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During a visitation this lunar new year, a family member played a video of a gathering on an almost 30-year-old video tape.

Through the video “snow”, we watched a snippet of Singapore in 1991. Folks gathered around the TV screen to question their fashion and hairstyle choices, and to gossip about relatives who had since passed away.

Since the video featured the apartment we were in, some marvelled at how little had changed by comparing what was on screen with what was around us.

Only one part of the video caught my attention. While the adults in the video chatted in the living room, a girl busied herself by playing video games on an old console.

Back in the room, my son was sitting in the same place as the girl in the video. In between watching the video time capsule, he played video games on his iPhone. So much time had passed, but so little had changed.

I was not thinking about kids being kids. I was thinking about how quick adults are to judge kids as they explore and learn on their own. I was also wondering how oblivious adults are to the change process (or the lack of, in this case).

For me, the visitation video was a reminder that things might seem to change superficially. But if we dig deeper, things actually remain the same. The way to tell if anything has changed at all it to examine the history of a behaviour or practice.

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What is said has impact. What gets done after what is said can also have an impact.

But there is far too much rhetoric and not enough timely action.

Singapore TV was supposed to go entirely digital at the end of 2017, but there were so many holdouts that the move was pushed to the end of 2018.

So the relevant authorities created an outreach programme to get more households on the digital TV bandwagon.

Mine was one of the 400,000 or so households to benefit from the voucher to either pay for a set top box plus antenna, or to offset the purchase of a digital signal TV.

Letter and voucher for digital TV.

I had no plans to get either. I had cancelled cable TV a while ago as no one in my household watches local broadcast and subscription TV. We only watch Internet-enabled shows — YouTube, Netflix, Prime, etc.

The only broadcast TV I watch is on National Day. Even then, I rely on Toggle or ‘live’ streams.

We are certainly not “digital natives” (ugh, a reference on my pet peeve list) nor are we “millennials” (that would have made my list if it was closely linked to and misused in education).

I am grateful for the voucher. I only wish it arrived earlier. That way I would not have bought my parents a new digital-ready TV and antenna last year. But since they have a second TV that is analogue, this will save me some money.

It is obvious who this move targets and benefits. The letter and voucher arrived by snail mail with offers for free delivery and installation. The target audience would need the help of their adult children to go online to make this arrangement.

The move seems to be piecemeal one. This is like patching the cracks on a wall instead of tearing the wall down and replacing it with something else.

This patch might seem to make sense now. It buys time for broadcast TV to stay relevant. This is like how newspapers and magazines ensure paper survival with pressure tactics applied to various organisations. Walk into most waiting rooms to see what I mean.

This helps the incumbents to stay rooted in the past and change agents to use the excuse that the process needs to be slow and painless.

What happens when we need to go fully digital? Will there be another round of handouts? What does this say about our capacity for change?

I hardly watch any local broadcast TV. I have TV sets at home, but they are used to project videos from online sources like YouTube, Netflix, and others.

What I do is probably not that usual now. Some consumers might not even need TVs because they rely on the smaller screens of their phones, slates, and laptops.

But I had to take some action recently to revisit broadcast TV. Why?

The news earlier this year was that that free-to-air (FTA) TV via analogue broadcasting would cease at the end of 2017. TV signals would digitally broadcasted over the air and cable thereafter. One in four consumers has yet to jump on board the digital bandwagon, so the authorities moved the deadline to the end of 2018.

I am in the not-on-board set because I have alternatives. My elderly parents are not on the digital TV wagon because they do not know what to do or how to do it.

So I took advantage of SITEX 2017 to buy a new digital-ready TV and external antenna for my parents. I experienced different approaches by two sales representatives and this reminded me of how some teachers approach learners.

I told both sales representatives that I wanted to buy a TV for my elderly parents. I thought that should have established some expectations, but I was wrong.

The first salesperson kept recommending bigger TVs, and when I rejected them, moved on to sets with more features. For example, he highlighted a “smart” TV (Internet-capable) even though my parents do not have an Internet connection at home and cannot use that feature set.

