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.

How to Connect a Learning Community – Israeli Municipalities Show the Way

The challenge for the Israeli city of Ramat Gan was how to build a platform to connect students, parents, teachers and external experts – and deliver a set of learning services to enable students to go from mememorizing content to building analytical and synthesis skills. Ramat Gan, well known for international high tech businesses, also needed a sytem to enable students to aquire in-demand high level technology skills.

The solution – a “Learning Gateway” based on SharePoint 2010 and Live@Edu – delivers a spectrum of communication and collaboration tools, learing content, and applications.

Watch the video here:

Further north a different set of needs resulted in a similar solution being developed. Schooling for 50,000 K-12 students students in the city of Haifa was being distrupted by conflict, so a way to ensure continuity of schooling services had to be found.  The answer, again, was a Learning Gateway solution that delivers a range of learning services to all students in the city, regardless of whether they are working from home or in school.

Watch the video here:

Thanks to Bar Israeli.

Cloud Watching #1 – Cloud 101

This article is the first in a series on Cloud computing, and focusses on the basics – the “what, why and how” of Cloud computing as it relates to Schooling.

INTRODUCTION

When New South Wales Department of Education and Training (DET), the largest School District in the Southern Hemisphere, wanted to put an annual Science Standard Attainment test online they faced a simple choice – $200,000 for server infrastructure or $500 to use a Cloud computing service from Microsoft. Watch the video here to find out what the NSW DET gained from their implementation: http://vimeo.com/18637271 

WHY CLOUD?

We don’t normally expect a schooling system to generate its own electricity. There’s no building with a bank of generators, no “Manager of Electrical Generation”, leading a team of technicians. But we have expected our schooling systems to be experts at running their own “IT Power Stations”, generating their own utility service.

 

So why not provide computing power in the same way as electricity? “Cloud-based” IT services can be “generated” remotely by a factory-size bank of powerful computers (“servers”) and delivered over the internet to subscribing consumers who can take as much, or as little as they need.

Cloud computing changes the game of delivering schooling services by addressing the following challenges:

The Scale Challenge

Schooling has scaling issues like no other service. With 1.2bn learners, 55m teachers, and 4.3m institutions, schooling represents one of the biggest single human enterprises on the planet. Providing cost effective learning services to entire populations is one of the opportunities that Cloud computing potentially addresses.

The Cost and Seasonality Challenge

Students are typically only in their physical school environment for 15% of the year. Schooling services undergo huge peaks and troughs, on daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. When schooling systems run their own IT services, they have to pay for these whether they are being used or not.

Currency, Relevance and Interoperability

The next problem that schooling systems face is the rate of progress and change in IT. Choices usually come down to either to systems stagnating and providing out of date services, or enormous cost just to keep pace with change. Technology is advancing so fast that a student leaving a secondary school is likely to be comfortably using technology that did not exist when they started.

BUSINESS MODELS

Cloud computing addresses these issues through three main kinds of business models:

Software as a Service (SaaS)

Subscription based or free Cloud application services deliver Software as a Service (SaaS) over the Internet, eliminating the need to install and run the application on the customer’s own computers, and simplifying maintenance and support. Activities are managed from central locations rather than at each customer’s site, enabling customers to access applications remotely via the Web. Click here for more details, or here for architectural guidance.

Microsoft SaaS offers include:

Live@Edu – insitutions can use their own domain names to provide students with a complete “consumer” set of e-mail, collaboration and storage services. Live@Edu will be superceded by Office 365 for Education

Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite delivers a suite of services for hosted communication and collaboration. 

Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services – filtering, archiving, encryption, and continuity.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, student relationship management, automate workflows and centralized information.

