Virtual Classrooms are virtually here


It is strangely in the field of education that the full consequences of ICT have not taken place yet. But that day is around the corner. How will it change the way we think about learning, teaching, education policies and knowledge itself?

At school I had decent handwriting, but it’s been steadily getting worse. More worryingly, the other day I was handed a paper map and absentmindedly tried to pinch-zoom it. I can remember life without the Internet or mobile phones. I can even remember writing whole essays by hand, but it’s no mystery what’s happening to me. Like many others, I’m obviously experiencing the side effects of heavy keyboard and touchscreen use.

In 1999, the Malaysian government launched an initiative to bring ICT to all state schools. The aim was all schools would be transformed into “smart” schools. Private schools also went “cyber”, and soon getting online became de rigueur. It was hoped that immersion into ICT would produce a new breed of “knowledge workers” ready for Malaysia’s upcoming Knowledge Economy.

In those early days, computer labs full of desktop PCs were standard. However, rows of desktops with fixed seating positions are unnatural; students are either facing the wrong way or hidden behind large CRT screens. Also, to make full use of precious lab time, teachers tended to plan their lessons around the technology, which misses the point of ICT as a teaching aid. Surely computers should support the lesson and not dominate it?

Laptop recharging in mobile lab.

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before Wi-Fi technology and falling hardware prices made laptops feasible in schools. A laptop’s discreet size creates a more natural classroom environment. Students could orientate themselves according to activity, sitting in small groups or working independently. Laptops could be brought into the classroom in specially designed trolleys that could carry up to 40 laptops, enough for one per student. Built-in Wi-Fi routers and wireless printers turned these trolleys into truly mobile computer labs that could easily be moved from class to class.

Faster Internet connections soon enabled new styles of teaching such as “blended learning” and “flipped classrooms”. Blended learning, or “mixed mode instruction”, means that students are taught through a combination of online digital content followed by the traditional face-to-face teaching methods. Basic information can be efficiently delivered to students when they watch or read the content on their laptops. Content can be centrally updated or modified by the teacher remotely, so students get the latest version even from home, and are able to work at their own pace. Without needing to lecture the basics or having to repeat themselves, teachers can spend more time on individuals and focus on the deeper aspects of the subject.

With flipped classrooms, students learn subject theory by watching online lectures/educational content at home. In class, they undertake practical/project work, closely supervised by their teacher who acts as a facilitator or consultant if students are stuck. This is a flipped or reversed version of the traditional scenario where the theory is taught during class time followed by project work set at the end – homework.

While new teaching methods are evolving, ICT has also matured. Following the huge success of iPads, tablets are quickly becoming the device of choice for schools. Touchscreen technology and highly intuitive operating systems are perfect for classrooms. At last, typing and operating Windows are no longer prerequisites to get online, making educational Internet resources accessible to primary and even preschool pupils. Online apps that take advantage of this technology are rapidly appearing, allowing students to draw, paint or make movies and music and edit them with simple finger gestures on the touchscreen; such activities would be clumsy on a traditional keyboard. Just like the laptops that came before, tablets can also be brought into class in special mobile trolleys, which can charge and synchronise multiple stored tablets with the latest apps and data. Tablets are undoubtedly becoming a boon for education.

Email may still be a powerful tool in education but lately students have been getting ideas from Internet 2.0, using the web’s vast array of services to publish their work. Using blogs, social network forums, classroom wikis and messaging software such as Skype, students can post coursework and share information in a multitude of ways which allow teachers or fellow collaborators to comment in real-time, collaborating and contributing to each other’s learning.

Those with fast Internet connections are beginning to store data online in what is known as “the cloud”. Cloud computing dispenses data and software traditionally installed in the hard drive, and work can now be saved in an online cloud account or on web apps like Google Docs. A tablet or laptop may be broken or missing, but the work is preserved. Many schools have been convinced to aim for a 1:1 system – each student is given a tablet or laptop to use all the time.

So far in Malaysia, most of the private schools I’ve talked to have chosen to provide either laptops or tablets in the classroom. Laptops originally trumped desktops by offering similar features in a highly portable package. But because they were originally designed for high-end business users, they inherited legacy hardware such as printer and network ports, DVD drives and removable storage card slots, making them more expensive than tablets. Also adding to cost is the bulky do-it-all operating system needed to run expensive software programmes, and schools have to hire trained IT technicians to manage them. These machines can also take several minutes to boot up, not good if you have 40 students waiting.

