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Posts Tagged ‘singapore

It this tweet about “infective“ tuition did not sell you on tuition, then this ad for a tuition agency might.

Tuition ad: The right answer: We prepare your children not just for exams - but for life.

The ad claimed that the agency could prepare kids not just for exams, but also for life. To reassure parents, the agency claimed that it had “the right answer”. In the spectrum of schooling and life, this group had one colour to rule them all. This is shortcut schooling and parenting at its best!

Now, not all tuition is the same. There are honest and earnest educators who provide remedial tuition as coaches. They do not advertise on YouTube because 1) they do not have the revenue, and 2) they have a collective conscience.

Then there are the enrichment centres that have entry tests, formulaic approaches that sometimes contradict what teachers do in classes, and give the industry a bad name. They charge top dollar — because Singaporeans equate quality with cost — and they widen the gap in equitable access.

This may be one of the reasons why all Singapore students in mainstream schools will soon have access to the Student Learning Space (SLS). The SLS has already been touted as providing equal (not equitable) access to high quality resources.

Those that buy in to that idea are missing the point. Tuition in all its forms — remedial, enrichment, other variants — is not just about access to resources. It is about personalised attention and coaching, bragging rights, babysitting, taking shortcuts. It is about catching up, keeping pace, or leaving someone in your smoke.

Let us not oversell tuition as practiced here. Let us tell it like it is.

Being “data-driven” seems to have garnered a bad name in some schooling and education circles.

This is probably because of its misuse by edtech vendors for so-called analytics and misinterpretations of what being data-driven means by policymakers. Each is bad enough on its own. Both are lethal in combination.

But here are two recent examples of how being reliant on data is a good thing.

In a recent contest in Singapore, teams of students relied on shared pools of data to create visualisations.

Video source

The video above used data to create awareness of the difficulties that face families who have children with special needs.

Video source

The next video presented data to question commonly held misconceptions about ex-convicts.

Providing concrete visualisations of abstract data is not the same as being data driven. The former is about seeing what is not immediately apparent. The latter can sometimes be about playing the numbers game above all else, and that often ignores or harms the people that make up those numbers.

When being data-driven loses its original intent to inform decisions to actually help people, perhaps data visualisations like the ones above are a timely reminder of what good data might do.

Today I link a YouTube video and a call by one of our Deputy Prime Ministers (DPM), Tharman Shanmugaratnam: ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ will not cut it for Singapore’s education.

Video source

We were all taught that we have five senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. These senses are obvious and seem irrefutable, but they are oversimplifications.

We actually have a myriad of basic senses. Two of the less obvious ones include proprioreception (sense of space) and equilibrioreception (sense of balance).

It is easier to just teach everyone that we have only five senses. We are taught these in kindergarten or in primary school. However, most adults probably do not realise they have more than five senses even if they have a basic degree.

We do not seem worse for not knowing. This is an indicator of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. It is being satisfied with or indifferent to the status quo because we choose not to be receptive or reflective.

The only-five-senses-as-fact is broken. We had more studies discover and verify more senses, but somehow we choose not to update what we know and teach.

Arguing that teaching these extras makes things more complicated does not make sense. Teaching these “new” facts leverages on the wonders of the human body and illustrates the importance of the scientific method.

We need to be critical and humble enough to spot the cracks in WHAT we teach and HOW we teach it. We need to consciously keep breaking old mindsets and expectations like test is best.

CNA quoted DPM Tharman:

“The biggest mistake we would make is think that because we are doing well in the PISA test, or we get a good rating by the Economist Intelligence Unit or anyone else, that therefore we keep things as they are,” Mr Tharman said.

“The biggest mistake is to think if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because in education, more than in any other field, we will only know how well we are doing 20 or 30 years from now.

“If it ain’t broken, experiment. That’s the way we will secure our future.”

DPM Tharman was our Minister for Education from 2003 to 2008. Even though he has a new portfolio now, I am glad that he singled out changes in education as a pillar for holding Singapore up.

The PISA scores remind us that Singapore is doing well on testing stage. The type of schooling and education that helps us do this is like relying only on our five basic senses. We have so much more to discover and develop.

The CNA article and DPM’s speech highlighted more sets we need to challenge ourselves with. These included:

  • Avoiding the “lottery of birth” and ensuring social mobility
  • Reducing emphasis on academic-only measures and providing time and space for creative efforts
  • Not trapping ourselves with false multiculturalism

Like our “extra” senses, these education experiments will make us more complete.

If you see or smell something, say something. This applies to an abandoned parcel in a public space as much as a fishy opinion piece in a local newspaper.

The article was about the upcoming Student Learning Space (SLS) and had this byline:

A new e-learning portal to be introduced next year promises to make lessons more engaging. Experts say it can even be an education leveller, giving the same quality resources to all students, regardless of their home background.

