Productivity Moment by Moment

It has become clear to me that pursuing full-time academic or research work revolves around writing. There’s thinking, reading, musing, but writing is the central activity that binds all the activities of scholarship and knowledge finding and creation into a visible, searchable, reflect-able artifact.

To be able to understand my writing and reading patterns, and to track the work I have been doing and need to do in the next steps, I have created a writing/reading log. It is an excel spreadsheet (I use Google Sheets) with columns for date, time, activity and comments. I was skeptical that I could keep up with a mundane task as this but after a few days into logging, I can see the benefits.

First, it helps me to track how long I spend on various tasks. By logging the start and end time of a particular activity, I can see how long I have taken to write a few paragraphs, or clarify a thought. With this log, I realise that it can take all of two hours to write three paragraphs, and part of me wants to shorten that time, but the other part of me is thinking that I need to allocate that time in order to think and write.

Second, with the comments column, I write down what follow-up work I need to do, for example, extend the argument or find more references. These comments are important so that I don’t forget what I need to do when I start the next writing activity. Previously, I used to spend time figuring out what I had thought about the previous night before I could carry on.

Thirdly, this log helps me track my overall progress and serves as an encouragement to keep on writing and reading! It also helps with planning what to do and when do do it in order to meet deadlines.

With a busy household of three school going children, I welcome tools to increase my productivity but more importantly, to help me improve my writing habits. This blog post, for example, will be logged as an activity so that I can track how often I blog and how long it takes me to write.

Seize the day! Tomorrow may throw you a curve ball but take each available moment and make it count. Having a log will help you count that moment!

The more we get together, the happier we’ll be

The UK-style phd program can lead to an isolating experience with the phd student engaged in solo acts of reading and writing. Having study groups may fill that lonely gap, but how can this be done?

Oh, the more we get together,
Together, together,
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be.

For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends.
Oh, the more we get together,
The happier we’ll be!

Being isolated is a common perception of phd studies and it is not an exaggerated one. The UK-style phd program as it is here in New Zealand, does not have any formally taught courses as you would expect in the first two years in a US doctoral program. Learning about theories, concepts, and various other topics is primarily through copious amount of reading. And how does one read? Well, alone, as I’ve experienced. How often would other phd students you personally know be reading the same book or article or even related articles? Not often at all! And if you did find them, would they be interested in discussing the readings? Would they be forthcoming in their interpretations and application of what they’ve read? Of course I would like the answers to those questions to be a resounding yes but I’ve yet to find like-minded individuals who are in the same stage as I am, exploring the same area as I am, to be able to test this notion of study group.

meeting_group

I wonder if self-formed study groups would materialise in the absence of taught classes. I wonder if serendipity would link the right people at the right time to be in the right mood to learn together. I wonder if others feel the same way I do about how learning together is better than learning alone, that two heads are better than one, and that the sociocultural theory of learning is a power in theory as it is in practice.

My Master of Arts in Teaching experience at USC was premised on sociocultural learning. Every course had a compulsory study group component which required members to jointly prepare and present on topics, work on assignments, and in several instances, record the online video conferencing meetings that the group had and send the link to the professor. And we knew the professors watched them because some of them made references to them during our lectures! Peer evaluation among study group members was common and it was important to choose members who had similar levels of commitment toward their studies.

My schooling experience had little group work and the majority of assignments were individually carried out and graded by the teacher. Study groups comprised friends you studied with before exams. So having my Masters program hinged on the success of my study groups was at first disconcerting, but later as I became more comfortable with the idea, and more importantly, had found a group of dependable and hardworking classmates to form groups with, I realised how much less I would have learnt had I not been in study groups.

Four months into my phd studies, I’m reading much more than I ever have, but I wonder if I’m learning just as much. Writing helps to clarify my thinking, chatting with others helps with bits of thinking here and there, but I’m missing the focused and purposeful discussions around common topics from the study group experience I had.

I’ve heard that there are groups at the Faculty of Education that meet monthly to discuss various topics and I’d be keen to find out more. But I think more formally organised groups with specific goals, e.g. jointly present on qualitative methods, would generate high quality discussion and academic work that could benefit the faculty’s phd community.

