Beware the Octopus

Posted on 10 February 2011

Is Singapore education too dependent on Internet technology?

By Kwan Jin Yao

MEET the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus.

This amphibious creature can reach an average size of 30 to 33 centimetres; and after spending its early years and mating season in aquatic environments, its adapted skin conditions have allowed them to live in moist rainforests away from pooled water.

Incredulously, whilst one of its arms – covered in suckers – grabs onto a branch for stability, the Tree Octopus strikes at insects or small vertebrates with one of its eight limbs; aided largely by its human-like eyesight, which coincidentally also helps facilitate inter-octopus relations.

The catch? The Tree Octopus does not exist.

Schools facing learning crisis spawned by Internet: Pearson

The fictitious amphibian was created by a group of researchers at New Literacies Lab, as part of a study funded by the United States Department of Education to comprehend students’ usage of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), as well as the consequences on online learning.

A group of students, identified by their institutions as competent online readers, participated in the research study; in which they were required to find out more information on a campaign to “Save the Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus”.

After being directed to a fabricated website committed to the cause, the students stubbornly insisted that it exists, even after researchers explained that the available information was entirely made-up.

Despite contentions over statistical accuracy, research integrity and cultural implications, relevant concerns can be gleaned from the findings.

First, is our education system too dependent on ICT? Second, do our students have the proficiency to process information; or possess the abilities to discern and verify virtual content? Finally, how can ICT evolve from being a mere fad into something that is technically stable, academically sustainable and ultimately complementary to teaching-learning pedagogies in the long run?

Is ICT becoming too popular and laissez-faire?

ICT usage in Singapore has been greatly proliferated. On a consistent basis, education institutions – often funded by the Ministry of Education (MOE) – employ ICT methodologies in their syllabuses and training methods: Schools use iPads in language lessons, departments adopt e-learning for students, educators utilise social networking sites as platforms for discussions et cetera.

Given the sheer volume of ICT-based projects and initiatives, it is worth contemplating about the genuine benefits; or whether its widespread – often laissez-faire – adoption is a mere fad for educators and their institutions.

Unfortunately, what makes evaluation tricky is the difficulty in gauging ICT’s effects upon learning behaviours and overall academic performance. Proponents point to the convenience and interactivity of materials, as well as adequate preparation for a highly-computerised world and workplace

Opponents, however, quickly point out that a plethora of unreliable information exist online (a knowledge minefield, as highlighted in the opening case study), instances of plagiarism, and an assortment of distractions – for both teachers and students.

Without conclusive findings, heightened usage of ICT might not necessarily mean better-quality education for our students.

Moderating online learning

My experience with ICT back in high school and junior college has not been the most constructive. Notably, prior to its nomination as a FutureSchool, there was a tremendous reliance upon online portals to host everything: from year-long lessons plans to PowerPoint slides.

As a result of the readily available information, select students take the content for granted; without independently adding their input, or simply switching off during lessons. Second, on occasions, teachers even have the audacity to lazily rip exact texts or sites and pass them off as teaching notes.

Furthermore, home e-learning often borders on farcical: with messy interface (picture multiple students trying to make themselves heard on a cluttered live-chat window), slow loading, experimental errors, and so on.

One positive thing was how the school reinforced the importance of research integrity, and to analyse provenance and source backgrounds instead of utilising “facts” blindly. We were generally cognisant that given the accessibility of the Internet, any individual can simply publish information or purported “facts” online without ensuring complete accountability or accuracy.

Instances of plagiarism were kept minimal; and students were careful to treat ICT delicately as a double-edged sword.

Efforts must be undertaken to properly integrate and orientate ICT methodologies into school curriculum; instead of rushing blindly. For instance, it has been contended that even with the proliferation of school-based resources, there is a lack of inter-school interaction using ICT, creating duplicity in resources and portals. Such management needs drastic improvements.

Moving forward, reviews of ICT practices are necessary to reduce bureaucracy, and to ensure the effectiveness of the programmes instituted by the respective schools. Standards and benchmarks must be set; and genuine user sentiments must be gathered consistently through quantitative and qualitative means.

Otherwise, our pedantic reliance on ICT in education might prove to be a bane for generations of students to come.

Jin Yao blogs on education at http://guanyinmiao.wordpress.com/

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- who has written 231 posts on New Nation.


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