Putting the “i” into Singapore Schooling

With top rankings in PISA and TIMMS, Singapore is the envy of many schooling systems around the world. Whilst ICT is just one of a range of factors that affect learning outcomes, it is a key tool for meeting at least two of the four key desired outcomes of the Singapore schooling system – for all students to become self-directed and collaborative learners.

Singapore was one of the first countries in the world to have a national strategy for ICT in Schools. A succession of well-planned, funded and executed programmes focussing initially on infrastructure and training, and more recently focussing on self-directed learning – has driven effective use of ICT. For details of Singapore’s main ICT projects, see http://wp.me/P16Iyp-46

A great showcase for the effectiveness of this investment is Crescent Girls’ School, a member of the “Future School” programme, and recently awarded the status of Mentor School by Microsoft. Crescent also hosted the CRADLE conference on 1st – 3rd August.

On the surface, Crescent could be any other Secondary School, but a quick glance at the trophy cabinet next to the reception makes it clear that this school is totally committed to high performance. Crescent’s aim is to be at the forefront of harnessing technology to enhance learning outcomes. ICT is used extensively in both delivery and assessment and the school’s 1300 students each have their own Tablet PC. The goal of using ICT is to give students a degree of choice over what they learn and how they learn.

The students engage in a wide range of activities including 2D, 3D animation and robotics; multimedia production; photo-shooting and editing; and development and use of e-books. Particularly impressive is the use of Tablet PCs’ “inking” features for a range of activities including highly impressive manga artwork.

Crescent is moving towards project based learning with a series of “Integrated Secondary Curricula” programmes.

Virtual Reality is used at the school too. For example, in Geography, students experience immersive content showing erosion in a river – a concept that is much easier to grasp when viewing 3d animated rocks being swept along by the current from the perspective of the river bed.

Particularly impressive at Crescent is the way that teachers engage in the content creation process. For example, a complete suite of applications and content have been developed for the Tablet PC that not only exploits the pen and inking technologies but also address a range of different learning styles.

Taking this process further, teachers specified collaborative games to take advantage of the MultiTouch features in Windows 7 and HueLabs’ “Heumi” multitouch (Surface) devices. This means that students can now engage in a wide range of collaborative learning experiences, such as learning to write Chinese. As impressive as the technology itself is the way in which the room in which the Heumi devices are deployed. Here, in the “iCove”, strong colour coding of the devices and the seating, enable teachers to group learners according to their learning objectives.

More recently the school has introduced a biometric system that not only automatically records the students as present but takes their temperatures as they come into the school in the morning, enabling their health to be monitored.

The infrastructure that sits behind Crescent’s ICT provision is highly impressive. The infrastructure foundation is a Campus-wide wireless network with 100 Mbps Broadband. Tablet PCs are stored in steel lockers, and batteries are charged at charging stations.

Approximately 30 on-premises servers perform a range of essential back-end functions from authentication to content management. The Server infrastructure – based on a Microsoft platform – supports a rich tapestry of capabilities including:

  • i-Connect Learning Space – a role based portal for organising student’s learning and activities
  • Pearson’s Write to Learn – a system that helps “automate” the marking of essays
  • HeuX – Huelabs Classroom Management System – with lesson management, digital book library, real-time Communication and Collaboration include notes-sharing and social media; screen monitoring and broadcasting; Presence awareness; attendance; Video Conferencing
  • i-Media – content management system.
  • Interactive books

These solutions are supported by Windows Server; SQL Server; Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server; System Center; Live Communications Manager; Hyper-V and Live@Edu. Much of the learning that takes place at Crescent happens after school hours, and the Virtual Private Network enables students to have 24×7 access. It’s not uncommon to see the portal being used by students at home at 2.00AM.

Singapore schools benefit from very high quality teachers (only 10% of applicants get admitted into teacher training). This is reflected in the staff at Crescent. Principal, Mrs Eugenia Lim, supported by Chief Technology Architect for Learning, Mr Lee Boon Keng, have a highly structured and team orientated approach, underpinned by a strong focus on continuous professional development.

Every hour, the chimes of Big Ben ring across the school signifying a change of lesson. As with Cornwallis School in Kent in the UK, I was totally inspired by what I saw at Crescent but couldn’t help wondering whether a shift from time-based to a performance-based model would better fit such a technology rich approach to learning. Nonetheless, Crescent’s use of ICT is without doubt world leading.