The second was much quicker on the uptake. He tried to figure out what I needed and asked more focused questions or provided more precise answers. For example:

  • he asked me which floor my parents lived on as that would determine the type of antenna to buy
  • when I asked where the service centre was, he could not remember so he looked up the information on his phone and showed it to me
  • when he realised the boxed set did not include a warranty card, he provided me with a digital version

So I bought the new TV from the second sales representative. This was despite the fact that I was able to bargain the price down with the first person while the second was adamant about his prices. The second guy knew his stuff, knew what else to do when he lacked information, and most importantly, put the customer first.

Do you see what this might have to do with schooling and education?

Some teachers are like the first sales representative. They know their content, but do not meet the needs of their learners. They might teach in ways that students do not want or need.

Better teachers are like the second sales representative. They also know their content, but they observe and listen to their learners more closely first. They do this to meet the learners where they are, and to suit their needs and contexts.

All students need to process new information and overcome challenges just like all TV-watching consumers here need a digital-ready TV. However, they can be taught differently.

The first group of learners are led blindly by their teachers and are unlikely to take ownership of their learning. The students must buy in only to what the teacher sells.

The second group has to define problems and suggest solutions. The teacher is there to learn first about his/her students before helping students take even greater ownership of their learning. Such a teacher offers choices and leaves informed decision-making to the learners.

As analogies go, this one is not perfect. Learning is much more complex than buying a new TV. Teaching is more difficult than selling a TV. However, both sets of experiences can and should be led by similar principles: Putting the student and customer first.

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Come early February I can correct a two-year mistake that I tied myself to — my TV subscription.

Two years ago I committed to a contract to my go-to telco for something they called Home Hub. Where home Internet, phone, and TV services were once separate, all three were bundled under that then new scheme.

The promise was that I would get more for less. That was true to some extent because I got a higher Internet speed for less cost per month. The digital home phone line was something we rarely used, but it was a comforting backup.

What was a waste of money was the TV subscription. My family and I do not watch it the way we did when my wife and I did when we were growing up, i.e., based on someone else’s timetable. We watched on demand.

The meant relying on platforms like YouTube and Netflix. This in turn meant that we paid for what we did not use or need — conventional TV delivered through a fibre optic cable.

Soon we will “cut” that cord and rely solely on data access for everything we need in terms of employment, education, enrichment, entertainment, etc. I will pay even less to get Internet access speeds that I could only dream of when I first went online.

I wish we had done this sooner when the competition was heating up among service providers and prices dropped even as options increased. The telcos had no choice but to listen to their customers and ride the trend of cord-cutting.

Still I wager that I am in the minority. Why else would the other options persist? The telcos create customer lock-in and retard change.

The status quo is comfortable for the telcos and most customers. However, this denies everyone a better experience. If customers take the initiative or are presented with newer options, they get better experiences for less cost. Happier customers mean better retention for telcos.

As I relate almost everything I experience to schooling and education, I see two reminders for educators and change agents.

If your plan is for one year plant rice.  If your plan is for ten years plant trees.  If your plan is for one hundred years educate children. -- Confucius

First, unlike telcos the school system changes very slowly because the impact on its bottom line is seen or felt very late. This is like watching a tree grow.

Second, the telcos respond to their customers because the latter speak loudly with their wallets and credit cards. If they are unhappy, they move to a better provider. The onus is on the telco to be progressive.

Most schools, on the other hand, have captive audiences. Like the telco customers, students have changing needs and wants. Unlike telcos, schools do not respond to these changes because the pressure is less immediate.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves if we can afford to wait. The cost of waiting does not come directly from the wallet. The cost is maintaining mindsets, expectations, and practices of teachers that are quickly losing relevance.

Standardised and fixed-time broadcasts used to be novel and then became the norm. The same could be said for teaching and delivering content. But just as TV viewers found another way with technology — on demand, just-in-time, and just-for-me — the learner of today needs a school embedded in today, not yesterday.

How else is schooling supposed to prepare the learner for tomorrow?

