Digital Zeitgeist

A new education landscape moulded by Generation Z is emerging.
Unlike those of us who have had to migrate into a digital world, Generation Z* children are true digital natives who have never known life without mobile phones or the Internet.
girl on headphones
According to a 2008 survey by the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), seven to 24-year-olds spend more of their online time on instant messaging (IM) and social networking than other age groups, and are more likely to turn to the Internet for their learning.
Generation facts

Unlike the previous generations, they have never known the limits of deskbound computing. Instead they live in a world where everyone has at least one mobile phone, with the Internet increasingly available in their pockets.

So just how different does this make the kids of today? Mr Richard Gerver, an internationally renowned speaker and Education Advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, describes them as the “on demand” generation.

They expect immediacy and personal control – as can be seen from the way they listen to music, download only what they like, and create their own playlists. For them, a world without Google, Facebook, YouTube, music and games downloads, and IM has never existed.

As a result, there is a growing disconnect between how kids are learning on their own and the way lessons are taught in the formal education system, says Associate Professor Looi Chee Kit from the National Institute of Education and Founding Head of the Learning Sciences Lab, a research centre for learning and teaching.

The challenge, he thinks, is to design curricular activities that are relevant to students’ daily lives so that they would continue to pursue them on their own, beyond the classroom.

What’s the strategy?

The way not to do it is to try to confine technology in education to a computer or a laptop meant only for word or data processing. This, says Mr Gerver, is “patronising and limiting”.

We also don’t want to be constantly nagging or banning our kids from activities such as gaming or social networking, which will only make them feel “very controlled”, as one 12-yearold puts it.

Mr Gerver tells Challenge in an e-mail interview:

We must remember that this generation do not view technology as we do. They aren’t dazzled by it, and they expect and demand more from it. To them technology is a facilitator and is temporary.

Indeed, today it’s iPad and Kindle; tomorrow it will be something else.

Hence as we seek to harness their abilities to help them grow, we need to first be conscious of what makes them different.

Our teachers have observed that in the classroom, the students’ infocomm technology (ICT) experiences translate into the ability to multi-task, and a preference to communicate by texting – be it SMS or IM – as opposed to the act of speaking up.

They also prefer graphics and multimedia content to reams of grey text. At the same time, they tend to have shorter attention span than children of the past, and are less focused.

Says Ms Chea Seok Choo, a teacher at Rulang Primary with 30 years of teaching experience:

Children today are distracted by many alternative sources of information. I am constantly amazed by their intelligence. They are very capable and can learn on their own at a single click...

"To them, school is just [a place] to socialise and interact with their friends.”

Indeed, kids today want to be friends. They want to be connected and have no use for hoity-toity airs from their teachers, or anybody.

One then has to ask: If the voice of authority no longer speaks to this generation of children, how can the old way of learning with one teacher talking to a class of 40 students work?

It is unlikely to. Not even if you use “newer” tools like PowerPoint, tablet PCs and visualisers (instead of white boards and overhead projectors), because, according to Alexandria School, a Secondary 3 student from a well-known school, such lessons – which are already the norm for her – are “boring”.

Teachers as Action Researchers

To make learning “as exciting as Disneyland” (as Mr Gerver envisions it to be) some of our schools are already experimenting with new methods that make teachers “action researchers”.

For example, Prof Looi helped Mayflower Primary put in place a “Group-Scribbles” system that works like a virtual notice board with sticky notes that students can “write” on. The teacher poses questions and students “paste” their answers onto the board.

Rather than doing it the traditional way, where teachers might have struck fear in class by pinpointing out students to answer questions, this system creates a “safe learning environment”.

Students, now cloaked by anonymity, can respond without fear of ridicule. The entire class, including the teacher, focus more on the ideas generated rather than on the person giving the answer.

In this way, teachers can gauge the students’ conceptual understanding from the general response and are able to help correct misconceptions, if any, on the spot.

A similar system using “” is used in Ngee Ann Secondary without anonymity by Ms Rachel Poh, an English Language and Literature teacher. By tapping into students’ natural inclination for text messages, she has seen dramatic results.

Compared to the past when lessons wind to a quick close from a lack of interaction, the students were so engaged that they answered not just her questions but also commented on their classmates’ answers – behaviour commonly displayed on Internet forums and social networking sites. The session was extended to allow the students to continue posting their comments after they went home. Now, that’s homework on demand.

Getting more to join the Bandwagon

The results from all that experimentation have been encouraging, with pilot studies by the Ministry of Education (MOE) showing that students found ICT-integrated lessons to be interesting and engaging.

For example, in Marsiling Secondary, about 80% of students who used an online collaborative environment in their lessons reflected high motivational levels, with a majority participating actively in online discussions.

MOE also has a range of workshops to help teachers pick up the necessary skills to respond to this new learning environment. From 2010, it will train more than 1,000 ICT Mentors to raise the level of ICT used in schools. To foster collaboration and the sharing of ideas and resources, the ministry has also created ICT platforms such as edumall2.0 and iSHARE.

