To the future we go

From Skyping astronauts to virtual reality tours, classroom technology is taking the region’s students far beyond the boundaries of the traditional school

Jemma Galvin
August 6, 2015
To the future we go
Let’s get tappy: students, teachers and parents are increasingly turning to e-learning platforms

There was a time, not too long ago, when the height of classroom technology was the pacer, the fandangled propelling pencil that required lead refills and cost five times as much as a good old HB. Uniformed kiddies clicked them into action, perhaps to take notes on a presentation their teacher had shown on an overhead projector – all whirring and scalding to the touch after five minutes of use. And be careful of that swirling power cable that connects it to the wall; Mrs Jones had a nasty fall last week when her Homypeds (Google it, kids) got caught on one.

Those uncomplicated days have been politely shunned in favour of gizmos and gadgets that enable schoolchildren to be more connected and immersed in information than ever before. The tablet has replaced the pacer, while the cumbersome overhead projector has taken a back seat to the WiFi-enabled, interactive whiteboard. But this is just the tip of the biro when it comes to technology in some of today’s Southeast Asian classrooms.

“Technology is erasing the boundaries of time and space that have historically limited learning to the school day and the physical classroom,” says Glenn Odland, head of school at the Canadian International School (CIS) in Singapore. “That is no longer the case. Learning can and should take place any time, anywhere.”

Few countries globally have pushed the boundaries of technology in education quite like Singapore. From personal devices to online tutoring, coding to gamification, technology is seamlessly worked into the city-state’s education system. It began in 1997 when its three-part ‘masterplan’ kicked off. Completed last year, the plan included achieving a student to computer ratio of 1:2 before 2002 and equipping students with the critical competencies to achieve success in a knowledge economy.

At CIS, students from kindergarten to grade three use shared iPads, those in grades four and five have their own individual iPads and from grades six to 12, each pupil has their own MacBook.

“More important than the device though… is what they do with the wealth of information and the people with whom they can connect,” says Odland. “For example, our grade three students have had a Skype conversation with a Canadian astronaut while he was in the space station. Imagine how that experience would bring to life their learning on so many fronts. If true learning is about making connections, technology has exponentially proliferated the capacity to make meaningful connections.”

Indeed, technology does not only refer to hardware. It is also the programmes, web portals and apps that are taking education to different levels. Google Apps for Education, which the tech giant describes as a “suite of free productivity tools for classroom collaboration”, has been deployed in Singapore classrooms since the Ministry of Education made it available to more than 30,000 teachers and staff members at more than 350 schools in 2009.

In Google Docs, for example, students can edit and revise each other’s work using the comments and suggestions features. They are encouraged to create infographics for project work as well as films, photos and graphic presentations. Such tools are designed to encourage children to delve deeper, resulting in pupils who are at the top of the global pile – 15-year-old students from Singapore and similarly tech-orientated South Korea came first and second respectively out of 44 countries in problem solving, according to a report released last year by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“We are moving into a really interesting era of technology in the classroom with the introduction of things such as Google Cardboard, which helps the teacher demonstrate authentic learning by going on virtual-reality expeditions without leaving the classroom,” says Lee Webster, a Google Certified Innovator and Educator and an information and communications technology (ICT) teacher at the Singapore International School of Bangkok.

From virtual reality tours to enhancing real world experiences by being able to film and then analyse them, students are getting the best of both worlds. “ICT tools such as 3D-simulated environments allow students to embark on authentic challenges, make real-time decisions and, through that, advance their own learning,” Singapore’s Ministry of Education spokesperson told Southeast Asia Globe.

These methods are designed to excite students, engage with them on a personal level and enable them to express themselves in a number of new ways.

“Students are more and more active in their own learning, rather than being passive receivers of ‘knowledge’ in the old stand-and-deliver model of classrooms,” says Odland. “[They] are increasingly more self-aware of their learning, as the archival records of their learning (for example, portfolios) are full of artefacts of their own creation. Such truly internalised learning is always more lasting and provides a solid conceptual foundation for increasingly complex materials.”

There is no question that today’s student is learning in a vastly different manner to the way his or her parents did a generation ago. ‘Digital natives’, as author Marc Prensky first called them in 2001, are those born after 1980 into an innate “new culture” that has access to and the skills to use digital technologies.

“Technology is a vital part of the generation we teach today,” says Webster. “Educational institutions have been playing catch-up with the latest devices [and applications], so that students are more interested in learning curriculum content.”

classroom technology
Tablet time: some fear long hours spent online are diminishing children’s attention spans

Gamification is something of an education buzzword at present, and it includes the use of video game elements and design in the classroom. The idea is that it allows pupils to enhance their understanding of complex concepts no matter their learning style. In some instances, children can even design and build their own games to support their learning – such levels of skill and complexity weren’t seen in primary school classrooms even a decade ago.