The phd may appear to be a singular endeavour but it is really the harnessing of multiple resources and the support of others that enable this intellectual pursuit to see fruition.

Getting started, getting somewhere

I’m into the fourth month of my Phd journey. Here’s what it’s been like:

1st month – December 2014

The first month was a slow month since it was December and the university was heading towards the semester break. I got my office space set up, had a few initial meetings with my supervisors, and was reading around the various topics related to my proposal.

It was a quiet month with few people in the office but I did manage to meet a fellow Singaporean Phd student (the only Singaporean I know in the Faculty of Education), attend an end-of-year social gathering with other Education Phd students, and get to know staff at the faculty.

The holiday came soon enough and I was not about to return to a ghost town for any sort of scholarly work. So I borrowed a few books to read over the break and enjoy the time with my family. It was also a good break from the stress of having just arrived and settling in the kids, getting to know people and learning how to run a household (e.g. school lunches, recycling waste, tending to the garden).

I started baking (muffins and cookies), made dishes (mac n cheese, roast chicken) and was amazed how an oven and recipes can turn the kitchen klutz into, well, not a kitchen goddess (nowhere near there), but at least a regular baker and an occasional cook for now.

2nd month – January 2015

It was timely that a workshop on organising and writing a literature review took place once the university re-opened, giving me a framework to wort out the many ideas that was starting to make my mind map look like a scary multiple-legged monster.

The workshop also gave me the opportunity to meet fellow Phd students start to make connections with them. It was serendipitous that I sat next to an Icelandic student (Bryndis G.) who was also seated next to me at my office, but only now met her since she wasn’t usually at the office. Our proximity meant that I had more conversations with her than others and through our chatting, we realised we had similar experiences of being recent arrivals and still trying to find our way around.

It was this encounter that led us to set up a Facebook group for the Phd Students at the Faculty of Education (yes, that’s the name of the group and that’s who it’s for) to try to connect the various people who were scattered between offices and homes. We also decided to have a regular mid-week lunch gathering at the common room, hoping it would be a space to meet fellow students.

Study wise, I was still meandering around ideas and my supervisors highlighted how I had veered away from the main ideas that were coming out of meetings and going off on a tangent on relatively less important things. I was a bit upset with myself for letting myself get into this but was grateful that others saw my blind spots.

3rd month – February 2015

I spend the first two weeks working on a literature review on the topic of brokering which took me to unfamiliar territory. I read works from anthropology, sociology, bilingual education, health care in immigrant communities and knowledge brokering of health care related research. It was a whirlwind tour and I wanted to satisfy my need to know how brokering has been conceptualised in different areas, and in doing so, find a concept that would fit my research focus on international students.

At the end of that exercise, I had a very long essay and wished I had spent more time on other areas but it was a good exercise to flex my mental capabilities for understanding a diverse range of disciplines and approaches. I’m not sure if I want to do that again, because a large part of what I found out was going to be immediately relevant or relevant at all, and I realise I still had to expand on the relevant areas that were there. But had I not been set the task, I would not have done it so extensively.

Having completed a mentally draining task, I felt free to engage in socialising and the next day after I submitted my work to my supervisors, I went round the offices to invite Phd students to the Wednesday lunch gathering (which in the past weeks were quiet with just me and Bryndis having lunch). It also happened that Bryndis decided to print out invitations to the lunch and place it on people’s desks. So it was another serendipitous coincidence and that led to a record turnout of nine students. Yay!

It was also a relief that the deadline for the lit review was just before the Chinese New Year so I could celebrate it with my family and friends (a Malaysian couple came over to our place for reunion dinner) without the weight on my shoulders. Chinese New Year is not a big deal in Hamilton, so I did feel a little homesick for the usual festivities and food (and lots and lots of food) that are common back home. But I was blessed with a container of homemade Chinese New Year goodies from my Singaporean friend’s wife. That certainly added colour and taste to our dining table!

4th month – March 2014

This month, the first semester of the year started and so the campus began to come to life. Also, the Doctoral Writing Conversations (regular academic writing support meetings) started and that meant connecting with phd students from other faculties and getting serious tips on serious writing! We also had a morning tea organised by the postgrad department at the faculty and that was a great opportunity to meet others. Also enjoyed the muffins and crackers with cheese and hummus!

