Education is a future-oriented enterprise; it is about preparing our youths for the future. We want to develop our K-12 students to be confident and responsible citizens, who are able to contribute productively to nation building in various ways in the near future. So, what would this scenario look like for Singapore, a knowledge society that is permeated with information and communication technologies (ICT)? Here are some conceivable developments in the near future.
First, Singapore is determined to be a Smart Nation. Following the Intelligent Nation 2015 plan, the Smart Nation Initiative was launched in 2014 by Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong. The terms “intelligent” and “smart” have been mistaken as an arrogant attempt to enhance the intelligence of our citizens, but it essentially means harnessing ICT for various aspects of national development for better living, more job opportunities and building stronger communities.
Second, technologies will continue to infiltrate into many aspects of our lives and disrupt our social norms. According to the Global Information Technology Report Ranking by the World Economic Forum, Singapore is the second most wired country in the world. In 2014, we have a mobile phone penetration rate of 148%, household broadband subscription rate of 104%, and the top country in Asia in terms of participation in social media. The infiltration of technologies into our lives and prevalent participation in social media usher the country into a new territory that requires some equilibration. In the interim period, established cultural norms and practices, which have worked well in maintaining the social-political harmony of the country, could be disrupted. We are beginning to witness more active contribution of political opinions in social media and, at the same time, cases of people being charged for posting seditious remarks in online forums.
Third, Singapore is determined to transform its economy into an innovation-driven knowledge economy. In 2012, Singapore occupied the 23rd position in the Knowledge Economy Index published by the World Bank. About 20% of the GDP of Singapore is contributed by the manufacturing sector, but as of January 2016, Singapore’s manufacturing economy saw a contraction for seven consecutive months. In the face of stagnating productivity, aging workforce, and increased regional competitiveness, Singapore has to transform its economic model instead of relying on cheap labour. More imminent challenge comes from the advent of Industry 4.0, which amalgamates modular physical objects, computing and networking to achieve manufacturing efficiency. This could mean replacement of low level jobs with those that require highly skilled workers. Singapore needs more ICT experts and the general ICT competencies of workers needs to be enhanced.
What are some implications for education? It seems apparent that education will evolve in two parallel realms: the physical learning environment and the cyberspace. Schools cannot ignore the presence of open online resources and social media that provide alternative sources of information for students. Students can search for information, watch YouTube videos, seek help for assignments, and even gossip on teachers through online platforms. Rather than viewing alternative media as competitors, teachers can leverage alternative resources as complementary teaching materials and help to curate resources that can facilitate student’s learning. More critically, teachers need to be aware of students’ informal learning and online practices, so as to provide relevant advice and guidance on cyber wellness and social media literacy.
One may argue that Singapore is well poised for this development. After all, the country has embarked on its journey of integrating ICT into education since 1997 and is into the fourth installation of the ICT masterplan in education. The first three ICT masterplans have aimed to build foundational ICT infrastructure in schools, develop ICT skills among teachers and students, catalyse pedagogical innovations using ICT, and develop collaborative learning and self-directed learning competencies among students. The current ICT Masterplan for Education aims to empower every student to use technology for quality learning, and to prepare them to be future-ready and responsible digital learner. So how else can we improve?
There are at least two areas that need further consideration. One related to ICT competencies and the other on the use of ICT for learning. First, we need to reconsider our current approach of developing ICT competencies and expertise among our students. While K-12 schools have plans to develop students’ basic ICT competencies, computing as a subject in the formal curriculum is not offered by many students. We rely on co-curricular activities such as computer or robotics clubs to develop interest, knowledge and skills among selected students. This means a small pool of students who might opt for technology-related studies in post-secondary education. Will this be sufficient to fulfill the industry needs for ICT experts and prepare our future workforce for Industry 4.0?
Second, pedagogical innovation with ICT. While the ICT Masterplans are pushing for the use of ICT to catalyse development of 21st century skills among students, we could do more in developing students’ agency to be knowledge creator. This can be more challenging than we imagine in an Asian society that is heavily influenced by Confucius values such as 尊师重道 (respect teachers and honour their teachings) and 敬老尊贤 (honour the aged and the wise men). Even if we argue that these values are waning due to Western influence, there is still a strong sense that adults (including teachers) have the authority and responsibility to pass our wisdom and knowledge to our students. But there is a delicate balance between maintaining adult’s authority and developing students’ agency in learning and knowledge creation. It means encouraging students to take ownership of their learning and to take responsibility in co-creating knowledge. While K-12 students may not be able to create knowledge new to the world, they certainly can be guided to develop the disposition and engage in similar dialogic practices as a knowledge creator. By writing a blog, posting a message in an online forum, or creating an online Prezi presentation, we are creating information available to the world. Under proper conditions, new ideas can be generated. Many students are already initiated into such online practices without realizing their potential contribution and the responsibility implied in their posts. Currently, there are a few schools that engage in pedagogical practices such as knowledge building to develop students’ knowledge creation capacity and agency, much more can be done to scale up such practices. After all, while we can try to predict future scenarios and prepare our students for these scenarios, no amount of futuring exercise will be able to generate a deterministic trajectory towards a definite scenario. This is because we, and more importantly, our students, have the agency to co-create our future. In short, one of the best ways of future-proofing our students is to develop them as change agents.
Tan Seng Chee, the deputy director of the Centre for Research and Development in Learning at the Nanyang Technological University, has research interest in 21st century pedagogies, including computer-supported collaborative learning and knowledge building. He has co-edited a book titled Knowledge Creation in Education in 2014 and is working on another book on the use of technologies in education.
The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.