“Students now cover concepts in secondary school that were formerly the domain of university and college programmes,” says Odland.

But there are, of course, fears that the pervasiveness of technology is becoming detrimental to the minds of today’s youth.

“There is increasing concern that the attention span of students is diminishing in this era of constant stimulation,” explains Odland. “The rise of ‘edutainment’ has seen content developers looking for ever more interesting ways to keep students of various ages focused. Some teachers have expressed that they feel increasing pressure to be entertainers. This is a trend that we must get under control.”

Indeed, content developers are constantly coming up with innovative applications to assist in students’ learning. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the e-learning platform Quipper School is a hugely popular application that allows students to join classes, source study materials and take online quizzes. When 1,000 of its student users were surveyed, 95% of them said they were allowed to use their own devices to access Quipper in the classroom, while 55% were already doing so. So while these schools may not have the resources to deck out classrooms with dedicated hardware or equip each student with a laptop or tablet, they are still utilising the region’s staggering capacity for mobile learning, or e-learning, to great effect. After all, Southeast Asia’s mobile penetration is expected to grow fivefold between 2013 and 2019, while mobile data consumption is expected to grow more than eightfold.

It is not only students and their teachers utilising online resources – parents are increasingly turning to apps and social media to help their children with homework and projects. In Singapore, a Facebook page for parents with children taking the Primary School Leaving Examination has attracted more than 7,600 members. Another group, the Maths Model Method-Singapore page, which brings parents and educators together to better understand Singapore’s much-vaunted ‘model method’ of learning maths, has more than 6,000 members.

In terms of apps, EduSnap, a mobile app that allows students and parents to obtain guidance free of charge, has attracted more than 10,000 users since April last year. The platform lets people upload photos of worksheets, ask questions and receive responses from teachers and educational organisations.

Unfortunately, Singapore’s established, inclusive and progressive education system is more the exception than the rule in Southeast Asia. The playing field across the region is far from even and countries such as Laos and Cambodia struggle to equip their students with basic textbooks, qualified teachers and respected curricula.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) recommends governments spend a minimum of 20% of the national budget on education, and while Cambodia increased its Ministry of Education’s budget to $335m last year, the sum fell shy of even 10% of the national budget. This year the Kingdom has allocated $453m to the education sector, up 26% from 2014. In contrast, Singapore is this year spending 17.7% of its national budget on education and Thailand has allocated 19.5%.

While Odland says Singapore will soon be finished with textbooks as “all content will be online and be current”, 85% of Cambodia’s high school students do not have access to a complete set of textbooks, let alone online resources.

“The cost of technology is high and it’s difficult for schools and development projects to afford enough technology to serve the large number of students in Cambodian classrooms,” says Jessica Heinzelman, manager of ICT strategic initiatives at Development Alternatives Incorporated, a global development company. “There is an average of 50 students in any given Cambodian classroom. It is expensive to have that many computers or tablets so that the entire class can use them at one time.”

While Cambodia does lag behind when it comes to equipping classrooms, the country is well known as being ‘mobile-first’, meaning that mobiles and networks are more advanced than computers and WiFi. This is in line with much of Southeast Asia, while local apps are gaining traction with students eager to learn.

“There is a considerable amount of international English-language content from groups such as Khan Academy, but local-language content is increasingly being created and being made available too,” says Heinzelman, who is also an advisor to the USAID-funded Development Innovations Project in Cambodia. “In Cambodia we have the Khmer Library app that puts more than 700 books online for children and adults, as well as apps such as [Aide et Action’s] Khmer Educator and Robo Khnyom [an educational video app] that are targeted at early education.”

Cambodia is also ahead of some regional counterparts when it comes to connectivity. Relatively inexpensive and reliable internet coverage has meant that these apps have been able to get off the ground and begin to make a difference to some of the country’s 2.9 million primary and secondary students.

Thailand, on the other hand, has some ground to make up on this front, says Webster. “Thailand really needs to move forward with its bandwidth programme as teachers are more than willing to try out new technologies in their classrooms, but the connectivity is holding them back,” he explains. “Its connectivity is not as good as some of its Asian neighbours, which is strange as it is considered to be more developed than some of them.”

So whether a student is in Singapore on an iPad or in Cambodia on their mobile phone, the face of education is fast changing all over the region. As Heinzelman puts it: “Technology is giving students much greater control over their educational destiny.” 

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