“It takes a long time to become young,” Pablo Picasso said. The visionary artist could teach a thing or two to government officials: the public sector must not leave the boldness of youth behind.

Republic Polytechnic’s tech chief believes its youth gives it an edge. It is the youngest of Singapore’s five polytechnics, and “we aim to do something different”, says Neo Yong Chiang, the polytechnic’s Chief Information Officer.

The polytechnic has a vision to become a “smart campus”, and will tailor services to students’ needs – even predicting when they need support.

Data, data everywhere

Neo Yong Chiang

To achieve this, the polytechnic needs data. It will collect and analyse data on students through sensors across campus. “It’s about how you get the most out of this data for the benefit of students,” he says. Sensors will include internet protocol video cameras and wireless network access points across campus.

For instance, the data could help lecturers better understand students’ academic performance by analysing their social and study habits. “We want to be able to spot issues upfront, so that we can intervene and help before it gets too late,” he adds.

Next, Republic Polytechnic wants to provide a better experience for students, staff and visitors through mobile apps. For example, students could find less crowded corners of the library by looking at live video feeds on their phones. Staff can automatically register their attendance at events through their smartphones. And visitors can be prompted about nearby facilities and seminars based on their location.

This data must be kept secure, he acknowledges, and a focus on security is a top priority for the institution. “It’s important to make sure this data is secure and protected,” he says. It must earn the trust of staff and students that the polytechnic keeps their data secure.

Student power

Some of these apps and services will be built by the polytechnic’s own students. “Being young, they may have more creative ideas,” Neo says. The polytechnic has students studying information technology, software development, user experience design and media production, among other disciplines.

A central committee is working with representatives from the various schools to get ideas from students. It does not plan to have a formal competition or award to incentivise students. “It’s going to be organic because the interest and passion has to come from them,” Neo says. Students can build the apps as part of projects for their coursework or as a separate trial with the polytechnic.

Hiring additional IT staff is a current challenge for the polytechnic, Neo says, given the competition across Singapore. “It’s harder to find people that have the right fit to do what we want to do,” he says. “If we are going to start doing these things by ourselves, we will always be limited”. Working with students will ease this limitation, he hopes.

The polytechnic will support the student developers by giving them access to campus data. “We have a lot of data they can leverage on, as long as it is not sensitive.” Students are already building their own apps, but these cannot be tested without real data. Giving them access to the polytechnic’s data will allow them to build better services.

Students in turn will gain work experience. “This is a good opportunity for them to understand how the corporate world will work out there”, Neo says. They will have more room to experiment with new ideas and learn how to overcome mistakes during the project.

Digital learners

Republic Poly student

Republic Polytechnic uses a different learning approach, which calls for greater use of technology in classrooms too. Problem-based Learning requires students to solve problems modelled on real-world scenarios, and they must often work in groups.

Every enrolled student is required to have a laptop, and WiFi is available across the entire campus, Neo says. Even exams are largely conducted online, with the exception of certain courses which require drawing on paper.

Students use a cloud-based tool to complete assignments from anywhere and work on group projects. By the end of the year, this tool will be integrated with the polytechnic’s learning management system, Neo says, creating a single platform for e-learning.

It is also working on a joint project with Singapore’s four other polytechnics. PolyMall will allow any polytechnic student to take courses and access material from the other polytechnics, Neo says. The project will be rolled out by the end of the year.

Ever changing

Republic Polytechnic’s smart campus vision must constantly evolve and adapt, he believes. “I don’t think there will be an end-state; I think it’s progressive,” Neo says. As new teaching methodologies are developed, it will have to change the way it uses technologies. And as new technologies come about, it will have to learn how people use these.

This will be a challenge for how the polytechnic implements tech projects. Constantly evolving tools will make it harder to plan investments and resources. The polytechnic must use data to understand what works and improve further on it, Neo says.

It’s easy to brush off the young as naive, but Republic Polytechnic’s bold vision shows that it means serious business.

Photos of Neo Yong Chiang and student by Republic Polytechnic