Last Thursday, TODAY ran two commentaries with a similar theme: the significance of information communications technology in the present education landscape. ICT, as it is commonly known by, has featured in Singapore schools for some time (those familiar with the system will laud the many initiatives introduced by the Ministry of Education). The writers, Vinton G. Cerf and Richard Hartung, both pointed to the need for further progress, and more intelligent use of the tools and resources available.
Strengthening Internet Literacy
Schools around the world are taking this ICT business very seriously. While Singapore is widely considered to be a front-runner in the region, Mr. Cerf (while subtly sharing Google’s contributions and range of products) points to the policies adopted by the Malaysian government: a national plan to reform the education system, lightweight laptops for primary and secondary schools (though it is not clear whether students have to procure the devices), an assortment of web-based applications, as well as 10,000 schools getting 4G access.
Mr. Cerf’s central thesis: the Internet’s accessibility has allowed for the rapid and massive spread of information, and every individual – not just schoolchildren – is therefore empowered in their pursuit of knowledge. Just about right, except for an important caveat (beyond the technical, infrastructural challenges, since access is not necessarily a given).
We have the gadgets, the programmes, and the Internet to leverage upon. Unfortunately, our students have not been trained to use web platforms efficiently, or to negotiate around the different publications. Up to this point (in Singapore at least, one of the most connected countries in the world), the teaching of Internet literacy has been conveniently dichotomised into lists of “dos” and “don’ts”: do read the news, do connect responsibly with your friends, but don’t watch pornography or bully others, don’t use Wikipedia… Surely we could do more to impart skills of critical thinking, and the art of constructive discourse?
The other oft-articulated challenge is posed against the traditional classroom format, where the teacher is perceived as the dispenser of knowledge (lessons are usually in the format of a didactic lecture or seminar). While such an approach may be productive for fundamental instruction, its efficacy at the tertiary level has been questioned, especially with the gradual emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) around the world.
Universities in Singapore: Time to Keep Up?
Therefore, this leads us to Richard Hartung’s criticism of universities in Singapore. Despite the many technological advancements here, he believes there is a need to “embrace MOOCs as a core part of the curriculum [to] benefit students in many ways”. Most would undoubtedly be hard-pressed to identify significant shortcomings of these courses. Without compromising assessments and pedagogies, the students would get to learn at their own pace, and hence be more engaged with the learning process. Professors could be motivated to make the sessions more interesting, to encourage proactive participation.
To some extent, elements like web-casts or web-lectures do allow undergraduates in some college courses to make flexible arrangements, before heading for the smaller-sized tutorials (though some of these web sessions can be horribly monotonous and unproductive). These instances may not qualify strictly as MOOCs, but it also means that Mr. Hartung’s dissent is not entirely accurate. It would be naïve to think that the administrations have remained apathetic to such progress without making the necessary adjustments.
In the meantime, as institutional changes are put into place, students should tap into the vast lectures already available online. I have never had formal studies in philosophy, but Michael Sandel’s “Justice” series has been fascinatingly insightful. And because the Web is such a treasure trove, you hop from one reading to another video, and the learning never ends.