Personal life wise, I signed up for the uni gym membership and having paid $385 for the year, I’m motivated to visit the gym at least once a week. So far I’m doing a class called Express Train which lasts just 30 minutes and takes us through the machines for a muscle straining workout!

Just yesterday, I completed another lit review, this time for my research proposal, and I think it is more focused and my research ideas are beginning to take shape. It is the writing, the painstaking work of writing, reading, thinking, over and over again, that produce claims and argument. Not reading around and thinking about things, but serious writing!

Also yesterday, while having lunch with Bryndis, that we talked about getting involved with the Postgraduate Student Association and hope to start a Faculty of Education chapter, or at least, start organising, and getting people involved in organising, study groups, expert presentations, social events for phd students at the faculty.

We also talked about documenting our phd journey through blogging and encouraged each other to get back to what we set out to do in the first place, that is, to blog! (Bryndis blogs as the Running Researcher.) And that is why I am writing this post today, the result of yet another serendipitous encounter.

Learning points

A quarter of the year has passed and there has been ups and downs in my personal / family life and academic life. A few things I have learnt along the way:

  • Talking about issues with others helps to relieve the load.
  • Making time for myself and my family is just as important as making time to think and write.
  • I am not a lean, mean, writing machine. It is important to include in my phd life, connecting with others, discussing ideas not related to my research, and of course, keeping fit!
  • Finding like-minded peers to solve problems is more fruitful than having solutions handed to you on a silver platter. (No silver platters around here in New Zealand, I assure you!). It forces you to think collectively and for the group.
  • I need to set aside time to blog, otherwise, it will just not get done. And having a fellow academic blogger sit next to me is a great encouragement!
  • Routine works for me. I’ve just sorted out a routine that takes me from studying to working out to having coffee with friends. Blocking out time to do things makes things happen! But also be prepared for plans to awry, then get over it, and carry on!

Article Review: Generating Research Questions Through Problematization

Alvesson, M., & Sandberg, J. (2011). Generating research questions through problematization. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 247-271.

Link to article (free)

In preparation for the full research proposal (the first stage of my doctoral program), one of the main challenges is coming to terms with a sea of articles and book chapters and deciding what to do about them. I want to do the following:

1) Give an accurate summary of what is happening in the research area;

2) Highlight areas that have been overlooked or misconstrued;

3) Propose an alternative paradigm for approaching my own research.

Reading Alvensson & Sandberg’s (2011) article has provided me not only fresh insights, but a practical approach to what I want to do, particularly with developing an alternative theory or conceptualization.

The authors recognize that researchers want to produce interesting and influential theories and that such theories need to “differ significantly from, and at the same time be connected to, established literature in order to be seen as meaningful” (p. 247). Generating research questions through problematization thus seem to be the main route toward more interesting an influential theories, however, established ways for arriving at research questions tend to mean spotting or constructing gaps in existing theories rather than challenging their assumptions.

The authors discuss briefly the reasons for such tendencies (e.g. fear of offending others), and illustrate the prevalent ways of constructing research questions from existing literature in the field of management studies.

The authors then focus on the methodology of problematization and offer five broad sets of assumptions open for problematization (see Figure 1 [p. 260]):

1) In-house: assumptions that exist within a specific school of thought

2) Root metaphor: broader images of a particular subject matter underlying existing literature

3) Paradigm: ontological, epistemological, and methodological assumptions underlying existing literature

4) Ideology: political-, moral- and gender-related assumptions underlying existing literature

5) Field: assumptions about a specific subject matter that are shared across different theoretical schools

The authors also provide six principles for identifying and challenging assumptions  (p. 260) which are helpful for the researcher, or the problematizer as they call it, to consider and when articulating alternative viewpoints.

This article has been for me a missing piece of the puzzle as I try to make sense of the broad sweep of literature with various strands and focus areas. May I grow in my role as a problematizer to question the underlying assumptions and offer an alternative but positive perspective to my research focus.

Before this year ends

Blogpost_year

So many ideas, so little time. There were books I wanted to read, experiences I wanted to share, things I wanted to say, and then there was life happening by the second, with other lives depending on mine. As I embark on my PhD in Education, the direction of this blog will change, reflecting less on teaching and more on research. Still, I am on the road less travelled and the sojourn never ends.

