Technology-enhanced Education

In 2008, Professor Andrew Ng of Stanford University started the Stanford Engineering Everywhere programme to distribute free online education. Last year, he taught a Machine Learning class with an enrolment of more than 100,000 students from all over the world. Subsequently, Coursera was born with the intention of bringing materials designed and taught by world-class professors to every part of the world.

MITx was launched at the end of 2011 to deliver MIT courses online and free-of-charge. Later, Harvard and MIT each contributed US$30 million to form a new venture EdX, with the same aim. EdX runs on an open source platform, which provides videos and interactive software to engage online learners. Certificates of completion will be awarded for a modest fee, but at present, there are no plans to award college credits as yet.

Technology has enabled distant and online learning, even of degree courses.

Online courses have been around for some time. This trend started at the turn of the century. Many ventures had sprouted, but most of them lost momentum and direction after some time. NUS was previously involved in an online venture with the Universitas 21 group, but the venture folded due to financial non-viability. What is different this time with Coursera and EdX is the level of technology, and the high caliber of universities joining this bandwagon. 

The world was a different place just a mere decade ago. There was no YouTube or Facebook then. Technology has advanced to a stage where interactivity with students can be so dynamic and this can make learning much more effective. Take a look at Khan Academy’s videos and assessments of pre-college and college mathematics (the academic content is similar to what our students have to cover for the A levels in Mathematics) and you can see the power of technological advancement. 

Some colleagues (especially those of us who did not grow up with these gadgets) may be quite skeptical about technology, and view it as a fashion trend that might become passé in time to come. Some are perhaps wary that technology may displace teaching jobs in the future. Let me try to quell this misperception. In the words of John Hennessy, President of Stanford University, “the biggest way IT-enhanced education could go wrong is if we assume that we can fully automate education, if we think that we can throw students in front of terminals, that we don’t need any live instructors anywhere, that students can be totally successful without ever talking to anybody.”

Even with the best textbooks and good quality online resources, the role of the teacher remains critical. In fact, the teacher’s role will become even more important. I think the teacher’s role will shift from solely delivering subject content, to actively facilitating, and directing learning and interaction within a classroom, so that students are probed and prodded at the right time, with the right questions, to stimulate their thinking and learning.

Technology has revolutionised every part of our lives and surely, it will also impact teaching and learning. The Singapore Prime Minister, in his recent National Day Rally speech, provided many examples of how technology has and will impact our lives. Today’s students are more technologically savvy, and they respond very quickly to new innovations. We know that most young people are adept at using technology, and are completely comfortable, for instance, with watching a video online. They like the fact that they can hit the pause button at will; they know how to speed it up a little bit, to watch it 20% faster, and to personalise the experience, making the process of learning more efficient for themselves. We know some students prefer collaborative learning and habitually take and share notes using Twitter. Many are also familiar with crowd sourcing to complete their assignments and projects. The list just goes on and the possibilities are endless.

Should we then continue doing ‘business as usual’ and labour on in a large lecture theatre, earnestly endeavouring to deliver the same subject content, to 300 students with varying abilities and powers of absorption, year in and out, without change? Our aspirations have not changed – we want to deliver a high quality educational experience. Just as we urge our students to question and to discover, we lecturers too, should continually seek to explore how we can leverage on advances in technology, for what it’s worth, to enhance the learning process and its outcomes. 


‘Flipped Classroom’

Some of you may have read about the ‘flipped classroom’ concept. It is a fairly new look at the learning process, facilitated by a new space configuration that has been shown to be successful. The classroom is ‘flipped’, because there are no in-class didactic lectures – students instead access online materials to learn the basic concepts.

The ‘flipped classroom’ rests on a very strong scaffold of well-constructed online materials and the use of interactive learning platforms that further augment and reinforce understanding. In-class tasks and discussions allow for collaborative co-construction of knowledge. Again, learning effectiveness is predicated on well-designed assessment tasks that engender higher order learning outcomes. Effective ‘flipped classroom’ learning environments must also be facilitated by an appropriate learning space design that promotes collaborative learning.

The Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School (Duke-NUS) successfully employed the ‘flipped classroom’ concept in its TeamLEAD (Learn, Engage, Apply and Develop) approach. Under this learning structure, there are no hour-long lectures, but students watch videoed lectures or access online materials that disseminate basic content knowledge. The in-class time is devoted mainly to discussions and problem-solving activities. At the start of each TeamLEAD session, students are individually assessed about the material they were to learn prior to class to assure that they have come to class prepared.  During the first in-class discussion session, students are put in teams and answer the same set of questions (as the ones they had earlier individually answered). The only difference is that they now have to provide a team response. This is where further and deeper learning take place; and the active class dynamics surfaces – a student in a team must convince the others of his/her answer, or be convinced by others of their answers.  The next phase is applying that knowledge to more realistic (typically clinical) problems.  The students are then given another set of problems to solve as a team.  This phase is open resource/open internet.  The teams now must apply what they learned in the earlier phase, and not simply regurgitate a set of basic facts.  Simple questions which test only memory do not work in this instructional method, as it is too easy to just ‘Google’ the answer.  Instead the faculty must work hard to create questions that make the students think and apply facts and key principles that they have learned. 

One might ask, how have the students performed in such a learning environment? Duke-NUS students take the same national tests in basic science (i.e. the US Medical Licensing Examination, or USMLE Step 1) as students in American medical schools. Since its inception, Duke-NUS has year after year, performed significantly better than the US national average. What is most striking however, is the fact that the Duke-NUS curriculum devotes only 1 year to basic science instruction, rather than 2 years which is the norm in the US. Duke University is suitably impressed with TeamLEAD that it ‘transported’ the learning strategy back to Duke University, to be implemented at the School of Medicine and several courses in the undergraduate campus; this learning strategy was touted as one that would revolutionise medical education.  

With the success of TeamLEAD, NUS will be piloting the ‘flipped classroom’ strategy with a number of modules. We hope to harness the active engagement enabled by the ‘flipped classroom’ concept and good use of technology to maximize and personalise learning for our students. We do not advocate using technology for technology’s sake; but we do need to align the way we deliver education with how our students experience today’s technology-driven world in general, and life at the university in particular. Let’s all keep an open mind and see what this new technology-enabled learning strategy has to offer.