IT-wired schools


How far can you go with the use of ICT in classroom learning? In Singapore, there seems to be no limit.

NEWTON’S students think he is smart and patient. There are 40 of them in class, but he always gives them individual attention and is generous with his compliments whenever they get an answer right.

The Physics teaching assistant is also known for his sense of humour.

A Bendemeer Secondary School student intent on a class activity during a design and technology lesson.

“Tell us about Newton’s Law 1,” says Secondary Three student Teo Wan Jing.

“Take a book resting on the table,” says Newton. “What do you think are the forces acting on it? Weight and normal reaction (Type 1) or friction and air resistance (Type 2)?”

“Type 1.”

“That’s correct! The weight of the book pushes on the table and the table exerts a contact force that pushes back on the book.”

To test if Newton is indeed as funny as people say, Wan Jing pops the next question: “Am I pretty?”

Immediately, he replies – “Why don’t you ask me about things that I’m here for?” – and ends his sentence with a smiley emoticon.

Wan Jing and classmate Ong Sin Yee burst into laughter as they read Newton’s reply on Windows Live Messenger, an Instant Messaging (IM) tool that enables a user to send and receive messages, photographs and videos.

Newton is not your usual Physics teaching assistant. He is a Windows Live Agent (WLA), an “always-on” character who can chat with students about Physics, ranging from the background of the famed scientist he is named after, to the theories behind topics such as gravity and forces.

Tampines North Primary School Year Two pupil Gwen Chan showing Dr Ng a digital story book used during her English lessons.

“WLA is a chat interface based on the interaction between a sentient human ‘speaking’ to a computer with artificial intelligence capabilities to achieve a goal,” says Alvin Tan, subject head of Information and Communication Technology/Media Resource Library at Singapore’s Ngee Ann Secondary School.

The goal, in this case, is to teach students about Newton’s Law in a pilot project involving 80 students, in collaboration with Microsoft Singapore.

The project, launched in June, is just one example of how Singapore’s Education Ministry promotes the use of ICT in daily lessons in schools. Instead of offering ICT as a stand-alone subject in national examinations, it decided that integrating ICT in the school curriculum would be far more effective.

With that in mind, the ministry launched the first Masterplan for ICT in Education in 1997, whereby it trained all teachers in basic word processing skills and presentation software, so they could start integrating ICT into 30% of curriculum time.

It also ensured that all schools were equipped with the basic infrastructure, such as hardware, computer laboratories and essential learning software packages.

When all that was in place, the second Masterplan was launched in 2002.

“It went beyond using Powerpoint presentations to replace the transparencies and the old overhead projectors. We wanted instead to bring about greater interactivity and engagement in the learning process,” says the Singapore Minister for Education and Second Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, when launching the third Masterplan 2009-2014 at the inaugural International Conference on Teaching and Learning with Technology (iCTLT) held in Singapore recently.

“For example, podcasts can help students practise different language skills, from writing to speaking. The technology allows them to play back their work, so that peers and teachers can help them improve on pronunciation or grammar.

“We expect to see, at the end of Masterplan 3, a pervasive culture of innovative ICT practices across all schools and a corps of specialist teachers in every cluster who demonstrate a deep understanding of how ICT can transform teaching and learning both within and outside the classroom.”

Bendemeer Secondary School students learning their mother tongue using tablet PCs during a Tamil language lesson.

Teachers who are already ICT-savvy are able to leverage on the use of the modern technology to transform the learning environment.

“With E-learning, our lessons can still be carried out online while school is closed, should an emergency, say, avian flu, hit us,” says Alan Goh, head of the ICT department at Bendemeer Secondary School.

Innovative learning tool

During the process of creating Newton, physics teachers at Ngee Ann “fed” the character with potential questions that students are likely to ask during the lesson, as well as responses.

The immediate nature of IM allows Newton to handle 40 or more questions simultaneously – a feat that teachers are unlikely to emulate.

“One advantage of using Newton is that if a student prefers to study late at night, he can just log in and chat with Newton and ask whatever questions he might have about Newton’s Law,” says Ngee Ann principal Adrian Lim.

Plans are also in the pipeline to create “Shakespeare”, to teach English Literature.

Tan notes that some students are shy and not forthcoming with questions.

“With WLA, they are more open about asking questions, even ‘silly’ ones. It can be used as a revision tool, with students asking the same question over and over again at their own pace and time.”

However, there is more to IM than just questions and answers.

