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This is Part 2 of my smell something-say something rant on an op piece on the upcoming Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS).

In Part 1, I critiqued how the article:

  • made vague reference to unnamed “observers”
  • perpetuated the rhetoric of engagement over empowerment
  • stated that students “will be learning what is expected of them”

In this reflection, I focus on how it:

  • claimed that the SLS can be a social leveller in education
  • quoted “learning styles” and cited “best practices”

A social leveller
The article claimed that the SLS would provide “the same quality resources, regardless of their home background”.

It is very tempting to buy into the rhetoric that the portal will be a social leveller. The key idea is that everyone will have equal access to the same quality resources.

Will they?

Social levelling is an old and simplistic argument that has not come true for the decades-old edtech movement. It trivialises the complexity of access issues, among them socio-economic status, infrastructural preparedness, pedagogical nous, informed leadership, and rapidly evolving technology.

Uncritically citing social levelling is not researching and learning from recent history and parallel systems. The work of Cuban, Fullan, Hattie, and Reigeluth is a substantial but revealing start.

History repeats itself. It has to, because no one ever listens. -- Steve Turner.

One of the most recent statistics about Singapore households showed that as of June 2016, the Residential Wired Broadband Household Penetration Rate was 98.4%. This included households that might have more than one broadband subscription plan. On the surface, this could mean that most students will not have a problem with basic access.

Dig a bit deeper beyond the statistics that hide “realistics”: Teachers and parents prevent access because students and children are supposed to only “learn what is expected”. There is no or little room to learn by play, error, or experimentation.

Another realistic is the prevailing mindset that test is best. This is my way of saying that most of us cannot think and operate outside the box that is testing and chasing grades. The SLS is supposed to help reduce and perhaps remove that sort of behaviour.

However, a platform alone cannot and will not realistically do this. It will take political courage and will on the part of our leaders, pedagogies driven by progressive mindsets in teachers, and informed decision-making by parents and students to head in that direction. Social levelling does not happen only via a technological platform; it requires social interventions leveraging that platform.

Now consider another aspect of access and social levelling.

The same set of information-communication statistics revealed that Singapore’s Mobile Population Penetration Rate is 148.2%. Even the poorest of family units save for a phone. Given that 2G was phased out here this year, our population is technically on broadband.

However, a technical affordance does not guarantee social or pedagogical affordances. While a previous article mentioned that the SLS would be accessible on mobile, it did not say whether it was mobile-friendly or mobile-first.

Such a distinction is important. Any online resource that is mobile-friendly is designed for the desktop or laptop first. For example, I can only create and edit Google Sites in large screen format. When I publish the work, it adapts to smaller screens. However, elements like wide tables, animations, and videos might be optimised for the large screen and not appear properly on small ones.

A mobile-first design is just that — the design or redesign starts with a small form factor first. This approach is typical of apps made for emerging markets. More mature ones like ours are stuck in the desktop age.

Ask any teacher if they use their phones to do research. Then ask them to prepare resources and facilitate lessons using only their phones. The answers will be different because of the prevailing desktop mindset.

If you are not a teacher, then consider how stripped down banking transactions via apps are compared to the full web versions. Exceptions and mobile-first app designs might include transport and some e-commerce apps because their use is on-the-go.

My point is this: We should expect the learner of today to consume and create on mobile devices and platforms. If the SLS is designed for laptops or desktops, this creates another access barrier. So much for being a social leveller.

Learning styles and best practices

Experts like Dr Chan pointed out that not every student learns the same way. Teachers, then, cannot be expected to cater to varied learning styles, even with the portal.

They hope that besides benefiting students, the e-learning platform can aid teachers by having them share best practices and work together on materials with their colleagues from other schools.

I am going to sound like a squeaky wheel. Learning styles are a myth and there is no such thing as best practices, particularly in education.

I will oil the wheel and point out that I have written about the learning styles myth and claimed that we should not have best practices in education.

I return to Jon Stewart’s quote about being socially responsible. If you see or smell something, say something. Better safe than sorry.

People respond more quickly to an abandoned parcel in a public space because there is potential and imminent danger. The same people are less likely to respond to a warning like mine because the danger is not immediate and the impact is spread out over time.

The danger is still there, but we prefer a pat on the back instead paying attention to warning signs right in front of us. We are shortsighted that way.

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.

 
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…


Video source

Humour me. Pretend that you watched this video about the Student Learning Space (SLS) without knowing that it was about the SLS.

What makes it stand out from just about any other online schooling platform?

I do not ask the question sarcastically, but critically. My question comes from a place of earnestness and honesty. I ask because we should question buzzwords.

I ask because I want to know whether you see what I see. I see two main things.

First, without knowing that this was about the SLS, it could have been a pitch for any LMS or CMS. Providers of these platforms and services tout essentially the same things. I see no difference, except my next observation.

Second, one thing that is supposed to make the SLS stand out is its push to promote self-directed learning (SDL). The official statement and the video led with it.

SLS and SDL

While SDL might sound self-explanatory, it has different connotations. Like any other term, e.g., socio-emotional learning (SEL), it is important to have shared understandings of SDL.

