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Posts Tagged ‘singapore

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.

Singapore has a 14-day advisory leave-of-absence for students and teachers returning from trips to China. This is a measure to curb the spread of the 2019-nCoV or Wuhan coronavirus.

My tweet links to a Today article, but this CNA article is more detailed.

Side note 1: It is frustrating to find so many news and “news” returns when Googling for sources and nothing from official sites. The ministries needs to learn about search engine optimisation.

Side note 2: I drafted this reflection yesterday and so my claim is accurate as of the tweeted news release. Official sites may have been updated by now, but then that is still too late.

Back to the 14-day leave-of-absence. While inconvenient, it is a prudent measure given how not containing the disease is worse. So my mind wanders away from the possible social, geographical, or economic impacts of such an advisory.

Instead I recall an educator who shared how he had tried to push for online and e-learning in his school in Thailand. His peers and higher-ups saw little need because schooling was still valued as a face-to-face act.

But when the region he was in suffered severe flooding, his “blue sky” efforts suddenly became a lifesaver for less interrupted schooling. At the time, I think he jokingly called it calamity-based learning.

In Singapore, we now have the Student Learning Spaces (SLS) for home-based learning. But it is still peripheral instead of core; exceptional instead of mundane. The SLS in no way competes with or replaces bread-and-butter classes. If it did, we might question why kids need to go to school (other than to socialise and share disease).

This year marks my 31st as an educator. In the last 14 years I have had the qualifications and work in the area of online and e-learning. It has taken that long to see a small but important blip on the schooling and educational radar.

Viruses spread fast (as do falsehoods about the same) thanks to technology. But people learn and respond much more slowly, if at all. What is 14 days compared to 14 years?

The latest round of PISA results for Singapore raise more questions than answers for me.

How about being number 10 in academics?

How about striving for measures that actually mean something?

How about not playing the game of rankings and comparison?

Two weeks ago, I shared this announcement about Singapore’s ten-year plan for AI and focused on how it might affect schooling.

I left my reflection on AI for grading on slow burn for a while. I am enjoying a break, but I also enjoy wrestling with dubious change.

Yes, dubious. But first, two pretexts.

First, the vendors that the Ministry of Education, Singapore, works with are not going to be transparent with their technologies, so I cannot be absolutely certain of the AI development runway, timeline, and capabilities.

Next, the field of AI is not new and it is diverse. Parts of it evolve more quickly or slowly than we might expect. For example, handwriting recognition has been around since before Microsoft released its slate PCs. It was good enough to recognise some doctor scrawls even back then!

However, the Hollywood vision that AI will replace or even kill us off has not materialised. An expert might point out that AI is not good at making social predictions and ethical decisions. I simply point out that artificial intelligence is still no match for natural stupidity.

Back to the issue — we need to consume claims made by policymakers and edtech vendors critically. And more critically if they are reported by the mainstream media that thrives on sensationalism.

Do not take my word for it. Take this expert’s view that some claims are “snake oil”. In his slides, he put these claims into three categories: Genuine and rapid progress; imperfect but improving; and fundamentally dubious.

An expert’s view that some AI claims are “snake oil”. In his slides, he put the claims into three categories: Genuine and rapid progress; imperfect but improving; and fundamentally dubious. Slide #10 at

I highlighted “automated essay grading” in the screenshot above because that coincides with our 2022 plan to “launch automated marking system for English in primary and secondary schools”.

The fundamental issue is AI’s ability to automate judgement. Some judgements are simple and objective, others are complex and subjective. Written language falls in the latter category particularly when the writers get older and are expected to write in more complex and subjective ways.

Anyone who has had to grade essays will know what rubrics and “standardisation” sessions are. Rubrics provide standards, guidelines, and point allocation. Standardisation meetings are when a group of assessors get a small and common set of essays, grade those essays, and compare the marks. Those same meetings set the standard for the definitions of subjectivity, disagreement, and frustration.

Might AI in three years be able to find the holy grail of objective and perfect grading of subjective and imperfect writing? Perhaps. If it does so, it might be less a result of rapid technological evolution and more one of social manipulation.

To facilitate AI processing of essays, students might be required to use proprietary tools and platforms. For example, they might have to use word processed forms instead of handwriting. They could be told to write in machine readable ways, e.g., only five paragraphs, structured paragraphs, model phrases, etc. In other words, force-fitting writers and writing.

This is already how some tuition and enrichment centres operate. They reduce essay writing to formulae and teach these strategies to kids. Students are not encouraged to make mistakes, learn from them, or develop creative and critical thought. They are taught to game the algorithms.

The algorithms are the teachers’ expectations and rubrics now. They could be the AI algorithms in future. But the same reductionist strategy applies because we foolishly prefer shortcuts.

The AI expert I highlighted earlier focused on how ill-equipped AI is to predict social outcomes. He concluded his talk with this slide.

Concluding slide (#21) from

We might also apply his last two points to automated essay grading: Resist commercial-only interest aimed to hide what AI cannot do, and focus on what is accurate and transparent.

This is not my way of stifling innovation as enable by educational technology. I wear my badge of edtech evangelist proudly. But I keep that badge polished with critical thought and informed practice.

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