Informally, schools that have experimented with ICT are also enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. Kranji Secondary, for instance, has been organising the “National ICT Sharing Session” since 2003. The session usually sees some 600 teachers from across Singapore gathering for an afternoon at the school’s 40 classrooms to trade notes on their ICT projects.

baby using macbook

Coming up next

The next wave is expected to be in the realm of mobile computing – or what Mr Sam Wong, Principal of Canberra Primary, calls “in-between computing” – when computing devices are used while travelling from one place to another.

Noting that one of the government’s goals is to move towards giving every student a computer, Mr Wong believes we need to maximise this by changing the way we think of ICT in education.

The point is not simply to “throw away all the textbooks” and just put everything on the computer but to harness the way the young of today are already using mobile devices.

For example, what is the first thing children do when they get on the bus or MRT these days? They would whip out their mobile devices, be it the iPhone, PlayStation, Nintendo DS, or even the most basic mobile phone, and become lost in their own world. Mr Wong wants to ride on the power of this “in-between computing” to get students to learn.

Some pioneers like Canberra Secondary’s Dr Mohammad Nizam Bin Abdul Kadir are already taking baby steps. He has developed an EMLAT (Extreme Mobile Learning with Authoring Tools) system, where he records videos of science lessons in a format that is compatible with the existing mobile devices that the students already carry – regardless of their phone model.

Unlike traditional classroom teaching where the teacher is limited by the number of times he can repeat a lesson, the students could now watch the videos wherever they are and learn at their own pace.

Preparing our kids for their future

The advantages of using ICT in education are numerous. Ms Chea of Rulang Primary once found the adoption of ICT in schools a “horrifying” experience and used to cringe at the thought of having to use the computer. Now she enthuses about how much more convenient the technology has made administrative tasks such as the analysis of results.

She also likes the scalability where one resource can be shared by many at once across physical boundaries. This became important especially during the SARS and H1N1 crises, when students were required to stay at home.

Dr Nizam found that because students’ interest in the subject had been piqued through interactive ICT-infused lessons earlier on, they were more motivated when the time came for them to hit the books to prepare for their “O” Level examinations.

Singapore Teachers’ Union General Secretary Edwin Lye notes that the role of the teacher has evolved into one of being “facilitator” and “changeagent”. Teachers should excite students about life-long and self-directed learning, and help them develop critical thinking skills, so that they can tell good information from disinformation or misinformation.

They should also inculcate a strong core of values that allow students to understand on their own that acts like bullying are socially undesirable, whether they occur in the real world or in cyberspace.

To not only survive but to thrive in the world that is now about exponential change, uncertainty, globalisation and communication, they will need to be self-confident, flexible, and creative,

said Mr Gerver, who stressed that the young will have to be risk takers and “amazing” communicators with high levels of emotional intelligence in order to cope with constant change.

Therefore, the objective is to create a school environment that encourages face-to-face interaction to build students’ collaborative and communication skills, and to develop a curricula that helps them become successful learners and confident individuals. These are the life skills that educators agree would help our children tackle the unknown future in their world.

teenagers on their phones

To ask or not to ask

Building on her colleague’s experiment with a “Newton bot”, teacher Rachel Poh worked with Microsoft to develop a “William Shakespeare bot”, where answers about the life and background of the dead poet and playwright are input into a robot and lessons are conducted through the Windows Live Messenger platform where students fill in a Facebook profile-like worksheet about Shakespeare.

This took a lot of planning ahead, where she had to come up with the worksheet, a list of standard question and answers, as well as to brainstorm with colleagues about other potential questions that the students might ask.

Testing was done with a small group of students to make sure that the way the teachers had phrased the questions was the same as how students would ask them, before the system could go “live”.

The results more than made up for the hard work as students chatted enthusiastically with the dead poet who came “alive” as their new “Messenger friend”. Ms Poh said:

They were amazed and kept asking if there was some poor technician hiding in a dark room somewhere answering their questions as they typed them in. It made the lesson fun for the teachers too.

Shanghai’d to Singapore

At Canberra Primary, one of the six pioneer batch of FutureSchools@Singapore, Principal Sam Wong has an ambitious plan to bring a miniature Shanghai Expo, which sits on the banks of the Yangtze River, to his school’s “4D Immersive Lab”.

Students are tasked to gather information in the form of video clips, weblogs and trivia on 12 of the pavilions during a visit in June, so that a virtual Expo can be brought to life in the lab through 14 interactive life-sized 3D screens. To extend the school room into students’ living spaces, Mr Wong even plans to make the facility available to members of the public in future.

^ Main Entry: zeit·geist
Pronunciation: \’tsīt-‘gīst, ‘zīt-\
Function: noun
Usage: often capitalised
Etymology: German, from Zeit + Geist spirit
Date: 1835
the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era

* Gen X Born between 1961 and 1976
Gen Y Born between mid-1970s and mid-1990s
Gen Z Born from 1995 onwards
    Jul 6, 2010
    Ng Hwee Koon
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