Special Report

Singapore’s Digital Path

By Rhea R. Borja — May 06, 2004 12 min read
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Imagine high school students voting for student council president on their cellphones. Or 14-year-olds creating communications software, then possibly selling it to the national government. Or how about a teacher carrying the equivalent of a desktop computer on a device hanging on a keychain?

In Singapore, this is reality.

This tropical city-state just north of the equator has long been the educational wonder of Asia, with its graduates scoring in the top two or three percentiles on international tests. Now, Singaporean schools are embracing and using technology unseen in all but a few countries.

Leaders here hope this shift toward technology will not only produce more educated students, but also develop a new breed of Singaporean, one that will bring the country to the forefront of the global marketplace.

“One of the key adjustments under way is in the way we educate our young so as to develop in them a willingness to keep learning, and an ability to experiment, innovate, and take risks,” Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the then-senior minister of state for trade, industry and education, said in a July 2002 speech. “Our ability to create and innovate will be Singapore’s most important asset in [the] future.”

Singapore is tiny—a “little red dot,” former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie once said disparagingly. About the size of Chicago, it is dwarfed by its larger neighbors of Malaysia and Indonesia.

But this nation of 3.5 million people is also mighty. Its far-sighted economic plans helped push the country to become the world’s 25th richest, boasting a thriving economy and a predominantly middle-class society.

Its education system is no different. Singapore has ranked first or second on a benchmark worldwide comparison, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Many of its graduates also enter top colleges in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere.

In the traditional “learn and drill” culture of Singapore schools, students were taught to march a test-paved path toward graduation. Those who excelled on tests were tracked into the best schools. The result: graduates who were experts at “getting the right answers,” according to some officials.

But that’s not enough anymore, they say Many leaders here are concerned that Singapore students won’t compete as ably as their Western counterparts once they graduate. This lack of competitiveness, they reason, could knock the city-state off of its perch as an economic beacon in Asia and make it less relevant in an information-based world.

So educators are trying to develop a technology-based curriculum that will help produce a Singaporean Bill Gates—someone who won’t merely work for the many foreign multinational companies whose buildings dot the Singapore skyline, but one who will create his or her own.

“To improve life for our citizens, it’s not a matter of choice,” says Thiam Seng Koh, the director of the Ministry of Education’s educational technology division, “but [one] of necessity for us to go into [information technology].”

On a late January morning after the Lunar New Year, the heavy classroom doors at the elite, all-boys Chinese High School are shut tight against the plangent monsoon rains.

In one classroom, 12-year-old students in crisp white shirts and khaki shorts scoot their chairs toward their teacher. In rapid-fire English, science teacher Foo Young Lee tells students they’ll learn to measure objects such as ping-pong balls with calipers—both virtual calipers on their computer screens and physical ones they can hold in their hands.

The boys huddle two to a computer and start measuring in earnest. It’s a simple exercise, but one that helps these Secondary 1, or 7th grade, students increasingly use technology in their schoolwork and annual projects.

Technology is useful in fostering more independent, self-directed learning, says Meen Sheng Yap, a Chinese High School administrator and the director of corporate services. The school revamped its curriculum in the mid-1990s to develop a more entrepreneurial and critical-thinking student, one who personifies the school motto: Zi Qiang Bu Xi, or the “relentless pursuit of perfection.”

So students work on their required annual projects mostly on their own time. And their results often meld skills in several realms, such as technology and communications.

One group of students last year produced Electronic Link Forum, a communications software that includes e-mail, group messaging, file-sharing, and other features. The boys drew up a business plan and are now negotiating with the Education Ministry, which may buy the software, according to school officials.

“IT skills are necessary for our students,” says Yap. “We want students to follow the Chinese ideals of integrity, perseverance, and a strong work ethic. But we also want [them to have] a spirit of enterprise, a spirit of innovation.”

In fact, Singapore was one of the first countries to unveil a far-reaching, five-year national “master plan” to integrate technology in education, which it introduced in 1997. The nation invested about 1.5 billion Singaporean dollars, or about $883 million in U.S. currency, to install enough computers for a 8-to-1 student-to-computer ratio, wire all classrooms for Internet access, and train teachers to use technology.