Here are some of my thoughts about what has been enriching me for the past year:

1. Coursera

I’ve taken three courses with Coursera to date and I’ve enjoyed the high quality materials and the ease and freedom in which I can access them. The video lectures has been the most important feature for me as I absorb information most effectively with both visual and audio working together. Now that I have greater family demands and I need to focus on doctoral studies, MOOCs will take a back seat for now.

2. Global Conversations in Doctoral Preparation (GCDP)

Earlier this year, I became involved in the Global Conversations in Doctoral Preparation web initiative. The team organises web seminars on topics related to the doctoral experience, with an aim to help doctoral students assimilate into the academy, and at the same time, the virtual platform is also a site of research of how virtual communities impact the experiences of doctoral learning and mentorship.

The work of GCDP includes discussing seminar topics and speakers, writing up calls for seminar presentations, as well as hosting the web seminars and doing post-seminar interviews, transcripts and so on. Between emails and real-time meetings, I’ve been impressed with the organising committee, as well as the how various individuals have been almost randomly drawn to this project and work together for its success.

3. PhD

I recently started on my PhD journey at the University of Waikato but the road leading to that has been a long one. I’m now in New Zealand with my family and as much as pursuing doctoral studies is a new chapter in my life, relocating from Singapore to Hamilton seems like an entirely new book altogether!

I’ll be focusing my research on international students at the local university and exploring how they adapt to their academic and social environments. The more academic sounding and official working title of the PhD proposal is: Literacy Brokering across Discourses: Identities of East Asian students at a New Zealand university. In the next six months, I’ll be unpacking what all those things mean and narrow down the possibilities of what I’ll actually be doing.

I’m thrilled at being able to pursue my dream and at the same time, it is a mountain that needs moving on a daily basis. It is a dream that is now real because God has made it so. And God will move the mountain of balancing studies, family and starting a new life in a new country.

As the year ends and a new one begins, may my research and this blog be a blessing to readers. I hope to be more regular with sharing research ideas and directions, as this also helps me in my own thinking and research.

Carpe Diem!

Book Review – The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning

Book Review - The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning

Title: The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning

Author: James Paul Gee

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (January 8, 2013)

The Anti-Education Era: Creative Smarter Students Through Digital Learning by James Paul Gee

Before we can be convinced of the need to get smart through digital learning, we need to be convinced of our own stupidity.

The title implies that the book will explain how digital leaning will create smarter students in an era the author terms ‘anti-education’. While Gee does explain that and does it well without much reference to buzzwords in educational technology, what the title (as well as the blurb) does not warn us is that there will be a confrontation of the state of the human being and an uncovering of the failings that we are oblivious to. In fact, Part I of the book, which comprises 15 chapters, is plainly titled ‘How To Be Stupid’, while Part II, titled ‘How To Get Smart Before It Gets Too Late’,  has just six chapters.

In other words, before we can be convinced of the need to get smart through digital learning, we need to be convinced of our own stupidity – and Gee does that by exposing mental comfort stories, the dangerous lack of agency or purpose among members of a community (or citizens of a country), and the damaging consequences of our stupidity, e.g. self-deception, inequality and hopelessness.

Unapologetic and deeply convinced for a smarter and more moral world, Gee writes simply and candidly to question our assumptions about education, the economy and society, and calls us to action: to connect, collaborate and create collective intelligence.

I touch on a few of Gee’s arguments that have struck a chord with me.

First, the bad news

HOW SCHOOLS MAKE US STUPID

Humans have the capacity to be reflective and thereafter embark on good actions. Gee calls this the Circuit of Human Reflective Action. The conditions for smart actions to take place are:

1) Initial mentorship so we can learn from people and experience in specific areas/domains;

2) Lots of prior experience;

3) Clear goals;

4) The actions and goals must matter to us emotionally;

5) There is an opportunity to act in a way that elicits a meaningful response from our community (local/global).

Unfortunately, much of formal schooling is highly passive with students imbibing knowledge without much opportunity to take meaningful action based on what they have learned. The lack of a compelling or meaningful goal of studying and attending school is exacerbated by the focus on testing and gate-keeping examinations. Furthermore, some students have initial mentoring (in the form of parents, out-of-school experiences, etc.) and some have not; nonetheless, “we pretend they are on a level-playing field” (p. 16-17).

