Reinventing classes, pushing boundaries

Varsities like SIM University (UniSIM) seek to bring education closer to Singaporeans.
Varsities like SIM University (UniSIM) seek to bring education closer to Singaporeans.PHOTO: UNISIM

Any adult juggling work and studies would welcome time-saving ideas.

So imagine if they could take classes near where they live or at MRT stations.

These are possibilities as varsities like SIM University (UniSIM) seek to bring education closer to Singaporeans.

Learning is increasingly moving out of classrooms as technology makes available more options to teachers and students.

One innovation is the flipped classroom, so called because the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home while in-class time is spent on exercises, projects or discussions.

The model, which seeks to be less centred on the teacher and more on the learners, is used in institutions such as the Singapore Institute of Technology. It will become more common.

DEGREES MAY HAVE EXPIRY DATES

Degrees may likely not be completed in one continuous stint, but may be completed after a student has gone to work. Degrees will have a time limit of validity, and degree top-ups may be done several times over the working life of a graduate, for knowledge refreshing, new skills and knowledge acquisition, and change of jobs.

SIM UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT CHEONG HEE KIAT

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) introduced the pedagogy three years ago and uses it for courses such as renaissance engineering and medicine.

Professor Kam Chan Hin, NTU's senior associate provost of undergraduate education, says it has "ambitious plans" to redesign up to half of its courses using the flipped-classroom model by 2020.

As for online courses - which can be done anytime, anywhere - they will become the norm, say educators, as schools cater to the busy schedules of "working students".

Elite universities such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been offering massive open online courses on online platforms like Coursera and edX. Individuals pick up these short courses - from programming to introduction to classical music - at their own pace via the Internet.

UniSIM president Cheong Hee Kiat says: "There is presently an explosion of demand for university education, and this will continue. Online learning will be increasingly relied on to provide opportunities to such education."

Classrooms of the future will also look different. Rather than have students face the front, they may be seated in clusters and plugged into their mobile devices as they work on real-world projects, with the teacher's role shifting from lecturer to guide.

At NTU, an architecture oddity known as The Hive - made up of 12 eight-storey towers of stacked, rounded rooms - is built for this purpose. Its classrooms are equipped with flexible clustered seating, several LCD screens and wireless communication tools. NTU is building another such learning hub, which will be ready next year.

Elsewhere, data analytics and virtual reality are finding their way into classrooms.

The Singapore Management University has made use of digital games and applications to enhance the classroom experience. It also taps data analytics to get feedback on students' learning difficulties.

At the National University of Singapore, medical students get to use the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to better understand eye issues, such as colour blindness and tunnel vision, through a patient's perspective.

At the lower levels, more schools are experimenting with technology for learning.

Take Nan Chiau Primary, where some groups of pupils use their mobile devices, including tablets, in class. In science class for instance, they may grow a plant and record its progress with text, video, photos or audio recordings. That helps pupils to connect concepts taught to daily life.

And even as countries like Japan and China begin using robots as substitutes for teachers in schools suffering a staff shortage, most educators believe teachers will remain at the heart of education, with technology as a tool.

"Learning is a social activity," says Professor Cheong. "We can have machines, robots and artificial intelligence to enable learning" but they cannot replace "the empathy with someone encountering a learning difficulty, the encouragement to do better or pick up from a mistake, the emotions that pass between teacher and students and among students".

Calvin Yang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'Reinventing classes, pushing boundaries'. Print Edition | Subscribe