I have five main critiques of the article: It

  1. made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  2. perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  3. stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”
  4. claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  5. quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

I share my thoughts on the first three point today (Part 1) and the rest tomorrow (Part 2).

Vague reference to observers

observers agree that learning has to be made more engaging, particularly for the younger ones, to keep them interested

Who were these observers? What were their backgrounds, areas of expertise, and biases? Did they all share the same observations?

The article dropped a few names and quotes later on, but it was not clear if these were the same observers. The quotes were about students actively getting getting feedback, not merely “engaging” with resources.

I am an observer who has been in education for almost 30 years and half of that time was as a critical advocate for educational technology. My views are plain to see as I blog openly. One of my consistent messages is this: I disagree with the current and dominant rhetoric of engagement.

The rhetoric of engagement
I understand the appeal of citing engagement. It is basic educational psychology to say that you must first pay attention to learn. Without that receptive channel, there cannot be inputs of information, much less the recreation of knowledge.

The type of motivation that the writer focused on was extrinsic. Following this logic, teachers need to make the lessons fun or interesting, and move away from — get ready for another cliche — chalk and talk.

Half of that reference is outdated. There is no more chalk in our classrooms, but there is still a lot of teacher-centric talk. Is “engagement” with content supposed to deal with the other half?

If so, the argument is incomplete. Extrinsically fueled engagement is only half the story. Motivation also comes from within. While extrinsic motivation is the low-hanging fruit offered by shiny bells and whistles, intrinsic motivation is more difficult to nurture. However, that internal drive is what creates habits of learning over the long run.

No portal, as good as it promises to be, can spark, identify, or nurture this intrinsic motivation. Only the learner and others around him/her can do that.

Focusing on short-term gains has a negative long-term consequence. Always providing “engaging” resources teaches students to be spoon-fed in a different way. Previously it was tell us what we need to know for the test and students would respond with the garbage in-garbage out strategy of superficial learning.

Now it might be show me, give me, tell me albeit in an engaging way. That is fine if the instructional design of the resources is based on principles solidified by rigorous research and critical practice.

But no matter how well-designed, providing a go-to portal creates dependence. It teaches students to eat processed fish fingers or to shoot fish in a barrel. Students do not learn how to actually fish (search) or decide on the quality of their catch (evaluate).

What is expected

Currently, the portal’s resources, produced and curated by MOE, are based on the national curriculum, which means students will be learning what is expected of them.

There is nothing wrong with having high standards for content. We take pride in being Number One is so many things that we expect these standards to be the norm.

However, it is presumptuous to limit our children to learn only “what is expected of them”. Do we have a future-proof crystal ball? Is the e-learning portal also one that peers into the future?

What happened to the other rhetoric about the VUCA world? How about even more rhetoric about being future-ready (an impossible state if you think about it)?

I am not against providing resources. I am against spoon-feeding by another name and method.

What should be expected is not just to consume, but to also to create. What should be expected is to not work in isolation, but also to collaborate authentically and meaningfully. What should be expected is not to be spoon-fed, but to also find and prepare your own food.

I find myself turning into a curmudgeonly old man as I write this. So I end Part 1 and seethe over Part 2 tomorrow.

Two things prompted this reflection — an interview I watched on YouTube and interactions I had with a special breed of teachers.

A few weeks ago, I watched an interview of Ris Ahmed on YouTube [focused segment]. The actor explained how “Asian” meant very different things in the UK and the USA.

Video source

I can vouch for what Riz Ahmed said because I lived in the USA for several years and had to minor incidentally in socio-political geography to educate those around me.

Now fast-forward to the present. For the last few semesters, I have interacted with pre and inservice teachers who are pursuing diplomas in special needs education (SPED).

I find the “special” in SPED to be a misnomer. It has different meanings in different contexts and it is an insufficient catch-all term.

If you go to almost any school system in the USA and are labelled “special”, you are atypical. You might have a genetic, physical, or behavioural condition that distinguishes you from “normal” or typical. The label is generally a negative one.

In Singapore’s context, being in a special stream of schooling might be a highly sought label. Being a student a Special Assistance Plan (SAP) school is a mark of academic excellence. For some history on SAP, read this NLB article.

However, the special-as-atypical meaning is more dominant now in our context. This is because students with special needs are more visible and are given more equitable opportunities than before.

Despite the “special” label being more common, those of us who consider ourselves typical might still gawk at atypicals. This is because our social circles do not overlap as much as they could.

This is why a newer term and phenomenon is on the rise. It is called inclusive education. This could mean including students with hearing impairments or ADHD or certain forms of autism in neuro-typical classrooms.

Inclusive education recognises that atypical students need more or special assistance while not isolating them all the time from the larger world. This is big step forward in special needs education. It might just be the equivalent of bringing the “real world” into typical classrooms.

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…

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