WHEN STATUS AND SOLIDARITY DIVIDE US

Status and solidarity are powerful cultural forces that shape our identity and influence our everyday actions. We seek status in terms of respect from others. We also seek solidarity with other in order to have a sense of belonging and being accepted.  Such forces, however, may dull our senses and better judgment when status and solidarity become the only end goals of a meaningful life.

As a consequence, we accept and perpetuate particular world views and actions contrary to empirical evidence and facts, common sense and moral standards. For example, aspiring to own a club membership like your peers when your income cannot support it; indulging in bullying tactics along with your buddies when you know the bullied is distressed. These examples may appear trivial but they scratch the surface of a world beset with social ills and inequalities.

In our limited world of people who we want to like us, and people we want to be like, we disregard more rational thought and action, and more sadly, disregard other humans who fall below our flawed standards of human existence.

Now, for some good news

AFFINITY SPACES FOR ALL

In order to engage our students in more critical and reflective thinking, we need to lead them to an affinity space where a community of learners who share common passions and goals. They may come from a variety of backgrounds and have varying levels of experience and expertise, but by exchanging ideas, opinions and thoughts with one another, the group solution to the challenge is going to be superior to an individual’s effort. “[H]umans think and act better when we do so by getting the help of others and giving help to them” (p. 174).

Such affinity spaces would look like discussion boards and interest groups related to the simulation video game The Sims where players find ways to create objects of their desire such as building their dream house and accessories, as well as the various user-generated communities where players interact with one another.

I do believe that affinity spaces are not limited to an online environment and it is important to have real-life face-to-face connections in any affinity space to encourage authentic relationships among learners.

Exactly how affinity spaces are to be constructed is not the focus in Part II of the book but the end is really the beginning of our conversation of how to make use of our 21st century tools to enhance our student’s thinking, reflecting and doing while creating purposeful goals for them in a diverse and global community.

 

How I Use Open Educational Resources (OER)

How I Use Open Educational Resources

Open Educational Resources (OER) are increasingly important when we consider the breadth and depth of material that are being produced by educational institutions, media production companies,  and even individuals. Equipping my students with web-based resources allows both my students and I to have access to high-quality and up-to-date information, whenever we need it, wherever we are. This frees me from creating teaching material from scratch and enables me to focus on teaching in class.

Watch a brief interview I did with Learning Academy , Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore:

Let me share some of the OERs I have used :

1. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) OER: Purdue OWL

 

For me, the most useful resource on this site is the section on APA Style. It contains sections on how to cite and reference for different reference materials, including print, web and recorded material. The information is presented in an easy-to-read format with clear examples for readers to follow. The information is also easily searchable which makes navigating a content-heavy website less onerous on the user. The Purdue OWL is a great example of how one educational institution creates and maintains educational resources and makes it available for free for educational use.

Terms of use of Purdue OWL materials in the classroom: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/551/01

 

2. Howcast Media, Inc

OER: Howcast Media, Inc.

 

Howcast is a media production company that specialises in high-quality and entertaining instructional videos. The videos are usually no more than 5 minutes long but contains enough information to keep the audience engaged. I have used their videos on presentations, writing and questionnaires in my classes. My students usually perk up when the lights dim and the video comes on.

Terms of use of Howcast videos in the classroom: http://www.howcast.com/faq

 

3.  The YUNiversity

OER: The YUNiversity

 

The  YUNiversity is a blog (and more) on grammar tips presented in an off-beat, humorous and engaging manner, and is especially suited for the current generation of youths. They post on Tumblr, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Medium and handle Q&As on ask.fm The YUNiversity is managed by an English graduate from the University of California at Berkeley and his wife. I share their posts on grammar tips with my students on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

Terms of use of The YUNiversity materials in the classroom: Not obvious but here’s the link to their FAQs: http://www.theyuniversity.net/FAQ

 

OERs are indispensable in any classroom. I hope this post has got you thinking about exploring the world wide web of wonderful educational resources!