If you explore the literature, specifically the work of Gibbons, you might discover that SDL is a continuum. Gibbons identifies true SDL as “Courses or programs in which students choose the outcomes, design their own activities and pursue them in their own way.” Does the SLS allow these?

If you organise your own unPD with Twitter, you might discover at least seven elements that characterise SDL at the independent learner end of the spectrum. Does the SLS enable these elements?

BTW, the #edsg folks who volunteered their time also shared their thoughts on SDL in 2014. I curated the conversation and resources with Storify. Like most LMS, the SLS will allow students to converse. Will it allow students to create and curate as a result of learning conversations?

So, what form of SDL will the SLS promote and nurture? I ask this knowing that the SLS is not just about the platform. The social and pedagogical aspects of its use help answer the question.

Will the SLS be as natural as Googling and looking for YouTube videos? Will it be a first response or a last resort? Will it be leveraged in skilfully or superficially? Will it be integrated seamlessly or stand out?

Answers to these questions lie in its use. The way it is used depends on its users. Its users need to know its expectations of use and to see new models of integration. Its teachers need professional development (PD), not just of technical know-how, but also social and pedagogical nous.

I have no doubt that teachers will get some training and PD. These will be met with the usual range of teacher responses. I wonder how many will depend on their own SDL to learn more about the SLS.

Tags: ,

I find it odd how headlines and news articles tout “any time, anywhere” but accompany them with photos of students during school hours in a classroom.

The headlines are not wrong because school is technically one time and place for “any time, anywhere”. However, this is just a sliver of the whole experience. Furthermore, illustrating just one experience colours the expectations of readers and reveals the mindset of those who make and share the news.

Those who do military service in Singapore will be familiar with OTOT — own time, own target. The Student Learning Space (SLS) is touted to allow student to have their OTOT by self-directed learning.

But we must be more critical of such a claim. OTOT is not realistic if the current practices of the curricula race and assessment do not change. Time is limited in such a race and no one wants to come in last in assessment.

The alternative behaviours can be difficult to show and achieve. This is in part due to the fact that the makers and sharers of the news do not know what it might look like. How can they if they have not experienced this first hand?

Even if they have, consider these. What if your anywhere is perching on the porcelain throne? What if your any and own time is waiting in a queue or right before you sleep? The photos or videos of these might look like the type fear-mongers love using, e.g., addiction to a device.
 

 
If you are going to tout it, you must shout it. All of it. If participants and stakeholders of an intervention do not see new models and possibilities, they will do the same old thing. If they do not change, then “any time, anywhere” becomes “no time to do, going nowhere” instead.

No, I am not referring to the SLS that is Sim Lim Square, although that place is worthy of a rant. I am referring to the recently announced rollout of the Student Learning Space.

I cannot critique this article on the SLS in one tweet. Hence this longer critique.

I present segments from the article and share some thoughts.

“The aim is for students to take greater ownership of their learning and to work together with their peers.”

This is a worthwhile aim. However, I wonder if students should actually be exploring and using other already available resources to do this. The fact that such resources are NOT already under one roof, curated, or sanitised is the point. How else better to prepare them for higher education and work?

The path to ownership is paved with learner agency and empowerment. Such characteristics are not found neatly stacked on a shelf or conveniently packaged online.

“learn at their own pace, revisit concepts and read up on other areas of interest”

Uh, one word: YouTube. Another word: Wikipedia.

These words are not neat and tidy like teaching. Instead, they accurately mirror the messiness that is learning.

“developed with industry and external partners to offer real-world context”

Um, another word: Buzzword.

“Real-world” examples and contexts are crucial and sorely missing, so making lessons more real is worthwhile.

I hope that the providers of SLS have learnt from the plethora of examples in YouTube and social media like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram what to do and what not to.

If not, they are just using a buzzword for effect. The effect is like a firework. It is spectacular when it explodes, but it does not last long and the scene fades back to black.

I still wonder if providing a portal is wise in the long run. Is this not just more elaborate spoonfeeding? Or perhaps the giving and regurgitation of fish?

“rolled out progressively to all schools from next year (2018)”

Starting when next year? After the main exams so students can do cool and fun but not test-relevant things?

The official announcement mentioned 62 trial schools, but no specifics on when. My guess is that you cannot get shot down if you do not hold up timeline targets.

“teachers can share lesson ideas and strategies within and across schools”

Will this be done like the way it was about a decade ago? It was mandatory for some to share resources like test papers in online repositories. The “ideas and strategies within and across schools” was poorly conceived and implemented because competition was stronger than collaboration.

I hope the Ministry officials learnt from this faux pas. It must have the right people to provide that institutional memory and who have the willingness to not be yes-men or women.

I also wonder if the goal is to emulate teachers who already blog, tweet, and create YouTube videos. If so, they must nurture a mindset and culture that embraces openness, humility, interdependence, creativity, critical thinking, and reflectivity.

If not, they might be creating conditions for another mistake. An expensive and very public mistake.


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