Now in its second master plan, Singapore—whose catchphrase for education is “Thinking Schools, Learning Nation”—is building on that foundation. The ministry is focusing more on technology research and development, conducted in part by teachers. And it has formed online discussion forums for teachers.

Plus, teachers can vie for national technology awards. The Education Ministry partnered with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett Packard Co. to sponsor the “Innovation in Information in Technology” competition. Some of the teachers’ online lessons and Web sites may soon be commercialized and sold here in Singapore and abroad.

The ministry also sponsors student technology competitions, not just to spark creativity, but to broaden the number of online lessons and learning resources for all 360 of its schools. In its national digital-video competition, for instance, students create videos on subjects ranging from Chinese literature to physics. The ministry then packages the winning entries onto CD-ROMs and distributes them to all schools as curriculum supplements.

As part of the national technology project, “Learn@,” students spend one to several days in public institutions, such as the national zoo, parks, or museums. Led by local experts, they learn about ancient Southeast Asian art, for example, or the hunting habits of Bengal tigers. Afterward, the students design Web sites or online presentations on what they learned, which are then put on the Education Ministry’s Web site for schools to use.

These kinds of initiatives set Singapore apart, says Robert Kozma, an expert in international educational technology and the director emeritus of the Center for Technology and Learning, part of SRI International Inc., a nonprofit research institute based in Menlo Park, Calif.

Many countries have jumped on the technology bandwagon. But not many have so thoroughly integrated technology into their education systems, he says.

“That’s what makes Singapore unique,” Kozma says. “They see information technology as paying off to create a society that’s moving from the acquisition of factual knowledge and formal procedures to [one that develops] more creative and thoughtful individuals.”

Still, Kozma cautions that Singapore’s embrace of technology could put it on unstable ground. The country’s move to a more innovative curriculum and increased use of technology might result in lower test scores, he says.

“This is a considerable risk for them,” says Kozma. “They could move from a system [whose students] do very well [on tests] to one that does not.”

The 1,900-student Chinese High School, which sprawls across 79 acres of a former rubber plantation, is a technology test laboratory of sorts. Both Singaporean and foreign high-tech companies “beta test” some of their products with the school’s teachers and students.

Some school administrators recently tested—and rejected—several newfangled laptop computers, partly for their clunky ergonomics. But one gizmo they liked enough to introduce schoolwide is the thumb drive, a storage drive small and light enough to hang on a keychain, but packing enough power to carry all the files and data from a personal computer.

“We’re a lighthouse school,” Yap says. “We carry out a certain level of experimentation.”

Indeed, the Education Ministry gave the school $830,000 (in Singaporean dollars) to develop online, multimedia teaching materials that the ministry can distribute to all schools. Chinese High also has nine “learning and research centers” that supplement the core curriculum.

Information technology is one of the “mini-majors” in those centers. Others include phototonics or the science of light, entrepreneurship, and “people development.” Most employ technology, such as teaching students how to use an interferometer to measure the length of lightwaves or showing local primary pupils how to build their own Web sites.

Technology also extends learning beyond the school campus, sometimes in unexpected ways. The SARS health crisis, which hit Asia the hardest and killed more than 800 people worldwide, closed schools and brought business to a halt throughout the region last year.

Yet it didn’t slow down learning much, says Joseph Tan, the director of support services for Chinese High.

Safely ensconced in their homes, teachers conducted classes and spoke with students via their laptop computers. They also added more lessons and class assignments online for students, almost all of whom have home computers.

Students couldn’t play hooky, either. The teachers’ software was configured so they could see who was logged on and participating and who wasn’t.

“We had students complaining that they were busier staying at home than being in school,” Tan says with a laugh. “They were a captive audience.”

This level of technology integration is far from uniform in Singaporean schools. Few have threaded technology into the curriculum as thoroughly as Chinese High, although all reached a student-tocomputer ratio in 2003 of at least 8-to-1.