 

The Science of Character – Thinking About Grit

The Science of Character - Thinking About Grit

It was Character Day on March 20, 2014. In celebration of, and also to facilitate discussion on character strengths, there was the global cloud film premiere of The Science of Character, “an 8-minute film that explores fascinating new research on character development and our ability to shape who we are” (Let It Ripple website).

The Science of Character – an 8 min film directed by Tiffany Shlain (Twitter: @tiffanyshlain)

Directed by Tiffany Shlain, the film promotes the idea that we can cultivate character by building on our strengths, instead of focusing on our deficits. The central organising structure of character is what has been coined a periodic table of character strengths, which is, in fact, fashioned from the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. The classification itself comes out of a landmark publication, Character Strengths and Virtues written by the late Christopher Peterson, one of the founders of positive psychology, and Martin Seligman,  Director of the Center and a Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Periodic Table of Character Strengths

Periodic Table of Character Strengths from The Science of Character

While the table is a neat way of categorising 24 virtues common across cultures and time, the VIA Institute on Character reminds us that character strengths were conceived as “dimensions and not as categories” and that “[p]eople have more-or-less of all the strengths and not simply a set of discrete strengths versus weaknesses” (VIA Institute on Character, para 7). This is an important point to note as the periodic table may lead to an inventory list ticking exercise, thus reinforcing a false dichotomy between what we are and what we’re not.

To begin to understand the complexity of the character traits, I started with Grit, a trait I see in myself developing over the years. As part of the film’s premiere, there was a series of Q&A sessions with the experts and I  joined a Google Hangouts session featuring Angela Lee Duckworth, the expert on grit and how it contributes to student success.

Angela Lee Duckworth speaks on Grit

I first came across Angela’s work on TED. Today’s expert chat session on Grit brought up discussions on whether there could be too much virtue, and whether grit could be instilled on demand or something that simply needed time to be developed.

To help explain Grit, Angela provided a metaphor of the Christmas Tree where the various levels of goals are hierarchically organised, with the shining star as the highest and unchanging goal underlying Grit. For example, if my highest level goal is providing free education to poor children, my lower level goals could range from studying for a Masters or PhD, setting up projects, and networking. I should be adaptable and flexible with these lower level goals, for example, if I don’t succeed in one project, I can look at starting a new one. However, the overarching goal of free education to the poor does not change. If it did, I wouldn’t be displaying Grit toward my final destination.

The Christmas Tree metaphor is helpful in understanding why sudden bursts of energy for short periods of time does not really count toward Grit, but rather, a deep interest that you hold over a period of time does. The fact that Grit requires stamina and patience also means that older people will exhibit Grit more often than younger people.

I look back on my twenty-something self and see several bursts of energy and nothing close to Grit. Comfortably into my thirties, I have discovered what I’m passionate about and Grit will serve me for the long run.

Character Day may have come and gone but let the Character Conversation continue, with experts, with each other, with yourself.

Sources

Peterson, Christopher, and Martin E. P. Seligman. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004. Print.

Shlain, Tiffany & The Moxie Institute Films. “The Science of Character (a New 8 Min “Cloud Film”).” YouTube. YouTube, 20 Mar 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

TED. “Angela Lee Duckworth: The Key to Success? Grit.” YouTube. YouTube, 09 May 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2014.

VIA Institute on Character. “Guidelines on Use and Interpretation.” VIA Character Use and Interpretation. N.p., 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. http://www.viacharacter.org/www/en-us/viainstitute/useandinterpretation.aspx.

Are MOOCs the future of learning?

Are MOOCs the future of learning?

With the ongoing discussion of whether MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) is the next revolution in education, I decided to embark on a MOOC myself. My first experience with online courses was not Massive nor Open. It was with the Master of Arts in Teaching program with USC. It was a full-fledged master program conducted via video conferencing which meant real-time interaction with professors and classmates. Having thrived in such an environment, I look to MOOCs with great expectations of lifelong learning without a hefty price tag or any price at all if possible.

My first experience with MOOCs was a shaky one. I can’t really say I fully experienced it since I was never fully engaged with the course. There was one course I did with Open2Study and another with Coursera. Both courses were related to learning and education but somehow there was too much going on in my life in the time I was supposed to complete it. The Open2Study course was conducted at a pace which required almost daily attention that I quickly abandoned it altogether. The pace of the Coursera course was much better but I still couldn’t keep up with the myriad of activities that were going on and felt pretty much a non-student. Without a concerted effort and a “studying” frame of mind, those two MOOCs amounted to a faint memory of videos and catchphrases.

