The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of people around the world, with businesses shut and schools closed. Schools scrambled to conduct lessons online so that students’ learning would not be too adversely affected. Issues with access to computers and the Internet surfaced. However, simply equipping students with the necessary computing devices is not adequate. There are issues with pedagogy to be addressed as well. One of the key lessons learnt is the need to redesign the learning experience around technological affordances, not just by replacing lessons with virtual talk-and-chalk lectures virtually.
Technology, Pedagogy and Content Knowledge
Singapore’s national investment of more than 20 years of Information Communication Technology (ICT) development for education has helped prepare us for this moment. The current unfortunate situation has also given us the impetus to look into new ways of teaching practices. Both affordances and shortcomings of technology need to be considered. Like a juggler with three balls in the air, teachers have to manage technology, pedagogy and content knowledge. For instance, a mathematics teacher teaching the geometry might recognize that teaching the construction of parallelograms in an online lesson is a more difficult task than a face-to-face one as the teacher cannot provide in-person demonstrations and hands-on guidance. Instead, the teacher might choose to teach students how to create, present, and interpret graphs with spreadsheet software when activities are done online and complement that with hands-on activities in a face-to-face setting. In addition, technology can afford more inquiry-based forms of learning opportunities, such as the use of immersive worlds where three-dimensional visualisations and simulations are possible. As a result, teachers can spend more time prompting students with “what if” questions, fostering critical thinking.
What are some other options? It may not be necessary for a teacher to always have real-time video conferencing lessons that mimic conventional classroom lessons. There could be a mixture of both real-time and non-real-time lessons. Pre-prepared lessons could be uploaded for students to learn at their own pace because online learning need not be constrained to a specific time and date. Pre-prepared lessons could be done in the form of pre-recordings, ready-made resources from the MOE-supported Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS) or the Internet. Students could be monitored for progress and understanding with short quizzes or online discussions, and flipped learning can occur subsequently. Instead of the conventional approach in which teachers first instructed and then assessed their students’ understanding, students could be assigned digital content (e.g., readings and audio or video recordings) for them to explore on their own and consolidation can be done when the class returns to their regular classrooms. We know that prolonged exposure to the computer screen trying to listen to the teacher may lead to physical fatigue and reduction in students’ engagement and motivation. Instead, with the help of their teachers, students could then discuss and clarify their doubts on what they have learnt via the different online communication platforms. These strategies facilitate students’ motivation, engagement and thinking processes.
“Instead of the conventional approach in which teachers first instructed and then assessed their students’ understanding, students could be assigned digital content (e.g., readings and audio or video recordings) for them to explore on their own and consolidation can be done when the class returns to their regular classrooms.”
For these to be effective, teachers need to have good knowledge and understanding of integrating technology, pedagogy and content simultaneously for effective learning to take place. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore have been researching and training our teachers to be more effective designers of ICT-based lessons.
Even before the Infocomm Technology Master Plan in 1997, MOE has always been supportive in students’ learning with technology. During the Home-Based Learning (HBL) period, teachers made use of curriculum-aligned resources and assessment modules from the SLS platform to design lessons to monitor and better engage their students. Teachers also created class blogs for timely updates and communication with their students. Online video conferencing software was used to create virtual classrooms so as to give students a sense of connectedness with their teachers and peers. Teachers worked in teams to share preparatory work. These efforts show that integrating ICT is possible, although challenging. A key take-away is that ICT is not merely an extension of conventional teaching.
Seizing the Opportunity Now and Thereafter
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitates a hybridization of school- and home-based practices, also known as “blended learning”. On 2 June 2020, former Education Minister Mr Ong Ye Kung mentioned that MOE would review the method of “blending” classroom learning and digital online learning to harness the best of both worlds. Going forward, we need to re-envision learning that leverages on the “blending” of: a) physical and virtual spaces; b) students across streams and abilities; and c) formal and less formal curricular. Perhaps HBL should be made a regular and permanent feature of education as mentioned by Mr Ong during the recent MOE Workplan Seminar on 28 June 2020.
Moreover, certain topics within the school curriculum could be re-considered and systematically conducted online through the SLS. Just as we recently realized how Zoom enables radical ways of conceiving work across spaces and time, more radical ways of re-envisioning learning could leverage technology to have collaborations between students across streams, grades and even subjects. It is crucial to always look into ways to further enhance our learning designs with technology even after this pandemic. More research and experimentations may also be necessary. The main purpose is not only to ensure that learning is not disrupted due to any unforeseen circumstances, but that there is also a need to continue refining and practising the use of technology in our teaching and learning.
When designed well, technology can be used to enhance and facilitate our students’ learning, not just during times of emergencies.
Published 24 September 2020