Fuchun Primary School, located less than a 10- minute drive from the Malaysian border, is a typical elementary school. The school building—a multistory tan structure serving grades Primary 1 through 6— can barely contain its more than 2,000 pupils. Next year, the school will move to a bigger building. But for now, students and teachers must make do.

One recent morning, 40 Primary 6 pupils—or 6th graders—in light-blue and gray uniforms squeeze into a second-floor classroom. Forty is the average primary-class size in Singapore.

“Space is tight,” says teacher Dexter Lee. Though slender, he has to turn sideways to edge between the many rows of desks.

The class has only five notebook computers, so Lee struggles to make sure all students get to use them. For the first 15 minutes, 20 pupils work in their paper notebooks. The other 20 gather in teams of four to work around laptop computers for an online science lesson. After 15 minutes, the two groups of 20 switch places.

School officials purchased laptops instead of desktop computers because the smaller machines are more mobile. They also maximized learning space by installing 10 Internet-connected computers, encased in protective hard plastic, underneath the stairwell by the cafeteria, which they call the canteen.

In addition, the school invested in technology tools such as “data loggers,” portable electronic probes that record measurements such as temperature, humidity, and light intensity. Teachers also encourage students to take part in events such as a junior national robotics competition.

“We’re trying to ensure that [students] are stretched to their limits,” Lee says.

The hot, fragrant subtropical air presses heavily on Victoria Junior College, one of Singapore’s top-tier upper-secondary schools. But inside a Chinese-language class this January morning, the air is cool and the lights dim.

The room is almost silent. The only sounds come from the 25 or so 16-year-old students furiously typing on computer keyboards and the frequent bursts of tinny electronic music crackling from their computer speakers.

Members of the class are finishing a timed, interactive online exercise on identifying Chinese idioms, or phrases.

An animated clip of one blue hippopotamus and one pink hippo lumbering toward each other fills one boy’s screen. The blue hippo bites the pink one’s nose. The pink one grimaces, then bites back.

The boy pauses, his agile fingers motionless over the keyboard. Then he quickly types the correct idiom in the blank answer box: Yí yá huán yá. Roughly translated, “An eye for an eye.”

Another student, Simon Chiang, looks up and says, “This helps me to remember the idioms because it’s visual. A book isn’t visual enough.”

Soundlessly, the teacher moves among the students as she checks their progress. She developed the online Chinese lessons, one of a growing number of teachers to do so. Teachers at this 1,700-student school vie for in-school awards— and bragging rights—for crafting the most effective uses of technology.

The school also recognizes those who progress from using little technology to building Web sites and making their lessons more interactive. School administrators say the awards are a way to encourage teachers, some of whom still feel intimidated by computers.

Students need no such prodding. While many American schools ban cellphones on campus, Victoria JC students register for classes, check their schedules, and vote in student elections through their mobile phones’ text-messaging systems.

Teachers are also encouraged to use cellphones. During the SARS crisis last year, they used their cellphones to report their personal body temperatures twice a day on the school’s main network.

The school’s use of technology is pervasive. In its open-air halls, giant plasma-screen monitors display daily events, announcements, and student-produced digital video clips. And the school’s 11 wireless access points let students work outdoors if they wish.

Victoria JC has eight technology labs outfitted with 150 Internet-connected laptops. More notebook computers, which students can check out, dot the school’s public areas. And its science and technology center offers research and learning opportunities in bioinformatics, robotics, and other subjects.

There’s even an online magazine and discussion forum on social, political, and global issues edited by one of the school’s teachers. The magazine, called Global Positioning (http://go.to/glopos), is a resource for other Victoria JC teachers, but it is read by students all over Singapore and from other countries. A recent issue addressing racism and homophobia in Singapore challenged many students’ views.

“Our Web presence gives students a chance to explore what they wouldn’t otherwise,” says teacher Dominic Chua, the magazine’s creator.

Victoria JC Principal Khah Gek Chan, a petite woman, nods her head approvingly at his comment.

“There is a high e-culture here,” says Chan. Still, the principal stresses that despite all the school’s technological bells and whistles, technology goes only so far.

“The key is the teacher,” she says. “The key is not the computer.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2004 edition of Education Week


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