Sunday March 14, 2010
Tapping into technology
By PRIYA KULASAGARAN and TAN SHIOW CHIN
From podcast lessons to virtual classrooms, the Internet is transforming educational landscapes around the world.
GONE are the days of the school master arbitrarily dictating a collection of facts for his charges to scribble into dog-eared exercise books.
The current generation of students have the opportunity to download entire textbooks, receive examination results through short messaging system (SMS), watch educational programmes on IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) and access media-rich content via sponsored netbooks.
Teachers encourage interactivity in their lessons, and students are coached to become self-directed learners — all as part of the masterplan to embrace the future with technology.
Secondary school student Michelle Tan, however, is not convinced.
Michelle claims that for her Science class, the new computers in the lab seem to act as “glorified blackboards”.
“The teacher just puts in the software for the lesson, and reads through them like a PowerPoint presentation,” she says.
“So, instead of leafing through textbook pages, we’re clicking through the subject with a keyboard.”
Michelle’s experience may be an isolated one, but it poses a crucial question: to what extent is technology being used to meaningfully transform the way we teach and learn?
Holes in walls
One route to harnessing the full power of current and developing technology may be to question the status quo.
For instance, the question that scientist Dr Sugata Mitra had in mind was whether children were able to pick up useful computing skills unsupervised.
In 1999, Dr Mitra chose to test his theory by placing a touchscreen computer in a carved “hole” on a wall in a slum in New Delhi, India.
Subsequent observation showed that children as young as eight years old were performing basic computer functions by the end of the week. In a month, they were downloading files from the Internet and playing online games.
The Hole-In-The-Wall project has since expanded to over 30 such computer stations in and outside of India, aiming to educate by engaging curiosity.
Meanwhile, game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal wondered if online games, particularly alternate reality games and their networking elements, can be used to teach people how to save the world.
Alternate reality games present fictional narratives that take place in a real-world setting, where players’ actions and ideas may have an effect on the storyline.
Following that train of thought, McGonigal developed UrgentEvoke, a game which aims to engage young people in coming up with solutions for world problems such as poverty, climate change, war and education.
Funded by the World Bank Institute, the game was launched earlier this month and will last for ten weeks.
Every week, players are presented with a scenario that takes place within the game, such as famine or water shortage.
Players are then challenged to address the issue by taking action in the real-world, and post up evidence of their work in the form of blog entries, videos or photographs to collect points.
On the local front, educational institutions are making use of tools that encourage student mobility, thus enabling them to learn on the go.
When Cempaka School’s Cheras campus had to close down for a week of quarantine due to the A(H1N1) flu last June, classes were able to go on as usual online.
As Macbooks have been on the compulsory booklist for the group’s secondary school students for past four years, the transition was seamless.
“During the quarantine, we used the existing platform and followed the roster as per usual,” explains chairman Dr Iskandar Rizal Hamzah.
“But instead of the teachers going to the classroom, they went online to the virtual classroom.
“This meant that teachers were available in real time for the students. Attendance was compulsory, and classes went on as usual.”
Aside from laptops, Cempaka Schools has also introduced Apple iPhones for its International Ladies College students.
“The iPhone provides an extra dimension in terms of mobility for students. For example, on class trips, they will be able to post notes to their project files, record videos or interviews for project work, or access their notes on the go,” shares Dr Iskandar.
However, the gadgets, which are provided by the college, are not allowed in the classroom, so that lessons are not disrupted.
He adds that the objective of introducing such technology into the schools is not just about enabling students to pick up ICT skills, but also to educate them on how to use technology appropriately.
“It also affords us the opportunity to teach life skills for technology — for example, how to behave properly online, the dangers of the Internet, online safety, etc,” he says.
Stressing that the school has a zero tolerance policy for cyberbullying, Dr Iskandar shares that although some parents disagree with their tough stance on the proper use of technology, he feels that it is more important that bad online behaviour be nipped in the bud.
Another institution that has also decided to introduce the Apple iPhone 3GS for their students is Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (Limkokwing).
This enables students to receive real-time updates on their classes and schedule, as well as refer to their notes at any time.
“Basically, it is another way of ensuring our students are on the cutting edge,” says special assistant to the president Tiffanee Marie Lim.
“Everything is being transferred to mobile technology; it is replacing the laptop, which replaced the desktop.
“It makes everything faster, simpler, lighter and cooler.”
The educational virtues of the Internet hardly worth repeating, especially in the realm of distance learning.
However, a few Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty members decided to take their content distribution a step further – by making it freely available to anyone with a web browser.
Launched in 2001, MITOpenCourseWare offers syllabi, notes, assignments and audio-visual lecture clips of 1,900 MIT courses.
In an e-mail interview, MITOpen-CourseWare external relations director Steve Carson explains that the idea for the project stemmed from a realisation that the university was not suited to embark on a for-profit distance learning venture.
“This conclusion had a lot to do with the unique nature of MIT,” says Carson.
“The institute is very focused on the residential experience and uses a lot of hands-on experience in instruction.
“The faculty committee then returned to the MIT mission, which reads in part ‘to advance knowledge in ways that will best serve the nation and the world’. They thought about what MIT did best, which was residential education, and what the Internet did best, which was to distribute content widely and cheaply. And it occurred to them, why not combine these strengths?”
It appears that most OpenCourseWare material is used as reference by faculty and students in other institutions, to delve deeply into a specialised topic rather than to study a whole course.
“However, it’s clear that a subset of our visitors use a our courses to learn independently with great success — 43% of our visitors are independent learners,” adds Carson.
MIT’s novel concept has been credited for inspiring other ventures to tap into the Internet’s potential to democratise higher education, much to the delight of self-learners such as Charlie Hartono Lie.
“Due to financial and time constraints, local universities are out of my reach; these new ways of borderless learning have certainly given me hope in preparing for a better life,” says the 29-year-old Indonesian.
Searching for scholarship opportunities online, Charlie came across the University of the People (UoP), which bills itself as the world’s first online tuition-free university.
Currently enrolled in the institution’s computer science programme, Charlie is unfazed by the university’s unaccredited status.
“Of course, accreditation will definitely be a plus point, but my main concern is gaining knowledge,” he says.
UoP founder and president Shai Reshef asserts that many of the institution’s students have a similar resolve.
“We do intend to apply for accreditation, but I think that many people just want to learn; or they don’t have any other alternatives,” says Reshef.
“Plus, we already have the support of leading universities around the world, as well as the United Nations’ Global Alliance for ICT and Development.”
Although tuition is free, students still pay admission and examination fees on a sliding scale based on the economic situation in the student’s country of origin.
Meanwhile, Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) has opted to radically experiment with the entire model of tertiary education.
As its name implies, the project makes full use of the peer-to-peer learning concept, giving users an online platform to fashion university-level courses from open learning resources.
“The course organisers are responsible for structuring the modules and leading discussions, but everyone in the class will pitch in with their own knowledge and help move the class along together,” says P2PU co-founder Stain Haklev.
“Our main focus is the collaborative learning process; I believe that everybody has the capacity to teach something.”