Lim explains that the chat interface encourages students to seek information by asking questions. Hopefully, the inquisitive habit will stay with them.

“Newton is a learning tool that complements the use of ICT in our school curriculum. It is not a substitute for teachers, who will still have to check and make sure the students complete their work,” he says.

It can also help to determine a student’s understanding of Physics.

“Teachers can print out a copy of the conversations between Newton and students. From there, they can tell which student is weaker and requires more attention,” Lim says.

By the end of the third lesson with Newton, Tan says, students will sit for a quiz to see if their level of understanding has improved.

Students’ activities are monitored via NetAssist, a programme that treks what the students are doing, he adds.

“If they are found to be surfing the net, playing games or chatting with friends, their computers can be locked or that particular programme can be disabled.”

Windows Live Messenger, hugely popular with teenagers these days, is not new to “digital natives”like Wan Jing and Sin Yee. But using IM, a tool they’re familiar with, to learn Physics is a welcome change in the classroom.

With Newton, Sin Yee can now learn anywhere, any time. “It’s easy to use and Newton is very funny,” she says.

However, nothing can replace having a teacher explaining a lesson in front of the class.

As Wan Jing says, it’s easier to interact verbally with her teacher using facial expressions and body language, especially when a question gets too technical.

“Newton is something new and interesting. However, having a teacher is still a good idea because it may not always understand what I am trying to ask,” she says.

Do Re Mi

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could create your own ring tone?

Well, 11-year-old Nur Ardina Abdul Rahman can do just that. And the great thing is she learnt it during music lessons in school.

At Singapore’s Radin Mas Primary School, a centre of excellence for IT, all students from Primary One to Six are involved in the E-music programme, which runs for 10 weeks. It complements the school’s animation programme, which aims to equip every pupil with the skills to produce animated work.

Last year, Nur Ardina learned how to create ringtones using Prodikeys – a music-and-PC keyboard.

“It’s a fun way to learn music. They allow us to explore and create our own ringtone using modern technology,” Nur Ardina, who is in Primary Five.

In fact, some pupils have sold their ringtones on e-bay, says Radin Mas headmistress Lee Lai Yong.

Although she is only 11, So Pui Man already understands the importance of possessing ICT skills in today’s competitive job market.

“If I know how to make a presentation using multimedia tools, my boss will be impressed,” says the Primary Five pupil.

Prof Mitchel Resnick, who is constantly looking for ways to engage children in creative learning experiences, has found kindergarten to be a source of inspiration.

The “kindergarten approach” can be applied in schools, whereby students can learn what’s in the curriculum by working on projects, says MIT Media Lab Prof Mitchel Resnick.

“It’s about working on a project over an extended period of time, knowing how to run experiments, and coming up with good ideas of what to explore.”

Wild creativity

As Prof Resnick sees it, learning takes place when a child is working on a project. It prompts her to think about, say, what makes a tower fall apart, or how to build a stronger structure.

In other words, while some people are making kindergartens more like school, he proposes the reverse.

“Kindergarten is one part of the education system that does a good job in helping children develop as creative thinkers. If you look at the root of creativity, it’s about creating things. Children in kindergarten spend a lot time creating things, like a tower, using blocks or lego bricks,” he says.

Prof Resnick was giving a talk entitled “Sowing the Seeds for a More Creative Society” at the ICTLT in Singapore recently.

“We run our graduate programmes like a kindergarten. First, our work space is like a kindergarten. We organise it in such a way that there are different play areas and sofas where students can sit down and talk,” he explains.

“My graduate students are always making things. We don’t spend months planning something. If we get an idea, we make a little model of it. We create something, we try it out and get new ideas based on that, the same way children are always creating things in kindergarten.”

Although there is a growing understanding of the importance of creative thinking, most of the education systems around the world are not set up to prepare children for a society that demands, requires and values creative thinking more than ever before, he observes.

To help empower children with creative thinking skills, Prof Resnick and the researchers at the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT in the United States have developed a digital kit that enables them to create games, stories and animation and share them on Scratch (www.scratch.mit.edu).

He strongly believes that the digital gap between the rich and the poor nations will shrink eventually. However, the fluency gap is what people should be worrying about.

“It’s true that not every part of the world is able to buy even low-cost computers today. But my bigger concern is that, in the future, when almost everybody has equal access to the technologies, only a small percentage of people will be designing, creating and experimenting with them, while the great masses will just be browsing and gaming with technologies,” he adds.

Other keynote speakers at the conference were Sir Ken Robinson and Cheryl Lemke.

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