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Being smart about schools

By Dr GAN SIOWCK LEE

GUESS what? The article in last month's column drew quite a few responses expressing support for BBGS to retain its name for posterity. Thanks to all of you for sympathising with our cause. That was indeed a pleasant surprise!

What came as no surprise, unfortunately, was the usual silence from those in a position to make decisions on this issue.

Interestingly, there were also e-mail from people who couldn't suppress their curiosity: they wanted to find out what exactly the Cherry Blossom Brides Catalogue is all about.

I hope my reply to them has more than gratified their inquisitive minds :)

One reader with a great sense of humour ventured to make a guess: a catalogue for mail-order brides who come packaged with fresh cherry blossoms? He has got to be kidding!

Back to the more serious matter of IT and Education. I received e-mail from readers offering their views and ideas about "smart schools." Due to space limitations, I could select just a few of the responses to share with you.

Let's start with what education technology specialist Dr Chan Chang Tik has to offer:

"Recently I attended the Educational Technology Convention held in Johor Bahru and I would like to share a few interesting points I picked up at the convention.

"The idea of the smart school was mentioned and this time I am glad that the emphasis is more on the process of learning and teaching and not on the technology per se.

"The main speaker even toyed with the idea of virtual classroom, where a student would be able to progress at his own pace with the help of technology.

"This, in fact, is in line with my Master's degree thesis on individualised learning with computers (ILCOM). Individualised learning (IL) is worth considering in smart schools and it must be incorporated into the instructional design for the school.

"At last, the concept of IL might have a place in Malaysia. With IL, a student does not need to wait for his fellow students to catch up with him academically. He can easily move on to the higher level and his progress will not be hindered by the performance of the other students.

"In my study, I found ILCOM to be more beneficial to the low academic ability students than the high academic ability students.

The students responded positively to ILCOM and they were more willing to explore learning with the computer. The end results were that they learned more, especially the low academic ability students.

"All these talks on technology and smart schools still boil down to one thing, culture. Are we ready to accept changes? Or are we going to sit back and watch changes go by?

"Certainly, we do not expect teachers to become computer wizards overnight, but they should show some enthusiasm to get involved actively in the changes.

"If this culture of accepting changes with an open mind is not prevalent, then I am afraid whatever technology will just come and go in vain."

Lee Fook Wai, A Form Five student from the Methodist Boys' School, Kuala Lumpur, has this to say:

"I'm positive that smart schools will be the right nursery for nurturing young minds for the new challenges of tomorrow. We can't deny this. But let's hang on a second.

"Earlier press statements seem to suggest that smart schools are for "selected" students. My question is, what about the rest? It looks like those who are able to show their "giftedness" (if this word exists) at an earlier stage of life will be given priority in these so called "smart schools," leaving those late bloomers to fend for themselves in the other ill-equipped schools.

"I'm not saying that the Education Ministry should have all the children in this "smart school" project. I don't think we have that kind of money. What I would like to point out here is, with the amount of money that will be allocated for the smart school project, let's have it distributed to all existing schools evenly so that they can all be "upgraded" to a certain reasonable extent.

"No favouritism, privilege or whatever. If we want to do something big, we do it together. Where is our sense of fair-play if only a selected group of students stand to benefit from such a mega project?"

John Lim of DJnet fame puts in his one ringgit worth:

"Here's my one ringgit worth (inflation-lah ;) on the smart schools concept.

"From what I have read so far, smart schools seem to rely a lot on computers. Not that I'm saying this is bad. In fact, this smart schools concept is a very commendable effort and could prove to be a right step in the right direction if implemented correctly.

"But, all the high tech and computers cannot replace the teachers. I'm probably digressing a bit here, but computer technology has not reached a state where it can match the human intelligence yet.

"Sure, you have AI and all that, but nothing beats what God has given us, our brains. Want to debate on Deep Blue versus Kasparov? Nothing but human intelligence versus sheer computing power. Even the IBM officials themselves said that.

"Regarding the implementation of CAI in smart schools, yup, you're right, it isn't feasible to put computers in the classrooms of our old school buildings just yet. As you implied, the physical setup (such as security, layout etc.) of the Malaysian classroom is not ready for computers.

"I think another problem lies with our students. Vandalism is quite common in Malaysian schools. If students can't even take care of furniture, what more delicate, expensive equipment like computers?

"So, as of now, I guess the smart school will be something like a pilot project to set the benchmark.

"Having said all that, if you ask me whether I would like to study in a smart school, I would be hesitant. The current batch of zealous young students (your own words) is what the existing school system has churned out, right? :)

"So, I'd rather adopt the `wait-and-see' attitude for the time being."

Hmm. Looks like John is not too keen to become a guinea pig. Not even if it's in a golden cage?

In my previous article, I stated that smart schools should implement a curriculum that enables pupils of different abilities, needs and interests to learn better, maximise their potential, and at the same time become computer- or technology-literate.

It implies the dual-goal of using various resources (including the computers and IT) to enhance the teaching-learning process, and providing students the opportunity to acquire computer and IT literacy.

