Borderless classrooms — Personalised learning, blended teaching

The pandemic, along with already existing blended learning technology, has transformed education over the past two years. From government policy to parents’ concerns, from existing technological infrastructure to social distancing protocols – the constraints on and challenges in education are myriad. But there have also emerged tremendous opportunities to permanently change the way learning is imbibed and teaching delivered.

In an in-person roundtable held in Singapore, organised by Jicara Media and hosted by Lenovo and Google, senior executives from Singapore’s education sector explored the transformative effect technology in the classroom, and discussed how it will impact education in the long term.

The impact of the pandemic on education

Like most other sectors, the education sector in Singapore and around the world has been badly affected by COVID-19. Early into the pandemic, especially, abrupt lockdowns and government restrictions meant that most educational institutes were forced to shift to remote learning.

When this happened, some educational institutes in Singapore were better able to grapple with the situation than others. For example, many had already begun adopting e-learning and digitisation to varying degrees, and saw these initiatives being accelerated when remote learning was imposed.

Others, meanwhile, had to struggle to implement remote learning from the ground up. Early learning institutes, in particular, were confronted with the need to rethink their entire pedagogical approach and pivot away from the immersive, socially oriented learning that has traditionally defined kindergartens. Adding to their difficulties was the fact that younger children are not independent learners, and working parents were forced to then shoulder the responsibility for their children’s learning. Likewise, for specialised courses in higher learning such as the performing arts, as well as courses requiring specialised equipment in laboratories, remote learning was unfeasible.

For institutes with a large number of international students or international programs, the global lockdowns and travel restrictions posed a different set of challenges. Certain schools, for example, was forced to cancel overseas internships, which used to be a core component of its curriculum. Other schools, meanwhile, saw its international students confined to their home countries, some of which did not have stable internet connections or adequate infrastructure.

Challenges with e-learning

Most institutes have now adapted to remote learning. Even where lockdowns have been lifted, most institutes have retained virtual classrooms to complement physical classrooms. In spite of having all the right technologies in place, however, e-learning has not been without its challenges.

One of these is student integrity. In e-learning, educators find themselves without the means to verify that students have completed assignments without external assistance. And while there are tools that can detect issues like plagiarism, such as Google’s originality report, these do not guarantee student integrity in all cases.

E-learning has also come with administrative challenges such as the grading of students. In weighted grading systems, for example, schools take into account physical factors such as a student’s attendance or level of classroom interaction. With e-learning, such factors either no longer apply, or cannot accurately be used, leading to the need to redesign grading systems.

On a technological level, most participants agreed that there is a need for platform integration. Presently, educators use a multitude of platforms and tools, from video conferencing software like Google Meet and Zoom, to a variety of Learning Management Systems. This has resulted in the need for educators to toggle between the different platforms, making teaching and administration more complex than is desirable. Seamless integration, said the participants, would simplify the processes and leave more time for more value-added work.

Tools to measure student engagement

With home-based learning, a significant challenge for educators lies in measuring student engagement, and, consequently, pedagogical effectiveness. Unlike the physical classroom, which allows teachers to observe a student’s response, remote learning severs the ability to receive quick feedback through body language and facial expressions.

As such, companies such as Google are coming up with solutions that rely on AI and wearable technologies such as Fitbit, via which teachers are able to track students’ emotions. The data is then transmitted to a personalised dashboard for teachers, who can then analyse students’ responses to the lesson.

Blended learning: the future of education

All participants agreed that neither the physical classroom nor virtual learning should be compromised post-pandemic, and that the future of education has to incorporate both – something known as blended learning.

In order for this to be effective, however, e-learning has to reworked to take full advantage of the technologies available today. Currently, a participant argued, virtual classrooms merely replicate physical classrooms, without taking into account the pros and cons of each medium. This, he said, has been the result of the suddenness of the pandemic, leading to e-learning technologies being used for crisis management rather than to enhance pedagogy.

The benefits of e-learning, the participants agreed, is its ability to make learning more personalised. An online-first approach needs to be crafted, in which pedagogical methods take into consideration the unique profile of the learner.

The event concluded with a participant highlighting that students today are learning in ways most working adults have never experienced. Therefore, students should be given more agency and autonomy, instead of having a system imposed upon them by educators who might not fully understand how learning has transformed.