By Ong Boon Kiat
A TECHNOLOGY sea change is afoot at Crescent Girls' School (CGS). Last year, the school became one of the select few Singapore schools to embark on FutureSchool@Singapore, an initiative by the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) and Ministry of Education (MOE) to incubate novel education ideas that harness ICT (infocomm technology).
Among new technologies expected to transform teaching and learning at CGS include a student-teacher social networking Web portal; virtual reality tools to help bring subjects like geography and science to life; new-fangled textbooks that feature interactive learning objects, simulations and animations; and more.
In other 'future schools' - Beacon Primary School, Canberra Primary School, Hwa Chong Institution, Jurong Secondary School and soon, the upcoming School of Science and Technology - a raft of other interactive and high-tech learning tools are now being hatched and tested by teachers and students.
At Tao Nan School, students can receive learning activities via mobile devices armed with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and take their learning beyond the confines of their classrooms and school.
And when Singapore's Next Generation National Broadband Network (Next Gen NBN) opens its digital highway to the public starting from next year, the immense bandwidth on tap are expected to further stoke the tech-savvy quotient in Singapore schools.
Vendors like Hewlett-Packard (HP), Singapore Technologies Electronics (ST Electronics), Microsoft, Singapore Telecoms (SingTel), Civica and others are now eyeing a slice of this lucrative pie. These vendors have all been actively involved in key education projects in Singapore, including FutureSchool@Singapore.
Propelled by the need to build knowledge economies, Singapore and many countries in Asia are expected to continue to invest heavily on education. And they are seeing technology as a means to help build a world-class education system.
Research firm IDC recently projected that IT spending in Singapore's education sector this year will reach US$290 million at a CAGR of about 3 per cent. Total IT spending in the Asia-Pacific excluding Japan is expected to top US$8.7 billion, at a CAGR of about 3 per cent.
The Singapore government is expected to spend some $8.7 billion on public education this year.
A number of technology trends will shape the adoption of tech in Singapore schools, according to vendors, experts and schools interviewed by BizIT.
Tan Yen Yen, vice-president and managing director of HP Singapore, points to four broad trends. They are the integration of technology into curriculum, assessment and pedagogy; professional development for teachers; sharing of best practices; and the enhancement of technology provisions.
'There will be greater alignment of students' learning methods, examinations and classroom experience to technology solutions designed for education. Technology will help students to easily access information, generate reports, provide feedback on each others' work and collaborate with peers within and outside school,' she says of her first point.
It will be crucial that teachers are able to keep up with the high-tech tools they are given, and Ms Tan sees more schools creating tech-sharing and learning environments for their teachers to that end.
On technology provisions, she believes that a flexible and mobile infrastructure will be key to schools. Wireless Internet access, initiatives that promote one laptop for every pupil, and high bandwidth Internet access are examples of this.
Lee Fook Sun, president of ST Electronics, says that technologies that help educators become more effective will be key. 'There are already various technologies that could reduce the need for teachers to be involved in laborious administrative tasks. The school environment may be improved with the introduction of automated processes to analyse performance data and create reports,' he says.
'What would have been previously viewed as tedious tasks may now be performed by a set of effective tools that a teacher or the school administrator may use to better plan and prepare learning materials and curricula.'
He says that technologies are still nascent in the education sector but believes at least a few key ones will be mature within five years.
A service-centric enterprise architecture, mobile learning, using ICT for education assessment and the use of Web 2.0 tools are other trends singled out by Mr Lee.
Service-centric enterprise architecture imply a common operating platform that promotes the reuse of resources. 'The use of such a layered architecture shields the inherent complexity of the IT environment from users and speeds up deployment. Thus, future educational IT delivery will be centred on the concept of providing shared services,' he says.
Mobile learning, which will foster 'learn-anywhere-anytime' and 'just-in-time-learning' concepts, has been stoked by the proliferation smartphones, notes Mr Lee. These open up new ways of non-traditional learning, such as delivering podcasts, alerts and user-created content.
Web 2.0 to the fore
On the use of Web 2.0 tools in schools, he says: 'There is an increasing demand for people to become schooled in a new literacy that is related to the use of blogs, Twitter messages, Wikis, as well as video and audio-sharing applications. The new media encourage collaboration and actively involve users in the creation of imaginative and interactive material that were previously unavailable to everyday users.
'PC technology has now placed multimedia creation in the hands of PC users. As multimedia evolves into a more prevalent form of communication, we see it being taught in schools as another form of literacy in the same context as reading and writing.'
