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Tackling 3 obstacles to digital transformation in education

Covid-19 has significantly compressed the timeline for digital transformation in education, with home-based learning (HBL) thrust upon teachers and students alike. This has also given rise to a public perception of two gaps associated with digital transformation in education — a lack of equal resources and perceived variations in how teachers engage students in HBL.

Technology is not a silver bullet for education. Student-centred pedagogy requires teachers to be designers of learning, not just users of technology, say the authors.

Technology is not a silver bullet for education. Student-centred pedagogy requires teachers to be designers of learning, not just users of technology, say the authors.

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Covid-19 has significantly compressed the timeline for digital transformation in education, with home-based learning (HBL) thrust upon teachers and students alike.

This has also given rise to a public perception of two gaps associated with digital transformation in education — a lack of equal resources and perceived variations in how teachers engage students in HBL.

To be sure, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has sought to address both issues. 

In terms of resource equality, MOE loaned out 20,000 computing devices and more than 1,600 internet-enabling devices, in addition to opening school premises for students who needed additional support during the HBL period. In terms of teaching variations, MOE has been working to foster teacher capacity for the use of education technology.

Nevertheless, both perceived gaps indicate the need to think more deeply about how we can sustain digital transformation in Singapore schools.  

Professor Peg Ertmer from Purdue University identifies three barriers influencing digital transformation in education: Infrastructure; design competencies of teachers and how they use technology effectively as well as the sustainability of digital transformation.

MANAGING INFRASTRUCTURE CONCERNS 

MOE’s efforts in infrastructure developments in schools has narrowed the gap for students when they are in school, but when learning has to take place at home during a pandemic, inequalities in society are revealed.

This is especially true for students from low income families who may have fewer resources at home. Though schools provide additional support and resources, they are not able to eliminate social inequality.

Fortunately, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, certain technological infrastructure and plans were already in place.

For instance, the Smart Nation blueprint in 2018 sought to extend broadband access to all households through a stipend.

MOE also announced the progressive roll-out of personal learning devices (PLDs) to all secondary school students by 2028 in March this year.

During the circuit breaker period, teachers and students were able to adapt to the use of technology for HBL when they learnt and worked from home.

As such, MOE has decided to accelerate the implementation of PLDs by seven years and all secondary school students will have a device by end-2021.

Such dedicated resource and infrastructure provision needs to be sustained not only in our education system but also in our society.

MANAGING TEACHER DESIGN CONCERNS

This is a key area for continued improvement. To be effective designers of learning, teachers need to have the agency and competency to use various digital tools to design students’ learning experience and adapt to unprecedented situations.

Local research by the National Institute of Education (NIE) has shown that integrating education technology within the curriculum can be a catalyst to transform teaching and learning.

For example, it can support student-centred pedagogies which encourages content mastery and the development of 21st century competencies such as critical and creative thinking.

But technology is not a silver bullet for education. Student-centred pedagogy requires teachers to be designers of learning, not just users of technology.

For example, a teacher may play YouTube videos occasionally in class to help students learn from video representations. Alternatively, the teacher may choose to use a flipped classroom design by asking students to watch the YouTube videos at home, before the class and use the time in class to engage in deeper discussions and problem solving.

This flipped approach is also useful when HBL is structured as part of the new normal in learning. The perceived variations in how teachers engage their students during HBL suggests that while technology is essential and equipping teachers with digital tools is necessary, the teacher’s pedagogical design determines how technology supports learning.  

When NIE has analysed infomation communication technology (ICT) implementations in schools over the last decade, numerous teaching innovation efforts in Singapore were observed.

With MOE’s masterplans for ICT in education and the National Research Foundation’s funding support, teachers initiated various applications through designs such as gamification, visualisations and collaborative learning for developing conceptual understandings for difficult topics, such as electromagnetic induction.

However, such teacher-led innovations are often meant to address specific teaching and learning issues.

They are less impactful across the system if other teachers do not possess sufficient learning design competencies to adapt the innovations in their own classes.

To address this, MOE’s recent initiative of having e-pedagogy as part of SkillsFuture for Educators provides opportunities for teachers to deepen their design capabilities in teaching and learning.

MANAGING SUSTAINABILITY CONCERNS

Sustaining digital learning requires a culture of innovation. It requires coordinated efforts at all levels, including school leaders and parents.

Our research reveals that when teachers are given opportunities to work with one another to innovate, especially with support from experts, they are more willing to innovate to address their students’ learning needs.

Innovation necessitates taking risks. To empower our teachers to create novel learning designs, our education system and society should continue to promote and recognise teacher innovation and give them a safe environment for such efforts. 

In education research, we observed that school leaders play a crucial role in deliberately creating enabling conditions for learning design such as preserving time for teacher innovation and addressing curricular timetabling issues.

Careful trade-offs are also needed to redirect some efforts from content mastery to building creative and critical thinking in students, enabled by technology. Parental support is critical for bold movements in this area.

As a highly effective and productive education system, Singapore expects to continue staying ahead of other systems.

With the introduction of HBL, we also become more attuned to innovation and agency towards digital learning. We need to continue to cultivate agency and competencies in students and teachers to innovate, and our society needs to encourage innovation opportunities for digital transformation in education.

Although the current pandemic is a crisis, it also presents opportunities to deepen the digital transformation in education. We need to continue having dialogues around the three orders of barriers in digital transformation and act on these opportunities.   

 

 ABOUT THE AUTHORs: 

Dr Junsong Huang and Professor David Hung are both with the Office of Education Research at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University. Dr Huang is associate dean (research administration and support) and a senior research scientist while Prof Hung is dean.

Related topics

education MOE Covid-19 home-based learning schools

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