Thus tablets, though lacking the built-in keyboard, still trump laptops on overall simplicity and practicality. This isn’t surprising as tablets were originally designed to appeal to a broad and demanding consumer market – tablets are fuss-free and fun. Perhaps the real strength of tablets is the huge choice of easily affordable apps suited for almost any task. Also, tablets boot up almost instantaneously. For teachers, class time is paramount, so if a device doesn’t boot up in two or three minutes, they may revert to a lesson plan that doesn't use computers.

Thus far schools have generally tried to adapt business or consumer-orientated hardware for education, but now one of the biggest Internet players is taking a more direct approach. In partnership with various hardware makers – Samsung, Acer, Lenovo and HP, Google has recently launched its Google Chromebook concept specifically targeted at education. Chromebooks look like laptops – hailing the return of the keyboard – but are significantly thinner, lighter and cheaper than laptops and even some tablets. They run Google’s Chrome OS which can boot up in just 10 seconds. Their sole purpose is to connect to the Internet, whereby the device can then access web-based tools and applications, including online data storage from the cloud. Like tablets, Chromebooks also let teachers easily download and install apps without technical support staff. Between laptops and tablets, this latest development truly seems to offer the best of both worlds.

But I’m getting carried away, dazzled by all these shiny gadgets! The technology I’ve mentioned so far comes with a hefty price tag, especially when schools need to purchase scores of units at a time. Perhaps schools might adopt another technology that won’t cost them anything at all – the mobile phone.

Mobile lab being demonstrated to potential users.

According to a study by IDC Enders Analysis, 1.7 billion mobile phones were sold in 2012, which are part of the five billion mobile phones already in the world. Even basic phones have built-in cameras and texting capabilities; higher-end smartphones are practically mini-tablets, able to browse the Internet and connect to social networks via Wi-Fi or blazing fast 4G connections. Mobile phones have the most potential to make an immediate impact on teaching simply because they are already in the classroom. All it takes is some creativity to figure out how these little computers can facilitate learning.

For example, an English teacher at the British Council realised that his students, who are learning English as a second language, are more motivated to practise speaking if the subject matter is about things they are connected to1.

Of course, it would be a nightmare to write an essay with a tiny keypad. However, consider how mobile phones and digital music players such as iPods are awash with games specifically designed for their tiny touchscreens and built-in motion sensors, offering the player huge interactivity. Teaching using games isn’t new but the latest trend of “game-ified learning” may take things to the next level.

Duolingo is a free language learning website that does just this – it’s available as an iOS or Android app so it can be accessed by mobile phones too. The application’s interface is designed like a game, with levels laid out as a “skill tree”. To progress from skill to skill, one has to complete language exercises without losing too many “hearts” (game lives). Learners unlock higher levels as they progress and achievements are rewarded with gold coins accompanied by the encouraging sound of trumpets; if you fail you make the cute Duolingo Owl cry and have to replay the level.

What makes Duolingo very cool is that it uses the collective efforts of learners to translate tiny chunks of the Internet. After a few lessons learning the basics of a language, real world translation exercises are offered. These aren’t made-up sentences, but real content from the Internet, which gets more difficult as you progress. Duolingo charges third party customers for the crowd-sourced translation services but the lessons are free. I may have to translate a given topic, but even being a small part of a huge endeavour like translating the entire Internet is extremely motivating.

A ToWS Hummingbird Mobile Lab at British Council Kuala Lumpur.

I’m no longer wondering what technology we will see in classrooms of the future, but instead, what kind of classrooms we will build with that technology. Today, in a sense we could always be in some sort of classroom, albeit a virtual classroom, like a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Even though students might never set foot on campus or meet their lecturers in the flesh, these online distance learning courses offer solid real-world qualifications and, incredibly, are being offered by top universities for free. I can envisage future MOOC content and communication with lecturers being delivered to us via our smartphones or perhaps even Google Glass spectacles.

Finally, we should be aware that when our children become adults, they will probably hold job titles that don’t even exist today. We can’t expect them to stop learning just because they leave school. If they do that they might not be ready enough for what’s to come. They might even have to learn to write with a pen again.


Bram Tan is an industrial designer, photographer and Penangite living in Paris, France. He is married with two kids and loves motorbikes.

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