To meet these goals, I have recommended an IT-across-the-curriculum approach which requires some revamping of the existing school curriculum.

Two more areas of concern that beg for the attention of decision-makers and education managers are, I reiterate: the development of effective strategies for the professional development of teachers; and the development of organisational arrangements in schools to accommodate cross-curricular linkages.

Dr Chan addressed the goal of enhancing the teaching-learning process when he touched on the issue of using the computers for individualised instruction.

Yes, ILCOM has a place in the smart school. However, the scenario of a virtual learning environment which allows learners to proceed at their own pace in any subject area needs a re-definition.

Individualised learning should now embrace the additional dimension of providing remedial programmes for the slower learners, and enrichment programmes for students who are ahead and need to be challenged.

It should no longer be confined to the use of hierarchically-arranged computer-based learning materials which focus on mere subject matter. In fact, IT challenges such an approach that directs passive competitive student learning towards the reproduction of mere knowledge.

Instead, it supports the theory of learning designed to increase the active and collaborative involvement of students working cooperatively in problem-solving ventures. This is where cooperative learning comes in.

Any way, I do agree with Dr Chan's view that for technology to make a positive impact on the education process, the readiness of teachers to accept changes is a prerequisite.

This readiness is undoubtedly what we hope to inculcate both in the pre-service and the remedial in-service teacher education programmes.

Just how much have we done in this area and what have we achieved? This leads back to one of the two concerns raised earlier: the development of effective strategies for the professional development of teachers.

Have we worked out some nationwide training strategies? As for the second concern pertaining to the development of organisational arrangements in schools to accommodate cross-curricular linkages, I would say that we have a long way to go.

Indeed, few people seem to realise that integrating IT across the curriculum challenges both the content and structure of a curriculum that for eons, have been represented by defined knowledge predominantly organised through bounded subjects.

The fact is that an integration approach promotes a theory of knowledge that is based upon transferable key cross-curricular processes, with less emphasis on learning outcomes in the traditional sense.

Are we looking into how organisational arrangements should be changed to accommodate such a curriculum?

Now, Lee Fook Wai has expressed his objection of channelling financial resources to one smart school complex for the benefit of a few thousand gifted students.

His scepticism and apprehension are rational and valid. This is especially so if the smart school complex is meant to be just a pilot or experimental project.

Do we need to spend that much money to do an experiment? Unless, of course, if we are in the rat race to achieve another first in the Guinness Book of Records or whatever!

By saying this, I am perhaps just playing the devil's advocate. To be fair, no details have yet been disclosed about this mega project. So, let us not get riled up, at least for the time being.

Sure, there was mention of selected students, but let's hope it means a representative selection or sample comprising a wide spectrum of students in terms of abilities and other criteria.

And when the time comes for selection, let's hope such criteria will be made more transparent.

If indeed we are going to splurge on one such experimental complex, we should try to justify this by doing things well and right, from the very start.

Let's say this is a pilot project _ which calls to mind some pilot projects without reported findings and results. We would do well by involving education experts from local universities with good track records of research in relevant areas of study.

In fact, I would go so far as to propose running the whole complex as a laboratory school affiliated with one or more local universities. This is, in fact, a common practice in a lot of universities in the United States, where the Colleges/Schools of Education manage lab schools in which they experiment with various innovative ideas in the teaching-learning process.

By having such a link, the teachers in the smart/lab school can then learn on the job from, as well as work hand-in-hand, with the lecturers/researchers to make things work.

This also provides a conducive setting for the problem-solving action research much encouraged by the Education Ministry.

A project of this nature and scale is not a simple task that can be adequately handled by foreign consultants and ministry officials, without the participation of local researchers.

School pages

I think enough has been discussed about the smart school project. Let's now take a look at some students' responses about school web pages.

Here's an example, from Andrew Lim of SM Anderson, Ipoh:

"With reference to your article -- Promote your school on the Web -- in In.Tech, Oct 29, I would say I agree with Chok Leang's vision of a more significant Malaysian participation on the Net.

"I'm a 15-year-old student in Ipoh who has been using the Internet for about five months. Most students here have to buy their own computers and pay a hefty sum of money for connecting to the Net because schools don't have Internet access.

"Speaking of school web pages, I have always wanted to design and make a homepage for my school, but sadly, the interest level hasn't been high in our local schools for this kind of project.

"So the first thing that the government should do is to start giving schools Internet access. This step will definitely encourage students to make use of the Internet resources for learning purposes.

"I have visited the DJnet homepage and I think it would indeed be a great achievement for Malaysian schools to start making their presence felt on the Internet. I would certainly like to see my school and other schools start connecting to the Internet as soon as possible."

Judging from Andrew's and other students' responses, most students seem to share Cheok Leang's vision of a greater and more significant Malaysian participation on the Internet in the future.

They are all eager to work towards this vision by learning through the first step of making homepages for their schools.

With this, I'll bid you farewell until next month. Meanwhile, if you have any interesting observations or views to share with us about IT and education, please don't hesitate to write in.


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