The evolution of television viewing habits and the entertainment industry’s reaction to this are giving teachers and the schooling industry a lesson on change.

When TV broadcasting schedules did not fit the lifestyles of viewers, they started recording them for viewing later. Now we see the rise of on-demand streaming and torrenting of TV shows.

Consider this RW interview of Gillian Jacobs (star of the critically-acclaimed Community) and her answer to the last question in particular.

RW: Some people thought you were here for Yahoo, because the next season of Community will now be streamed online, after being on NBC for years. Do you think it’s weird to have your show streamed online?

GJ: It makes complete sense to me. That’s how most of our audience was watching the show anyway. I don’t sit down at my TV at 8 p.m. on Thursday night, and I don’t know too many people who watch TV live like that anymore. For me, it seems like a natural fit.

Even before we were on Yahoo, we were a show that had one foot in the online world, and one foot in network TV. We were an uncomfortable fit for network TV almost.

I’m doing a show for Netflix after Community as well. I definitely see that’s where so much exciting programming and so many of the TV shows I’m loving right now are streamed, in that format.

I remember during the first season of Community, I went to a coffee shop and someone said, “Oh I love your show!” I told them there was a new episode that night, and she said “I don’t even know what night it’s on.”

We live and die on network TV by scheduling, what night you’re put on, what hour you’re put on, Nielsen ratings, all these things. It’s so irrelevant to most viewers these days. It’s kind of a relief to be on Yahoo and untethered from that.

I step back into the 20th century when I visit my parents on weekends. That is the only time I watch broadcast TV: ‘live’ news reporting the “olds”, imported programmes that are a season behind, or reruns of movies I can memorize dialogues to.

In my own home, things are different. During dinner I project online videos to a TV screen via a Chromecast. We watch and discuss video from playlists I create earlier from YouTube and Vimeo. I use a VPN service to watch BBC programmes using iPlayer or binge watch a series on Netflix.

I am not alone in doing this.

Google critically and you will find data and studies on the TV viewing habits of teenagers and university students. They are decidedly mobile and streaming-oriented.

I know of university IT groups that have tried throttling streaming video because they blame students on campus and residence halls for taking up too much bandwidth.

Like many schools today, these IT groups are trying to find an old solution to a new problem. The fact that it is viewed as a problem instead of an opportunity is a problem! The opportunities are changes in perception, mindset, policy, and practice.

For example, take how TV is increasingly interactive. ‘Live’ broadcasts often have #hashtags where viewers can share their thoughts with the broadcaster and other viewers. The broadcaster, actors, directors, or producers can also interact directly with their viewers and fans. In edu-speak, we might call this active backchannelling.

Most classrooms are stuck in 20th century TV land. Broadcasting is like one place, one pace, and didactic delivery. Broadcasters and teachers think what they deliver is valuable. Only they decide what, when, and how their audiences get.

How valuable is that now when the information and experiences can be found elsewhere? How current is the information? How connected are teachers to their viewers/students?

Broadcasters remain broadcasters, but they innovate because of the bottom dollar. Teachers can reinvent themselves, but many do not because of the bubble of inertia and exam-based assessment.

What is it going to take to burst that bubble?

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Try to forget for a moment that this is an Apple TV ad for Christmas.

Imagine it is a social statement for a while. Hear yourself (or someone else) judging the teenager in the video.

Reserve judgement till the end of the video. Then apply that social statement in your life as an educator.

Don’t judge until you let the learner show you or tell you. They might teach you a thing or two about how to treat them as creators and not just consumers. It might be the best Christmas present you give yourself and the kids around you!

When I read this Wired article, The Nielsen Family is Dead, I saw parallels in the de-emphasis and modifications to Nielsen ratings for TV and assessment in schools.

Here is something from the article to chew on:

Since the 1970s, television has been ruled by the Nielsen Family—25,000 households whose TV habits collectively provide a statistical snapshot of a nation’s viewing behavior. Over the years, the Nielsen rating has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: To gauge how many people are watching a given show on a conventional television set. But that’s not how we watch any more. Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, tablet—none of these platforms or devices are reflected in the Nielsen rating.

