Cynthia is late for class. As she runs across the foyer looking for her lecture theatre, her phone beeps asking her to turn right and follow the hallway to her first lecture. She makes it – just in time.

This could be possible in the Singapore Polytechnic of 2030. The institute was Singapore’s first polytechnic, but it’s not too old for change. This year it has committed to becoming a smart campus, where lesson plans are data-driven and student services personalised.

GovInsider caught up with Loh Gin Chye, Director of Information and Digital Technology and Chief Data Officer, to find out how the polytechnic is gearing up.

An e-concierge for schools

Singapore Polytechnic is using data to personalise students’ experience on campus. When students log on to the campus wireless network, the school is able to identify and understand their needs. It can then “personalise and push down different services on demand to them” through the school’s smartphone app, Loh says. It can tell a student about an event that may be relevant, or that “this is the book recommended by your lecturers”, he continues.

The data will also help the school identify students at risk of falling behind. This will help teachers devise customised lesson plans and also prompt students to take up additional material if needed. It is currently trialling this approach in the mathematics department, where the system automatically recommends content to students.

The polytechnic’s lecturers are building the analytics models for this themselves. They use data on semester test results, attendance rates, and participation in class. “We are just trying diploma by diploma”, Loh says – as the trial expands, the model will be adapted to improve accuracy.

The school is also personalising support for staff to improve teaching. Learning analytics will allow lecturers to know their students’ profiles at the start of the term. “Information is pushed down to your mobile, and you don’t need to go and do your research to know that this student is likely to need help in this way,” Loh says.

A modern education

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Singapore Polytechnic is also using a new approach in classrooms to engage students. In the “flipped classroom” approach, the traditional sequence of teaching is reversed: students watch online lectures beforehand, and use time in class for questions and discussion.

This is a “more effective” use of face-to-face time in class, Loh believes. Students can delve into deeper discussions in class and participate in group activities, while teachers can spend more time with students who are falling behind.

The approach was first piloted with 300 engineering students. Results have so far shown that students using the new approach score higher in exams than those who don’t, Loh says.
It has now been implemented in “at least three different schools” in the polytechnic, he adds, and is being gradually rolled out to the remaining seven.

Teaching the teachers

Students aren’t the only ones learning at the institute. All staff are mandated to complete a Massive Open Online Course – or MOOC – on education technology within three years. It has allowed staff to interact with overseas educators and learn new approaches – for instances, how schools are using gamification to build new teaching models.

The initiative started in April last year, and the polytechnic has chosen three courses – two on Coursera, and one on edX – for lecturers and admin staff to learn from. Since launch, 50 percent of staff have completed their e-courses.

The school’s administrative staff have also put their training to good use. “Rather than writing pages and pages of menus”, they now give bite-sized information on internal policies like security and data privacy with video FAQs and infographics. “I think the key thing is that you actually will empathise and understand how classes work,” Loh says.

The digital chief has one caveat for all educators using technology: it should be used “only if it makes sense” and not as a blanket approach. Certain manual skillsets help students develop a good foundation, and should not be replaced, he believes. An architect still needs to be able to draw freehand, and a mathematician should know how to calculate mentally.

As the polytechnic equips students for their future, it must ensure that teachers and staff too are sharp. “In IT, the technology lifespan is quite short”, Loh says. When the tools of the trade change, “you need to relearn everything – very fast”.