Still hoping for a better outcome with MOOC, I recently enrolled for a Coursera course, History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education, offered by Duke University and am now in the fourth week of the six-week course. This time I was more prepared to set aside some time to do the course. The first week, however, went by in the flash and I only caught up with the video lectures in the second week.

What got me hooked was the high quality video production with a friendly and engaging presenter  (Professor Cathy N. Davidson) and useful presentation pointers appearing from the side. It a short period of 10 to 15 minutes, I learned important concepts and got thinking about the implication of technology in education. The videos were stimulating enough for me to anticipate the following week’s materials.

One of the tools used in the course is forums which drive a socially-connected and engaging form of learning. I was not, however, particularly drawn to the forums because I am inundated enough with articles, debates and discussion on Twitter (my daily feed of news and trends). Furthermore, as a non-fee-paying student, I am just not as motivated to devote time and energy to share and exchange ideas with strangers, even if it means learning new things.

Professor Cathy Davidson reviewing guiding principles of the course

To me, the outcome of watching the videos was immediate knowledge. I could watch the videos anytime and in between tasks and gained a lot from a relative short span of focused attention. Forums, on the other hand, required more thoughtful and time-consuming contribution which had a less obvious reward. There was no tangible carrot nor stick to motivate the more socially engaging aspect of the course. I am a full-time working mother with three young children, and this makes me evaluate how worthwhile any pursuit is on an ongoing basis.

 Modes of learning aside, let me move on to what I have been learning so far: 1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992; 2) We need to teach for the future; and 3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.

Pen & paper | Flickr: Loops San

Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.

1) We’re teaching like it’s 1992.

The significance of 1992 was lost on me until I learnt that the Internet was opened to the world on April 22, 1993. Since then, anyone with an internet connection could communicate with one another, expressing what they wanted, when they wanted, how they wanted. Technology and communication practices have evolved since 1993 but education seems to be largely stuck in the days of pen and paper, individual summative assessments and the like.

Personally, I find this to be true in Singapore. National examinations are in the traditional vein of individual summative assessment of the highest order, to the extent of determining your lot in life (whether perceived or real). In post-secondary institutions, however, coursework is more prevalent, especially at the polytechnic. There is a mix of individual and group assignments, some more collaborative than others, but not quite exploiting the full potential of our current technologies.

One reason behind this phenomenon of teaching like it’s 1992 is the fact that educators have grown up in the world pre-1993 and were schooled through and through in the ways and sensibilities of the time before the Internet. I certainly was. Some are looking forward to the future but many are comfortable and used to the past. Whatever the arguments are for staying put and not rocking the boat, I think there are more compelling reasons to decide that we have to change and act on it.

Digital literacies | Flickr: dougbelshaw

It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.

2) We need to teach for the future.

I believe that we need to teach our students digital literacies. The post-1993 generation was born into an Internet world of instant communication and gratification. Having taught such students for the past 5 years, I’m convinced that I am more digitally savvy that most of them. They may have the latest gadgets and apps, but most of the time they are too trusting of the first few Google search results, think that, in fact, Google is the originator of the information, and pay little attention to issues of privacy and ethics.

I don’t think students are mastering how to evaluate internet sources because there is a (wrong) assumption that they are naturally digitally savvy and so teachers pay scant attention to this aspect of learning. To put another perspective on this issue, if there are no grades or tangible rewards attached to being digitally literate, students will not become literate. It’s not about getting students through a course on digital literacies, it’s about practising digital literacies in and out of the classroom.

We can never teach our students enough content for the future, but we ought to teach them how to navigate the future with greater critical analytical skills.

3) Our conception of reality is created through the filter of our own mind and perception.

One major concept I learnt and find so true in all areas of my life is Immanuel Kant’s concept of how our perception of the world is filtered by our own preconceived notions and ideas. If we see our students as well-oiled machines, responsive to instructions and high in productivity, then our approach to teaching and assessment will follow suit. Standardised testing, orderliness and measurable results become drivers of education.

