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I would wager that most institutes of higher education (IHLs) worldwide now have a semester or two of managing continuity during the pandemic.

Those in Singapore are no exception, but we have had a less challenging time. If I had to rank the reasons for this, my top pick would be how we are more compliant about wearing masks. As a result, we wait with bated (and masked) breath on when Phase 3 will start.

But we do not need to wait for government agencies to provide exact details for every rule and policy. They cannot because contexts in each IHL are different.

For example, one department in an IHL might have typical a tutorial class size of 50 while another might only average 15. The number of students is not the issue, the other contextual elements are:

  • The class of 50 might be in a room for 200 while the 15 might be in a space for 20.
  • The 50 might be indoors with unmodified air-conditioning while the 15 suffer/enjoy a humid outdoor studio.
  • One class might involve more student-centric methods (and thus more social interaction) while the other is didactic.

Context matters.

So what is an outfit that provides professional development do when challenged to run courses for future instructors/facilitators?

One agency I work with desperately jumped on Zoom but chose not to record videos of the online sessions. This meant that absentees could not watch recorded sessions as part of a make-up lesson. They had to be catered to individually and this was costly in terms of time, effort, and money.

Another agency I know locked down its methodology by converting workshop sessions to lecture groups. This reduced interactivity and modelled the wrong way of reacting to a pandemic.

Both agencies had decently long enough runways to prepare and change, but both opted not to try strategies like:

Reducing class sizes
Both agencies had tutorial class sizes of 30. This seems to be a magic administrative number that is tied to financial turnover and the physical size of existing classrooms.

How about reducing each class size to 15 instead and have two runs of each? This reduces the density of students while balancing the opposing needs of physical distancing and social interaction.

Take one agency’s classroom for example. Students sit in groups of 5 or 6 at group tables. Consider how these tables could station just 3 students with halved class sizes.

Barriers
Each table in the example I gave could be equipped with Plexiglas (or equivalent) barriers so that masked students can communicate with group mates. Such tables-as-stations would allow a variety of instructional strategies such as peer teaching, think-pair (now trio)-share, jigsaw, etc.

A barrier to such a move is a failure to imagine possibilities or to consult with pedagogues. Another barrier is various costs.

Costs
The cost of barriers is a one-time financial investment. But there are other costs like paying a set of facilitators to teach more often, or recruiting more staff to teach extra sessions.

There is also the cost of time and effort to redesign content, strategies, and assessment, as well as to make revisions from inevitable hiccups or failures.

There is no avoiding such costs. The financial cost is actually easier to overcome because it is relatively easy to rationalise a temporary increase in spending. Any administrator worth their salt knows how to ethically and legally shift funds from one pot to another. The problem is that administrators might not wish or dare to do this. They would rather manage from a spreadsheet or play it safe.

The cost of redesigning and revising might be harder to justify because it is not as tangible as class sizes, grades, or cohorts. However, there is an administrative approach to enabling this — document everything. Write proposals, present research, record class sessions, collect feedback, craft after-action reports, etc.

Doing things differently does not always mean doing things better. But doing things better always means doing things differently. -- Hank McKinnell

We can either withdraw from the challenge of a pandemic or rise up to it. If we do the latter, I say we do the right things the right way. And we know we are on the right path when we focus on what is best for learning and learners, not what is comfortable for administrators or instructors.

If you buy five small items from a pastry shop in a local mall or heartlands shop, you are likely to carry them off in six plastic bags. Each item will be in its own bag and all five will be in a larger one.
 

 
This example sounded familiar to me because I wrote about this in 1999 when I used to maintain my own website. Back then I asked myself, tongue firmly in cheek:

Why did each pastry need its own plastic bag? Were they “psychologically insecure” so that they need their own space? Was there some “racial” hatred among buns?

I noticed our insecure bun phenomenon almost 16 years ago. Why is our wasteful plastic bag legacy so hard to get rid of? The simple answer is that we have collectively enabled it.

Take another example.

In a letter to the ST forum, the co-founder of the Keep Singapore Clean Movement described how appalled he was with the state of littering post New Year’s Day parties despite the provision of 400 rubbish bins. Hundreds of workers had to clean up after party revellers. It reinforced the fact that we are not a naturally clean city but a cleaned one.

He compared Taipei with us:

  • Taipei: Three million residents, 5,000 cleaners
  • Singapore: Five million residents, 70,000 cleaners

A Singapore task force visiting Taipei found the Taiwanese city to be cleaner than ours. Why? In Taipei, people learn to pick up after themselves. In Singapore, we learn that someone else will clean up after us.

Back to bagging things.

According to this ST article, a cotton-based recyclable bag must be used at least 11 times to have a lower carbon footprint than the normal plastic bags liberally provided at grocery stores. The problem was that we receive too many recyclable bags. We do not use them as often as they should be used, or worse, dispose of them.

Providing so many rubbish bins or recyclable bags so that it is convenient for us has made us lazy. What should be a scaffold to promote good behaviour has become a crutch.

Look at how the authorities here encourage mixed recycling because they have statistics that show that if they insist on separated recycling, they do not meet KPIs. But they forget that doing this enables laziness: People do not learn to take the trouble to clean and then separate recyclables.

Recycling is as much an attitude as it is a habit. There is no point encouraging the habit by making it convenient, but forgetting about the long term value system of recycling and an equally long term education programme.

Such a programme may take more time and effort. It is also more painful to all stakeholders, but it can be very effective.

The world marvelled when Japanese fans cleaned up after themselves during the World Cup in Brazil. More recently, the Myanmar football fans did the same after a match in Singapore. Such behaviour is learnt and eventually embedded.

When I lived in Arizona, I had to pay for a rubbish collection fee and a recycling bin fee. If I did not recycle, I still had to pay for the latter fee. I was more conscious of what I threw away and what I recycled as a result.

Too much of a good thing is bad when a scaffold, no matter how well-intentioned, becomes a crutch. The better thing to do is to educate and change mindsets even though this is more painful and takes a long time.

The best thing to do is not wait for someone else to run a change programme. I teach my son how to recycle. I refuse multiple bags at pastry shops even though this confuses the aunties who bag the buns. I do these things because enduring processes start one person at a time.

 
Here is my take on the oft-quoted saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

This is a phrase favoured by politicians and teachers who want to control the flow of information. My guess they say this in order to feel that they are in charge.

If people knew as much as they did, there would be wide-spread panic (in the case of politicians) or their jobs would be redundant (in the case of teachers).

Maybe there is case for not knowing everything all of the time.

But not knowing enough in a timely manner is hazardous to our health. Little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

With the record-breaking haze levels hitting Singapore last week, I found out as much as I could about things like PSI and PM2.5.

There are still lots of apps, particularly in the Android store, that report only the PSI levels when the PM2.5 levels are actually more important.

What this means is that the general public is lulled into a false sense of security if PSI drops but PM2.5 remains high.

I am not just talking about the uninformed. I am referring to the misinformed.

Our authorities publish both the PSI and PM2.5 levels. But PSI seems prioritized (for news reports and executive decisions) and people are not told exactly what to do with PM2.5 readings.

Our press has not been particularly informative about PM2.5 but there is a slew of information online in the form of research (Google it critically!), standards from the World Health Organization, and other air pollution reporting agencies.

What is dangerous is not knowing enough. Equally dangerous is having little information that is inaccurate and acting on it. So I am still educating myself on these hazey concepts.

Nowadays what is our excuse for living with little knowledge? What is our excuse for preventing learners from knowing and knowing enough?


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