by Myko Balbuena (15A01B) & Joyce Er (15A01A) with Shane Vivek Bharathan (1B) & Walden Sun Shao Yao (1B)
To the average Rafflesian, ‘e-learning’ means an extra holiday and the name ‘Raffles Discovery Studio (RDS)’ rings nary a bell. But to a core team of nine dedicated personnel unobtrusively ensconced in a nook of Block A, e-learning—or ‘education technology (EdTech)’ as they prefer—is what they wake up for every day. Led by Mr Jerome Lo, the motley crew comprises bookworms, programmers, designers and so on. ‘I’m not a cable splicer or programmer,’ Mr Lo disclaims to our surprise early into the interview, before adding, ‘that doesn’t mean I don’t know much.’ We’re inclined to agree. An MBA-holder with a razor-sharp wit and 12 years of polytechnic lecturing experience under his belt, Mr Lo offered us a wryly realistic perspective on EdTech’s potential and limitations, and staggered us with his unshakable faith in his team.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Always one to push the envelope, Mr Lo proposed the original three-year EdTech plan to Raffles Junior College in mid-2006 after realising that the standard one-to-many method of instruction was not the way his polytechnic students wanted to learn. He pointed out the inefficiency of this standard approach: ‘Why can’t I just view a video at night and have more time for one-to-one engagement during tutorials, especially since you can rewind videos as many times as you want?’ Deciding that technology was the solution to reducing this inefficiency, Mr Lo initially became an Apple-distinguished educator to better supplement his teaching, which later gave way to his own research in the education technology field.
Mr Lo acknowledges that the A-Levels programme culminates in a set of traditional written assessments in which computer literacy is irrelevant. ‘With the A-Level system, there’s a disparity between assessment methods and the kind of technology you should be using to learn,’ he says.
Despite this, he still believes that EdTech has a place in Rafflesians’ everyday learning: ‘While technology does not increase your grades, it accelerates your ability to learn something, and I see that as something valuable.’
For him, EdTech boils down to the simple question of, ‘How can I best use technology to help repackage learning content? You don’t want to throw formulas at the students immediately; you want to break a single topic down into three activities.’ He devised his contact equilibrium model, which consists of dividing content into ‘pre-contact’, ‘actual contact’ and ‘post-contact’ phases. Pre-contact activities include watching videos prior to a lesson, which primes students to understand a concept by showing how it can be applied in the real world. Lesson time is then used to explain the theory in greater detail—
be it a complex algebraic formula or the pathophysiology of a biological disorder. Subsequently, a post-contact activity would serve to validate and reinforce what they have learned, closing the cycle of exposure, internalisation and application.
Mr Lo drew inspiration for his approach from his own memories of class activities, such as walking in front of a street light at twilight to measure the rate of change of the shadow cast. ‘This activity stuck in my mind back then, but back then I didn’t have YouTube. It’s the same pedagogy with the same instructional design, but now we have technology to support that, enabling us to effectively teach a learning concept much faster.’
To that end, the original three-year proposal was meant to aid teachers in building content or establish a framework for creating content within a learning management system so they can use e-resources more effectively. It also intended to provide professional training for staff wishing to be trained in education technology and development tools, while providing students with fundamental technological literacy.
‘WHEN THERE’S A BIT OF TRUST, ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN’
Although the management of RJC took an interest in his initial proposal, making this the EdTech Department’s eighth year of existence, it still meets with its fair share of detractors from time to time, most of whom are understandably teachers who are sceptical of newfangled, technology-intensive methods of teaching. Much of this wariness stems from the misconception that EdTech is meant to be a complete replacement for traditional methods of teaching, whereas the reality is far less invasive and earth-shattering. In fact, Mr Lo had to repackage ‘e-learning’ as a softer ‘education technology’ approach, knowing he had to make the concept palatable to more instructors. As he told us, ‘I always thought digital technology plays a supplementary role in teaching and the word ‘e-learning’ was intrusive to some.’
Thankfully, the marketing move seems to have worked, paving the way for more teacher innovation to occur. Where a great deal of EdTech’s work had focused on the recording of lectures (last year alone, the RDS streamed over a million hours of lecture recordings on Discovery@Raffles, RI’s official e-learning portal), teachers are now going beyond merely recording content to actually building it.
At the time of this interview, the EdTech team had just completed a three-day immersive network game on immunology for RI Year 1-4 Gap Semester and Raffles Academy students with Dr Jeffrey Lee, an RI Year 1-4 teacher. This required them to make 3D models and understand a new gaming programming language called Unity, which proved a gamble given the small size of their department and the intensity of such research.
But as with every project that passes through the RDS’ doors, there are insights to be gleaned from analytics. Tracking users viewing the lecture videos on Discovery@Raffles reveals that while only a fifth of students review a lecture on the day itself, almost 100% of users access that same lecture video in the leadup to an assessment. Mr Lo takes this as a positive sign that the information produced is being used by learners.
Research on the effectiveness of certain EdTech strategies often happens in classroom-centric Year 1-4 lessons. The RDS changes one variable per class, trains the relevant teacher to use technology that goes towards the experimentation of that variable, and then collects qualitative data about students’ level of engagement with a given EdTech lesson based on their behaviour and body language. Generally, classes that are highly engaged are clustered around the front of the classroom, whereas leaning back and fidgeting is symptomatic of disinterest. By this metric, Mr Lo and his team can understand which technology works and which doesn’t, after which significant findings are shared with other teachers during innovation training courses.
‘IT’S ALL ABOUT PEOPLE’
It would seem that EdTech has a key role to play in encouraging teachers to think more critically about how learning technologies can be used to improve student learning. Of course, not every day is exciting, and for Mr Lo, the average day is less glamorous programming, more mundane resource management—and surprisingly, not of computers or software, but of people. The bulk of his work comprises prioritising and re-deploying the resources for that day, as well as anticipating potential technical problems and solving them if they crop up. ‘Using a keyboard/mouse to do animation—that’s the easiest part of my job,’ Mr Lo quipped. ‘The unexpected problems are totally random and take up 80% of my effort and time.’ He has an especially heavy responsibility given that he leads his department in spearheading EdTech’s development in RI.
But for all his ambition and the inroads already made, Mr Lo is resolutely people-centred. When asked about his greatest accomplishment to date, he replied, ‘I always tell my staff that I am only as good as they are. I think my greatest achievement here is to take eight other individuals I’ve carefully nurtured, and make sure I help them realise their strengths and avoid work areas that are their weaknesses.’ As the team’s leader, Mr Lo regards giving support, direction and leadership to his colleagues as his primary responsibilities. He harbours no illusions about his importance, saying, ‘I would like to see myself as the glue to these pillars that makes this department as structurally sound as possible to support needs of RI.’
The diversity of his team’s background presents an enormous advantage, as it ensures that they are able to accomplish more and reach out to more people. For example, Ms Jane Tan, who was Mr Lo’s student ten years ago, often interfaces with teachers who are less receptive to new technology as she understands their points of view. ‘This way, we can better support them and give them the right tools. Suddenly, their oyster is a little bigger,’ concludes Mr Lo.