November 21, 2017
Opening Address by Guest-Of-Honour, Minister for Higher Education and Skills, Mr Ong Ye Kung, at the 2nd National Conference on Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL), at NUS, University Town, Auditorium 2
Professor Tan Eng Chye, Deputy President (Academic Affairs) and Provost of NUS;
Presidents and Provosts of our Autonomous Universities;
1. It is my pleasure to join you at this second instalment of the TEL Conference, where educators, local and global ICT practitioners share ideas and best practices on how technology can transform education and learning experiences. I thank NUS for organising this year’s conference.
2. Over the weekend, I saw a friend’s Instagram’s post on my mobile phone, of a signage in a bookstore café in Bukit Pasoh. The sign says ‘Sorry we do not have Wifi – you can (1) talk to each other, (2) read a book, (3) draw something, (4) pretend it’s 1995.’ Indeed our lives now revolve around information and digital technology, and it does make us appreciate non-tech or analogue activities a little more.
3. I recently participated in a panel discussion on education in Abu Dhabi. After hearing the views of the panel members on technology, jobs and education, the moderator, who is a BBC journalist, summed it up well: the more robots and AI enter our work and lives, the more human we need to be. If we work like robots, we will be replaced by robots. If we learn or teach like robots, we will be replaced by robots. To keep our jobs and stay relevant, we need to work like humans – exercise judgement, show empathy, deliver service with a human touch.
4. That I think should also sum up our approach to enhancing learning through technology. Two years ago, when I was first appointed as the Minister in charge of higher education, MOOCs were in vogue, and I came across so much literature about MOOCS and how technology through MOOCs will replace and disrupt traditional education institutions. Today, MOOCs are still around and popular, but the fervour is more subdued. Certainly, traditional vocational institutes and universities do not feel they are going the way of the CD or the typewriter industries. They are still very sought after.
5. So today, in opening this conference, let me sketch out briefly how technology is shaping the way we teach, and the way we learn.
6. First, the way we teach. The effectiveness of teaching will be greatly enhanced by technology, which helps us infuse creative and useful practices in education. We can watch the best lectures online and access an endless resource of learning materials in print or video. Teachers can coach students online, outside of campuses, distribute reading materials readily to students for pre-reading, sometimes overnight, and use classroom time to engender views and mutual sharing.
7. We can use visualisation techniques to help students learn complex concepts, just like how NUS’s Faculty of Dentistry is teaching anatomical knowledge - one of the 14 projects showcased at this conference today. We are gamifying lessons, which is also on showcase today as a project by Temasek Polytechnic. Confucius said, ‘when I hear I forget, when I see I remember, when I do I understand.’ With gamification, that saying has to be modified by adding one more line, ‘when I play I try to remember and understand at the same time’.
8. In my view, the most powerful impact of educational technology is the possibility to strengthen differentiated learning. Technology can be used to discover the strengths and weaknesses of every student, and the standards they attain across subjects. From there, technology can be further enhanced and leveraged to provide each learner with easier access to the desired content and skills. In other words, the effectiveness of the classroom of the future is much less dependent on formal class sizes or student to teacher ratio, but the way technology is used to support the personalisation or customisation of learning. In extremis, it is a physical class of 30 or 40, with lessons delivered effectively as if it is a classroom of one.
9. But that is only half the story of how technology is changing the way we teach. While technology sweeps through the education industry, redefining teaching and bringing the virtual world into the classroom, the opposite is also happening. Educators, more than ever, are also exposing learners to the real world, to gain real and practical experiences, and to undergo the emotions, dilemmas and vicissitudes of life.
10. So in our schools, we are bringing more students in increasing frequency for field trips and outdoor learning. It makes lessons come to life, it adds fun, and forges camaraderie and teamwork. As a norm, students in higher education are increasingly required to undergo industry attachment and internships, often up to six months or even a year. We encourage students to go overseas on exchange programmes or to perform community service in developing countries for the exposure, experience, to develop a sense of compassion, and to hone their inter-cultural skills. We put in place a systemic process of education and career counselling, to help students discover their purpose, passions and aspirations. The campus is also a place to meet mentors, prospective employers, build networks, and to find love for many students. All these are important aspects of learning, not quite replaceable by technology, and we are doing more of them.
11. Second, technology is changing the way we learn. Simply put, it is the receiving end of how technology changes the way we teach. We use technology to access online materials, keep in touch with teachers and mentors, conduct discussions with team mates, collaborate, etc. But these are changes at the surface, and there are at least two ways technology profoundly impacts how a student learns.
12. One impact is that technology has sparked entrepreneurship, because the digital world is borderless, and all of a sudden the constraint of Singapore being a small market does not seem as significant a constraint anymore. And we see students beginning to dream and wanting to create. Being immersed in a digital learning environment also hones their sensitivity to opportunities that arise out of modern digital life.
13. We have a good example of enterprise right here at NUS. Inspired by their experiences through an immersion programme at Silicon Valley, three NUS students recognised the common problem of unwanted second-hand items, and developed an attractive solution called Carousell. It provides a user-friendly marketplace for individuals to connect with one another to buy and sell second-hand items. In the past few years, Carousell has successfully attracted multiple rounds of funding and has expanded to six countries in Asia and the US.
14. Another profound impact brought about by technology is lifelong learning. Because technology is ever changing, ever advancing, and the pace at which it is altering our daily lives and our work is faster than ever. It is also generating vast amounts of data, which when put to good use, presents further scope for us to change the way goods and services are manufactured, produced and delivered. To cope and adapt to these changes, we must learn throughout our lives. This is partly so that we can keep up with technological development, but more importantly, it is to hone the core skills that define our profession and which is not affected or replaceable by technology and automation. This is fundamentally why all round the world, there is a reversion to the emphasis on skills, including Singapore.
15. Technology will shape our future and our lives. But we must not conclude or assume that the richness of human life will be reduced to bits and bytes, and that technology will totally consume us. Humans are ultimately social creatures. There is always a duality between the virtual versus the real world, digital versus analogue, coding versus craft, ‘snapchatting’ with a hundred friends versus having coffee with just one. When one side gets stronger and more advanced, the other side rises in prominence too. And that has been our experience in education.
16. Our education institutions are becoming more important than ever, as they leverage technology to help students learn more about the real world. I wish you a successful conference and good discussions in the next two days. Thank you.