To borrow from the structure of the article, the dominant and traditional assessment system has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: to gauge how many student are paying attention in class and able to regurgitate information or perform drills.

This is not the only way we learn any more. Google, Khan Academy, Coursera, iTunes U, YouTube Edu, TED-Ed, smartphones, slate PCs — almost none of the skills and values that result from leveraging on these resources appear on the radar of traditional assessment.

At the risk of sounding like a TV programme rerun, I have to say teachers and textbooks are no longer the fountains of knowledge that students must make their way to and drink from in a particular way and at a particular time.

Later in the article I read this:

Nielsen and others have been scrambling to generate a new kind of TV rating, one that takes into account all of the activity that occurs on screens other than a television.

One such “new kind of TV rating” is social media-based metrics.

Are schools scrambling to generate new ways to measure learning? Ways that take into account the learning that occurs in situations outside the classroom for example?

We do not learn just because someone talks to us or attempts to teach us in a formal context. Sometimes we learn despite our schooling, not because of it. Why are we not trying to measure learning as and where it happens?

Measuring these elements is difficult. Thinking of alternatives is difficult. Creating buy-in for alternatives is difficult. But often the things most worth doing are difficult.

I was away on 9 Aug so I missed the National Day Parade. I do not watch free-to-air or cable TV, so I missed the repeated telecasts of this year’s ND song.

I regret missing the parade. I have no regrets missing the song.

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I only know how bad it is from the YouTube video, the story that mrbrown retold tongue firmly in cheek from screen captures of the video, and from a satirical analysis by Alfian Sa’at.

Speaking of YouTube, that is how I consumed practically all Olympics 2012 news.

In fact, the TV is my living room is connected to a Wii, a Playon HD, and an Apple TV. All three deliver on-demand video in some form or other.

When I can watch what I want and when I want it, I feel little need to return to a one-size-fits-all, if-you-miss-it-is-too-bad system.

I am not the only one who can do this and benefit from it. Anyone with reasonable access to the Internet can do this for their news, entertainment, and education.

Those in the publishing and entertainment world tried to control it, realized that they could not, and reluctantly gave in.

The education world is behind the times. When it gets to the same stage, the same thing will happen.

Apple TV 2G (2010) by nakagawa, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  nakagawa 

I had been eyeing the Apple TV 2 for the longest time. But it was not until I actually got to use one during my recent trip to Oz that I bought one for myself.

A hotel I stayed in provided an iPad and an Apple TV 2 in the room. I messed around with the latter and everything I had read about it became real to me.

What is so great about using one? I could not put it better than this teacher who described its use as untethering teachers in the classroom. In short, the pros are:

  • You can wirelessly project what is on your mobile iOS device
  • Your students can do the same to share their work
  • You can walk amongst your students and present, illustrate, or question
  • An Apple TV, projector, and iPad combined costs less than a typical IWB
  • The next Mac OS update promises to allow wireless projections of Mac computer screens (or buy AirParrot if you cannot wait)

Unfortunately, the Apple Singapore store does not sell the Apple TV 2 because the device is tied to content that is offered by the iTunes store and other providers like Netflicks. But that is a small barrier in the modern world.

How might a teacher in Singapore get an Apple TV? You can:

  • order one from Amazon
  • buy one from duty free airport shops if you travel overseas
  • get one from local importers like TinyFrys

My advice on each of the three options are:

  • If you buy from Amazon, you might consider shipping services like vPOST. More tips on this option from this blogger. Buying duty free saves on sales tax that you would need to pay at an Apple Store or authorized reseller.
  • The cheapest option is probably the USA given how the item costs more elsewhere and there is a favourable exchange rate.
  • Local importers mark up their sales. I recall Tiny Frys marking up the Apple TV 2 to almost three times the price of one purchased from the US.

Getting an Apple TV is not a problem. Getting it to work in your home network is not going to be a problem. But trying to get it to work under the SSOE might. But that can be another relatively small barrier in the connected world…

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