Will this be the classroom of 2050?

By Charlene Chin

Temasek Polytechnic plans to use virtual assistance, facial recognition and data tracking in the classroom.

“We tend to teach the way we were taught”, Tang Ming Fai, Director of Computer and Information Systems at Singapore’s Temasek Polytechnic, tells GovInsider.

But it’s out with the old - teachers now should adapt to the times. The “way we assess and engage students are different”, he says, and teachers must have a “willingness to experiment”.

How is Temasek Polytechnic gearing up for change? We caught up with Tang to find out more.

Facial recognition in classrooms

His team is looking into the use of facial recognition in classes, so lecturers will know when students start losing interest.

“We want to see, when the lecturer delivers the lectures, whether the students are paying attention - do they grasp the idea or they show a doubtful face?”, he says.

This will help lecturers intercede in their learning journey before exams, which would otherwise be “too late”, Tang says. The analysis will be anonymised so that individual students’ identities are not revealed.

“We do have to respect the students’ privacy”, he asserts. “That means we don’t go down to the individual student to say ‘this person was lost’, or ‘this person smiled’”.

Machine learning will crunch out the analysis and give an aggregate review of class emotions. “This way, I feel that the personal privacy is being protected, yet still able to benefit the class and lecturer”.

The school also wants to train teachers to build personalised performance dashboard, so they can track the progress of students efficiently.

He wants to give lecturers free reign on how they monitor and analyse data, as they understand their class the best.

“We may not build the best dashboard for them, because we do not know the business domain - how they want to monitor or analyse the data”, he says, so instead, the school teaches them “how to fish” by providing them with data sources.

This helps lecturers to intervene in their students’ academic progress. Key metrics can include attendance, for instance.

If a student “is not doing well because he has not been attending class, then it has nothing to do with the teaching method”, rather, it is an attitude problem, Tang explains.

The school can then engage the student to understand what is wrong. “This helps to break down the problem”. Further, Tang’s team is keen to roll out virtual assistants to serve students and staff.

“We try to have a lot of answers, and then anticipate what you ask and offer you the best answer”, he says. This can be used in libraries, and to answer public queries; and services can range from online to voice platforms.

Fear of change

Embracing tech requires guts. When the school first implemented off-campus learning, “there was an initial fear” that students will stop attending lessons anymore, he says. But this didn’t happen, and it taught his team that lessons shouldn’t have rigid structures.

It is “no longer one size fits all”, he says. “Sometimes you give a full hour of lesson, [but students] may not be able to absorb everything”.

The polytechnic is getting its students prepared by requiring one week without classroom lessons every year. They will use “e-learning to continue their lessons, submit their work, and interact with lecturers without physically coming to school”, Tang adds.

This is done to let “them know what technology has enabled them to do, and also as a kind of a business continuity practice; if we really have to shut the school, the learning is not disrupted”, he says.

Breaking down silos

aps exist between his IT staff and lecturers, and Tang is motivated to fix this. Some tech his IT staff are keen to implement are not practical for use in classes.

So he is encouraging them to teach “so they understand the lecturer”, and send lecturers to the IT department “to do some real system implementation”, he explains.

“With this mutual understanding, I think that's where change management will not be so much of resistance - they can speak the same language and see from each others point of view”.

But he isn’t blind to the limitations of technology. It won’t work for all classes, he cautions. “You must know what doesn’t work and move it out”, Tang says.

More importantly, “lecturers have to learn and adapt and use what is most suitable.” They have to bend to the times.