tokens or phone apps for COVID-19 contact tracing — could also be used for criminal investigations.

Apparently this is part of an umbrella safety policy where “citizen safety and security is or has been affected” [YouTube video of parliamentary exchange when this was mentioned]. This was news to me.

I downloaded the app and collected my token under the promise that the data had a singular purpose. Re the same CNA report:

A privacy statement on the TraceTogether website had earlier said the data would only be used “for contact tracing purposes”.

Here is one response from an academic at NUS:

In a tweet thread, he related how he had also co-authored a paper cautioning against the secondary use of such data. His rationales:

  • The gains from the secondary use of such data is small compared to the risk of loss of public trust.
  • The use the token or app is practically mandatory given the need to enter public spaces like malls and train stations. This favours surveillance at the cost of privacy.

My thoughts? I am all for TraceTogether for the purpose it was designed for. If we extend its use without the express consent of its stakeholders, we are make the mistake that developers of information systems try to avoid, i.e., the unintended and unexpected consequences of data use and manipulation.

We already have extensive surveillance in the form of our near ubiquitous CCTVs. You need only make the effort to count how many you walk by as you go about your business. Is extending the use of TraceTogether data for crime investigation worth the cost of breaking TrustTogether?

This is Singapore — if we are not eating our food, we are talking about it. This CNA Insider video, Belly of a Nation, explored the impact of the pandemic lockdown on hawkers.


Video source

It was nicely done, but I wish that the information about the hawkers (e.g., their stall locations, social media links) were included in context. That way I could offer support by visiting a stall or three.

This is one critical difference between traditional media productions and social media efforts. The former do it for themselves. They profit from the time and effort of the hawkers, and we do not know if the hawkers are paid appearance fees.

The least CNA could do is provide the addresses of the hawker stalls as overlays or chyrons on screen. A few savvy hawkers might also be on social media or have their own websites, so including that information would also be helpful.

CNA did list the hawkers’ names in the scrolling credits at the end of the video, but that is what they already have to do in other contexts. They need to keep up with what a YouTuber would do if the video is also shared on YouTube.

A typical YouTuber does not have the clout of a media company. So they will offer to not just provide hawker stall details in the video when that hawker appears (i.e., provide contextual information) they will also list that information in the video description for the convenience of the viewer.

A YouTuber does this because they see what their collaborators and what their viewers need. They find ways to connect the two as a means of payback. Everyone benefits that way.

I reflect on this not as a media critic, but as an educator. Those of us in schooling and education need to also keep up, not just with relevant technologies, but more critically with habits of use.

One habit is the collective practice of creating, commenting, critiquing, and collaborating. These are shaped or redefined by the new tools we use. For example, the reach of an artefact or idea can go far beyond one’s classroom walls. That should be the expectation and consequence. One might need to learn how to act local and think global.

If there is a flaw in most teacher professional development (PD) sessions, it is their design. The PD does not address in equal measure the following:

  • Knowledge (the what)
  • Skills (the how)
  • Attitudes, beliefs, teaching philosophies (the whys and so whats)

If we do not adequately address this trifecta of PD, we entrench behaviours in the same or the past. We do what CNA did — not change essential behaviours — when moving to a different context. We do not push and pull for change that stems from changes in attitudes, beliefs, and teaching philosophies.

 
I have learnt not to place too much hope in hopeful headlines. Headlines like Universities, polytechnics, ITEs reviewing curriculum for a ‘new way’ of teaching, learning: Lawrence Wong.

I will say this first: Journalists parse what they read and/or hear from sources (in this case, the new Education Minister, Mr Lawrence Wong) and in doing so simplify in an attempt to connect to the reader. However, this not always a wise move because nuance can get lost.

I react to the article paragraph by paragraph.

Delivered
Consider a claim in the first paragraph that the authorities will “rethink how education can be better delivered”. A person’s education is not something you can package and pay for like a Grab Food order. It is certainly not something that can be delivered.

To be educated is to be challenged with meaningful problems, subject to failure, and be empowered to find solutions. It is not just about consuming new content or having new experiences from textbooks, courseware, or professors. The latter are somewhat packable and therefore deliverable, but the former are not.

Interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary
The article also uses the terms interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary interchangeably. A byline uses interdisciplinary while a quote from the minister uses multidisciplinary. They are not the same thing.

Most current degrees require students to take many subjects to get a diploma. Their courses are multidisciplinary. But their implementation is unlikely to be interdisciplinary, i.e., integration of subjects that is a result of combined planning, implementation, and assessment from faculty in different silos.

Disrupt
Then there is the uncritical use of “disrupt”: “…the closure of schools during the circuit breaker in April and May to restrict activities and curb the spread of Covid-19 may have disrupted learning”. University teaching might have been interrupted, stopped, or shaken, but learning continues regardless.

Teaching is not learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning even though the latter is desired. Learning happens regardless of official or recognised teaching figures. You need only look back a few months to recall what and how people learnt while in lockdown.

Analytics, automation, AI
Here is a claim that worries me more than it gives me hope:

The Ministry of Education (MOE) now has a “renewed interest” in the role of technology in education, he said.

“And it goes beyond just putting some content online and having remote learning. There is a lot of potential, for example, in using data analytics and artificial intelligence to allow for automated grading.

Yes, there is a much potential… for misuse! One need only read about and learn from the IB and GCSE/GCE fiascos to see what I mean.

What also worries me is the oft cited “automated grading”. This seems to be a focus on efficiency instead of effectiveness. It is not wrong to be as efficient as possible since timely feedback to students on their performance is key to learning. But such quick grading is currently formulaic and simplistic (e.g., answers to multiple-choice questions). This is no where near the complexity of evaluating essays, projects, portfolios, or performances.

Blended learning
I did not find anything new about blended learning in the article. The article tried to make it sound new: “It also requires teachers and instructors to come alongside and be trained in this new way of teaching”.

Blended teaching and learning are not new. They are also not just about combining what happens face-to-face with online activities. Blending has far more dimensions than the mode of instruction and learning. Content, teaching strategies, resource, assessment, and other elements can be blended.

Screen time and addiction
Then there was the usual but unjustified reference to “excessive screen time, digital addiction”. The critiques against the uncritical use of screen time and addiction are numerous and elaborate, but here is a condensed version: 1) The quantity of screen time is not the issue, the quality of the activity is more important, and 2) Addiction is a very specific psychological condition and should not be bandied about to fear monger.

The private sector
The minister mentioned that the private sector could provide industry-relevant contexts and checks. I agree.

He also said that they could be training providers. University faculty can and should learn from industrial partners. But not all trainers are pedagogues. They might not have the background, experience, and research literacy to teach or offer advice on teaching in university contexts.

For goodness sake
The minister’s concluding remarks included this:

…learning can be for good. We also want to learn to be better human beings, to be better husbands and wives, to be better fathers and mothers to our children…

I say we focus primarily on that. It is the most noble, important, and complex to do. The rest are red lines we might not need to cross. But education for the sake of goodness needs to be underlined in red several times.


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