Whilst Crescent Girls’ School is clearly a leader amongst leaders, it’s far from unique in Singapore in the way in which it innovates with technology. Singapore schools benefit from long term, consistent policy and investment in ICT in schooling. With their structured approaches, strong management and deep understanding of how ICT can make learning more effective, Singapore schools look set to continue to show the world how it’s done.

Fortunately for us all, Crescent Girls’ School are “giving back” by encouraging people to visit the school – both physically and virtually.

Thanks to Eugenia Lim, Lee Boon Keng and all the staff and students at Crescent Girl’s School.

Saving Money Whilst Raising Standards – West Hatch Show You How

How lucky am I to be able to send my children to an excellent state school on the outskirts of London? Apart from having an Olympic Gold medalist, a Turner Prize winning artist, and a BBC newsreader amongst its alumni, West Hatch High School has now acquired an international reputation for its work in ICT. The school has just become a “Microsoft Innovative School” – partly due to the technical excellence of IT Manager, Alan Richards, and the smart investments in ICT made by Headteacher Frances Howarth and the Board of Governors.

Despite being able to offer IT Academy courses to the community for many years, it wasn’t until 2008 and with the arrival of Alan, that West Hatch started to optimise its infrastructure. Until then West Hatch’s 1300 students and staff had no guarantee of their network’s reliability, which meant it was underused. As Alan says: “Teachers will try things two or three times, but after that, if a lesson’s wrecked, they won’t risk it again.”

Alan joined the school with a track record of moving schools from failing ICT systems to state of the art facilities. His starting point was to rebuild the whole school network with new fibre-optic and network cabling and a managed wireless solution. The next step was to replace 24 servers of varying ages, and it was at this point that the decision to virtualise was made.

What is Virtualisation?

A school network will usually have one server for each major IT service function, such as the Management Information System (MIS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), accounts, printing, and library systems etc. When a system is virtualised, these physical servers are replaced with virtual servers that are housed in clusters on a smaller number of physical servers. This has significant benefits in terms of savings, efficiency and reliability. The number of physical servers needed to effectively run the West Hatch’s network shrank from 24 to 9, and virtualisation increased efficiency of the network whilst saving $18,000 a year in hardware, maintenance and electricity.

Virtualisation provides the system with the ability to deal seamlessly with the failure of a server by automatically moving all its services to another – the rest of the school wouldn’t even know it’s happened. “Our staff have confidence in the use of ICT now. They know they can go into a classroom, turn on the computer, and have the applications they need for their lesson up and running in seconds,”

The key technology that enabled this to happen is Microsoft Hyper-V Server, and Alan and the team also used Microsoft Network Monitor in and beyond the pilot phase to ensure effective resource planning. Server technology is predominantly Windows Server 2008. A detailed case study is available here – West Hatch_Virtualisation_Case_Study. West Hatch uses Application Virtualisation, as well as Hardware (or physical) Virtualisation described above. For a detailed description from Alan on how he virtualised applications using Microsoft App-V click here.

Towards the Paperless School

With a solid network foundation in place, the next challenge for Alan was to build a portal. Having been the first school in Europe to deploy Windows 7 across its network, West Hatch was also the first school in the UK to build a portal on SharePoint 2010. This has enabled students, staff, parents and the wider community to benefit from a wealth of information and learning resources.

But the SharePoint 2010 sites goes way beyond just providing information. It is now being used to reduce printing and postage costs. It is estimated that 1.5 million sheets of paper are used per year at West Hatch – the paper, toner, photocopier rental and staffing costs associated with this paper “blizzard” are phenomenal.

A major step forward for Alan was converting Academic Review day from a paper-intensive activity to a paper-less activity. Academic review is when all students and parents attended interviews with teacher. Prior to the use of SharePoint, this process involved completion of paper forms. Now forms are managed electronically and copies of agreed academic targets are emailed to the students and parents. 

Alan has a passion for providing every student with the facilities they need to achieve the best they can. Best of all, Alan openly shares his knowledge in his wonderful blog – Education Technology Now. Needless to say, Alan’s presentation this year at BETT on using ICT to save money whilst raising standards was a big hit!

An Innovative School

In February 2011, West Hatch announced that they had been accepted into the Microsoft Innovative School network. Benefitting from:

  • Access to virtual and in-person training from Microsoft and renowned education experts from around the world
  • Support for professional development
  • Access to the global Innovative Schools community 

And finally, I can’t resist it – here’s a picture from my daughter – a Yr 10 student in West Hatch. Produced on OneNote on a Tablet PC, this was synchronised between my computer and her computer using the automatic synchronisation between OneNote and SkyDrive.