Also bullish on Web 2.0 tools in schools is Jessica Tan, managing director of Microsoft Singapore. She says: 'Advanced social media collaboration technologies where students connect with other students across the world or across the street with no discernible difference will really open up cross-cultural exchanges, shared learning environments and will prepare children for life in an even more connected future.'
Ms Tan also expects more multi-touch computers and software to be adopted by Singapore schools, as well as unified communications and virtual world applications.
Janet Chiew, research manager, IDC Government Insights Asia-Pacific, lists cloud computing and new assessment technologies as two key shapers of Singapore's education scene.
'Cloud computing essentially creates a low-cost infrastructure platform for schools to provide social networking, publishing, computing, and other Web 2.0 tools for their students,' she says. 'As more education applications migrate to the cloud, schools will be able to enjoy subscription packages to a slew of Web-enabled applications that allow students to use the software in school, at home, during excursions and field trips.'
She notes that the MOE recently collaborated with Google to provide more than 30,000 teachers a suite of Web applications hosted on a cloud platform. 'While teachers are able to bring forth greater collaboration and content into the classroom with this arrangement, teaching practices and activities will be significantly different when students will be the next group of end users to benefit from cloud computing,' she points out.
On assessment technologies, she observes that Singapore schools have begun to look at technologies to measure their students' progress in key skills sets.
'Education in the 21st century is no longer about getting As in math, physics and literature. The most important takeaway for students should be skill sets that they develop in schools which can be applied to the real world when they graduate,' she says.
She believes so-called formative assessments - on-going assessments, reviews, and observations in a classroom - would be critical to help the students understand their ability to communicate effectively, collaborate with team members and analyse problems and create solutions. 'Technologies in formative assessment are still currently in emerging stage, and will gradually mature over the next five years,' says Ms Chiew.
A key ingredient to take Singapore schools on their next technology laps is the Next Gen NBN, which will provide schools with fibre-optic Internet connectivity of 1 Gbps - a vast improvement over the typical 5 Mbps Internet that Singapore government schools have.
'Broadband will transform the learning experience by improving the ability of educational institutions to locate and exchange information, and collaborate in a more immediate and convenient manner. With broadband, students will receive fast Internet connectivity that can deliver e-learning, computer-based training, Web-based training and virtual classrooms,' says Ms Tan of HP.
Ms Chiew believes the Next Gen NBN project will dovetail with affordable netbooks to transform learning in Singapore. 'When students have access to computers, learning will dramatically transform as they access supplementary education content in addition to teacher-supplied materials.
'Learning will be more instantaneous, interactive, engaging and varied as students regularly take part in activities such as seamless video conferencing, enter 3D virtual environments, create and stream high-resolution videos and content critical for highly visual topics like biology and geography.'
But the influx of fast connectivity could also pose challenges for educators.
'With the Next Gen NBN, an entire new wave of solutions ranging from interactive and digital media contents, more advanced Web 2.0 social networking portals, immersive 3D virtual worlds and serious gaming platforms will emerge,' says Eugenia Lim, principal, Crescent Girls' School.
'Although welcome news, this myriad of solutions will also pose challenges to schools, educators and learners, who will have to assess the suitability of the various platforms and contents to be adopted or adapted for deployment in schools,' she adds.
On other challenges likely to be faced by educators in future, Mrs Lim names two: equipping staff with adequate technology know-how to be effective, and guarding against the ills of the Web.
'With the emergence of new technologies at an exponential rate, educators will need to keep up with this rapid pace and equip themselves with the relevant ICT skills and apply them in their classroom teaching,' she says.
'With the ever-increasing time spent on the Internet, especially on gaming and social networking, social issues like addiction to gaming, pornography and infringement of copyright will become more prominent in the future,' she adds.
Schools will also face the challenge of trawling a crowded Web as it gets filled up with exponentially more information, says IDC's Ms Chiew. 'As Internet access and Web 2.0 tools facilitate content creation and sharing, more images, videos, Wikis, essays and project works are being put up on the Internet every single second, teachers and students will have to learn how to effectively search for useful and relevant content, and be able to reach out to authentic learning content on the Web.'
She adds: 'Schools will also have to work closely with parents to develop safe practices in the use of Internet by students as young as six years old. Schools will need to provide cyber education and develop policies around the usage of Internet in schools.'
Embracing new technologies often require a mindset shift, which will not be easy for some educators, says a Tao Nan School official. 'Educators must change their mindsets and embrace their new roles as designer, facilitator and quality controller of learning. They must pick up new skills.'
Simply put, educators 'must let go of the past' - when they were both a dispenser of knowledge and source of reference for knowledge.
This article was first published in The Business Times.