Windows Live – worldwide there are 500 million Windows Live users using a package of comms, collab and storage services

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

With “Infrastructure as a Service” (IaaS), customers get on-demand computing and storage to host, scale, and manage applications and services. IaaS delivers computer infrastructure – typically a platform virtualization environment – as a service. Rather than purchasing servers, software, data-centre space and network equipment, customers buy those resources as fully outsourced services. Suppliers typically bill such services based on a utility computing basis and amount of resources consumed – therefore the cost will typically reflect the level of activity. Click here for more details.

Microsoft IaaS offers include the following Datacentre tools for in-house or external service provision:

System Center – dynamically pool, allocate, and manage virtualized resources

Windows Server – provides a foundation for data centre services, including web-apps, power management, and server and desktop virtualization between on-premises, private cloud, and public cloud computing

Dynamic Data Center Toolkit for Hosters allows you to create a private or public cloud offering, including services for provisioning and managing servers

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

“Platform as a Service” (PaaS) delivers a computing platform and/or solution stack as a service. PaaS facilitates deployment of applications without the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware and software layers. Typically, customers (such as NSW DET) will rent a set amount of capacity for specific periods of time, and turn their applications on or off and scale according to demand. They will only get billed for the time and capacity consumed. Delivering an annual test online for example, becomes significantly more cost effective through PaaS than through other means. Click here for more details.

Microsoft PaaS offers include the following:

Windows Azure platform is a version of Windows that runs in Microsoft datacentres. It includes SQL Azure (database) to enables applications and services to be run in the Cloud.

AppFabric provides a range of services including access control; connections between applications in the cloud; caching; integration; and APIs for developing and hosting an application on Azure

Bing Maps a complete set of geo-data services enabling functions such as visualisation of enrollment trends, or tracking assets such as buses.

Microsoft .NET – programming enironment for writing applications across a variety of devices, application types, and programming tasks.

ADVANTAGES OF CLOUD

Cloud offers a way to tackle the issues of cost, scale, change, currency, relevance and interoperability and flexibility of demand. In addition Cloud services, by their nature, tend to be designed for reach, and work across multiple open standard based devices. Cloud services are designed to run at internet scale supporting millions of users at prices of an order of magnitude lower than traditional solutions.

The cost of migrating between versions, or staying up-to-date is outsourced to the Cloud service provider. This also has the effect of removing capital expenditure (Capex) from IT provision and transferring to an operational expenditure (Opex) model that does not have the same associated peaks and troughs.

Cloud services are designed to be simple to deploy, provision and deprovision. Indeed when using platform as a service you only pay for the services you are using, while you are actually using them, which fits perfectly with education’s seasonality.

DISADVANTAGES OF CLOUD

With significant advantage comes a degree of disadvantage and risks, which should be carefully considered. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The risks of outsourcing
  • Storing data outside the institution or organisation
  • Service provider tie-in

For a an excellent and unbiased guide outlining the advanatages and disadvantages of the Cloud, download – “The Benefits and Risks of Cloud Platforms: A Guide for Business Leaders” by David Chappell.

MIGRATING TO THE CLOUD

Most on-premises applications will not have been built with Cloud architecture in mind, so the first set of decisions focus on what kind of of architecture you want. For example, a key consideration here is whether to use a multi-tenent model – ie a single instance of the software serving multiple client organizations.

There are several resources available to help with migrating to the Cloud  including:

SKILLS FOR THE CLOUD

CONCLUSION

Live@Edu has 10s of millions of accounts, proving that Cloud models can deliver quality services at massive scale. Aside from New South Wales DET, many schooling and learning services organisations around the world are beginning to take advantage of Cloud computing – for example, The Kentucky Department of Education moved more than 800,000 peopl to Live@Edu – a move that will help them save more than $6.3 million over the next four years. Florida Virtual School saved $2 Million by switching to BPOS.  Another interesting use of Cloud technology comes from Eduify – a small company providing research and writing assistance to students. Read the case study here.

MORE RESOURCES

Thanks to Brad Tipp for his input.

David Chappell has some excellent Cloud resources on his blog and a great summary of Cloud Platforms