Address by Assoc. Prof Muhammad Faishal bin Ibrahim for Singapore Technology-Enabled Learning Experience

Published Date: 16 November 2015 12:00 AM

News Speeches

Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,


Since time immemorial, technology has captured the imaginations of generations. Be it through the technology we see in science-fiction movies like Star Trek and Interstellar, or through the technology we experience with iPads and Google glasses, we are invited to imagine how the different aspects of our lives could be better.

We have experimented heavily with technology at all levels of the education system in Singapore. The use of technology in classrooms has shifted from being teacher-centric to now student-centric, where students use technology to chart their own learning. Current advancements in technology have opened up new opportunities in the areas of pedagogy to achieve self-directed, interactive, collaborative and team-based learning beyond the classroom, anytime and anywhere. From using Quick Response (QR) codes for outdoor and community learning trails in our primary and secondary schools, to learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs) in our institutions of higher education, we have tried to adopt and deploy the varied and newer forms of technology developed. These efforts have paid off - according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in 2012, our students are amongst the top performers worldwide in being able to read, navigate and understand online texts.

The usage of technology alone, though, does not guarantee improvements to educational and learning outcomes. Recently, the OECD released a report titled “Students, Computers and Learning”, which argued that where information and communication technologies (ICT) are used in the classroom, their “impact on student performance is mixed, at best.” The report surmised that the real contributions that ICT can make to teaching and learning have yet to be fully realised and exploited.

With the abundance of untapped technological resources around us, there is a risk of inadvertently deploying technology in education without being fully cognisant of why we are using technology, or what the educational needs we seek to address are. If we leverage technology without a deeper appreciation of how these technologies can be adapted to our needs, we miss opportunities to realise the impact that ICT can have on learning outcomes.

Technology should be a means to an end, not an end in itself

To fully realise the potential of ICT to enable learning, we need to attend to the central question on hand — what are the educational and learning needs that we seek to address? The answer to this question will guide which technologies to deploy, or how we can use technology in the classroom. The title of our event today is apt; technology as an enabler in learning should be a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

Personally, I am heartened that in the field of technology, everything that we do be has been about our students and that is key for us as we move forward. We have started the journey and there is a lot of potential we can tap in this area. There are many unknowns which can be easily connected together and we can reap much benefit from this.

I am also very heartened to see all the universities come together to see how we can reap the maximum benefit for our students. I think this is key to what our sense of purpose is, when we get together we can synergise the whole process and at the same time each university can have a contextual enhancement in their own setting which will enrich the learning process. Beyond that, we can see how learning will be a wonderful experience for our people. This generation is already savvy with ICT and social media, and going along these lines will make learning easier for them. Ultimately, this will lead to the pursuit of excellence in education and the pursuit of knowledge.

Drawing on my teaching experiences at NUS and on my work at the Ministry of Education, I would like to share with you my observations on three areas of educational and learning needs that we should strive to address. I suspect technology will play a pivotal role in addressing these three areas of needs.

Need to learn at different paces

All educators, past and present, have probably faced learners who need to learn differently from others, in terms of their pace and style of learning. Some learners pick up new ideas immediately, others take a little longer. Some learners seem to learn best through one-on-one consultations, others may find that too intimidating a medium to learn through.

As educators, we are often faced with such variability in the classroom despite the systems’ well-intended efforts to categorise and segment learners according to their learning modes. We need to ask ourselves — can we design learning that takes into consideration and addresses the variability in learning modes and preferences, so that everyone can learn better?

This learning need is not new to us, we have heard about it from our teachers, and they have probably heard of it from their teachers. But today, we are closer to designing learning that can indeed take into account the variability across learners. For example, in the U.S. K-12 landscape, platforms such as Newsela, a levelled reading programme for students enable educators to develop non-fiction fluency and critical-thinking skills at different levels of complexity based on students’ abilities. Powerful adaptive learning engines like Knewton are also able to pinpoint the content, difficulty level and mode of learning that each student needs. I am hopeful that technology can eventually address this age-old need.

Need to learn collaboratively

The second area of learning need I have observed has arisen more recently — the need to learn collaboratively.

While collaborations have always been a part of learning, most notably through group work, collaborative learning has taken on a new level of importance in more recent years. Connective technologies, like Edmodo, have made it easier than ever for teachers to expect learners to collaborate and share ideas despite physical separation.

While a greater emphasis on learning collaboratively allows for exposure and learning through a greater diversity of ideas and opinions, it becomes more challenging for teachers to monitor, assess, and further the learning of individual students. We will need to think hard about the technologies we can utilise to overcome this challenge.

Need to learn with discernment

The third area of learning need I will touch on is the need for learners to learn with greater discernment.

The explosion in user-generated content, driven by technologies for video production, digital animation and media editing, has fundamentally changed the quantity and quality of content available. Learners now have access to an overwhelming volume of content that exist in different forms from the conventional ones we are used to. This will change how a teacher teaches, to incorporate a stronger element of content curation rather than pure content delivery.

Technology has not only changed the content learners have access to, it has also changed the way we attend to content. Various studies have argued that in the digital age - where news is limited to 140 characters and conversations take place in the form of emojis — our average attention span has shortened. A recent study by Microsoft has found that the average attention span in 2000 was 12 seconds, but by 2013 it was only 8 seconds, which some would say is 1 second shorter than that of the notoriously ill-focused goldfish!

Teaching learners to be able to critically “read” and assess videos, blogs and podcasts in the same way that we currently assess a paper or a presentation will involve a greater devotion of effort and time by the learners to engage content, but how do we do so while their attention span decreases? Will technology be able to provide us with solutions to the learning needs it has driven?


These are my preliminary ideas on how technology provides opportunities and challenges for different learning needs. There are many fellow educators and technology innovators amongst us today, and I hope to learn from your ideas too. It makes me excited to know that my kids would be able to learn in new and innovative ways that will make learning enjoyable for them.

Before I end, I would like to thank the Nanyang Technological University for graciously agreeing to host this inaugural conference. I wish you all a very successful and enjoyable conference for the next two days. Thank you.

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