While I believe that such a filter is outdated today and that a new filter of creative and collaborative learners is more appropriate, I feel trapped in a factory of deadlines where incomplete or faulty products or tossed aside. Most of the teaching my own children are experiencing right now is highly segmented, time-bound, and considered a done deal by way of tests. Creativity is relegated to physical activity and art lessons or specific assignments.

True creativity and collaborative practice can only be achieved if they are part and parcel of everyday learning – something I have never experienced in my own schooling experience but a future I hope for my children and their children.

A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan

A traditional classroom | Flickr: young shanahan

An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish.

So what about MOOCs?

Will MOOCs then be one of the solutions to instill creativity and collaborative practice in learning? MOOC is merely a vehicle. An online course can run like a factory if that’s the vision of the instructors. A traditional classroom can be turned into a laboratory of inquisitive minds if the teachers so wish. Granted that MOOCs has the potential of reaching out to more by using technologies that are innately collaborative in nature (e.g. forum posting, wikis, etc.), the challenge is to make use of that potential in a sustainable manner for a meaningful learning experience.

My own interaction with the current MOOC has been limited to watching video lectures so far. I have not set my mind on anything collaborative but I may if I find like-minded friends or colleagues who believe that it is a meaningful endeavour for their work or personal growth.

MOOCs can roll out its bells and whistles, but the choice is up to us to ride along with the revolution.

Educating Singapore – Moving Beyond Grades

Educating Singapore - Moving Beyond Grades

The latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results have placed Singapore among the top performers among 65 countries and economies who took part in the fifth assessment of 15-year-olds’ competencies in Reading, Mathematics and Science. We came in second in Mathematics, and third in both Reading and Science.

Not only are we in good company with our Asian neighbours like Shanghai (top in all three areas) and Hong Kong (third in Math and second in both Reading and Science), we have shown improvement in results in both academically weaker and stronger pupils. Our Education Minister is reported to be very happy and very proud of the results but I hope Singapore’s stellar performance at PISA will not undermine the need to improve areas such as equity and creativity.

S’pore can do better in ensuring educational equity

Singapore can do better in ensuring educational equity

A recent news report gave a more balanced assessment of Singapore’s PISA results, where OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher noted that Singapore is “a strong performer in (education) quality, but only an average performer in equity.” Educational equity is defined by OECD in terms of fairness and inclusion – providing all students, regardless of gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin, have similar opportunities to achieving educational potential; and ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all. By that definition, Singapore has progressed very well over the past few decades (from fishing village to global player) and has been considered the “poster child” for educational development (mirroring its economic success story) – see country report by OECD. We have reduced achievement gaps between genders and races, and have refined the process of teaching students according to their abilities.

Nonetheless, the education culture in Singapore is one driven by results of  high-stakes examinations which are the gatekeepers to the next level of education which in turn determine the type and quality of jobs students eventually land. While this is not a culture unique to Singapore, and certainly not as extreme as compared to South Korea and China, such a culture privileges those who have easier access to educational resources (e.g. private lessons, parental coaching, financial support). Furthermore, innovation and creativity take a back seat while grades get all the glory. Despite government attempts to downplay the importance of grades and asking parents to broaden their perception of their children’s success, parents are too pragmatic to give up the paper chase. Exam results continue to be the determining factor at each turning point of a child’s school life.

The Singapore Ministry of Education hails the latest PISA results as an indication that Singapore students “are ready to thrive in the 21st century.” To me, thriving means growing in a supportive environment where students can realise their potential and nurture their talents. To thrive in the 21st century also means having the capacity to change, innovate and look for new ways of doing things. I’m not sure if we can claim that all Singapore students are ready to thrive. Some have more resources to be able to thrive, some have fewer, and many have discovered the best way to thrive is to go to another country where there’s more to school than just getting good grades.

An education system is a product of philosophy, politics and societal values. I don’t believe there is something inherently right or wrong about using exam results to measure success. Neither do I believe that there is a level playing field for all children. What I hope our education system does not do is to reduce a person’s worth to the degree of educational attainment, and by extension, the financial rewards that come from it.

However the education game is being played, we must be critical of our successes and learn from our failures. Doing that will keep my hope alive.