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.

Cloud Watching #3 – Managing Student Relationships

How could junk-mail and schooling effectiveness possibly be linked? The answer is “CRM” – Customer Relationship Management software. CRM is now firmly entrenched across a vast spectrum of businesses as a way of managing sales and marketing relationships with customers. Anyone possessing a loyalty (rewards or club) card will have their purchasing behaviours tracked by CRM, which then automatically triggers direct marketing activities such as special offers and tailored messages. But CRM is being increasingly used to support the learning process too.

Derivatives of CRM – known as XRM solutions – have been developed for a range of sectors. In healthcare for example XRM is used for a range of activities such as notifying patients of upcoming appointments and how to manage their illnesses.

As the schooling process is getting more data driven we are seeing a sharp increase in the use of CRM in education too. SRM – adaptations of CRM for students – i.e. Student Relationship Management, is rapidly on the increase.

SRM has been extensively used in Higher Education for a long time for a variety of purposes – e.g. implementing targeted marketing campaigns to prospective students and alumni. SRM is used in HE to support enrolment and to track financial matters such as the payment of fees. For similar reasons, SRM is also used extensively in private schooling.

In Brazil, Gestar—an independent software vendor—built an SRM system for private schools that not only handles the administrative “mechanics”, but academic matters too. The objective was to apply the concepts of “marketing one-to-one” to the complete relationship cycle with students – from the initial recruiting process to completion of school and beyond. By gathering and using the information generated in Management Information System (MIS) and Learning Management System (LMS) – eg attendance and individual assessments – it was possible for the schools served by Gestar to improve their effectiveness.

In schools using the Gestar SRM system dropout rates are reduced by cross-checking data across a range of “risk factors”. This makes it possible to identify students at risk of dropping out, and this automatically triggers processes such as setting up interviews, identifying the causes of dissatisfaction, and aligning the student’s objectives with what the school can offer.

Through linking with the LMS, SRM is able to determine if students are accessing the e-Learning tools, completing assignments within given deadlines, and if they are satisfied with their learning activities. Through automated workflows, “intelligent intervention” can be used to address specific problems.

Pre-defined workflows and escalations, in some cases completely automated, make it easier for a teacher to be more “granular” in how they address students’ individual needs. The benefit for the teacher is that their administrative burden is reduced. The benefit to the student is that they get a more personalised service.

So, as SRM is based on software used to manage sales and marketing, a key question is “what is the difference between a learning programme and a marketing campaign?” The answer, actually, is “not a lot”. The mechanics are very similar – place people into groups according to what you want them to learn or do; then step them through a series of linked actions until the goal is reached; then recycle the data to make ever improving interventions.

Another company offering SRM solutions for schooling systems is UK company lookred®. Working with New Line Learning Academy (NLL) – a consortium of public schools – in Kent, UK, founders Chris Poole and Matthew Woodruff had the innovative insight that it’s practically impossible to personalise relationships with thousands of students without using technology. To meet the goal of tailoring learning experiences for all students in the NLL consortium, Chris and Matthew designed a solution centred on SRM and the extensive use of Business Intelligence software.

Crucially, Chris and Matthew made the link between SRM and Intelligent Intervention. This involves setting up a set of “risk factors” that may affect learning performance, finding students who fit the risk profile, and then intervening through goal orientated actions. Imagine, for example, that a school has found that those students with the lowest reading ages perform the worse in examinations, then clearly reading age can be considered a risk factor. The same could be said for other attributes such as attendance, behaviour, or socio-economic factors.

To illustrate how SRM works, let’s explore further the ‘reading age’ example. Using SRM a teacher could run a report to identify all students with a reading age in excess of 2 years below their actual age. Armed with this data, the teacher can now trigger a whole set of automated events and escalations – e.g. getting students to reading clubs; persuading parents to encourage more reading at home; asking teachers to give extra reading support where needed etc. To do the same analysis and run the intervention programme using a paper based approach would be extremely resource intensive.

The goal of intelligent intervention isn’t to just react to a string of unrelated scores however, but rather to tackle deeper personal needs through addressing a range of student attributes. At the heart of the SRM is the student profile. This builds up over time and as more data is added, the smarter the interventions can get.

At New Line Learning, the data that is held in the student record could be easily used to make comparisons between groups of students.

A different example of how CRM can be exploited in schooling systems is in the area of professional development. In Maryland, USA, the State Education department used CRM to improve administration of certification. At any one point in time, there will be 160,000 people in the Maryland State Education System requiring certification of one kind of another. Overwhelmed with a backlog of requests processing times for new certificates extend to as long as 18 months. Working with Avanade, Maryland introduced a CRM system that reduced certificate-processing times to as little as five days and virtually eliminated dependence on paper.

WHY SRM IN THE CLOUD?

Besides the core advantages of scaling, managing resources and cost that applies to most aspects of Cloud based services, there are two additional advantages that SRM in the cloud brings:

1. Scaling interventions – there is technically no reason why an intervention – say for absences – can’t be deployed across multiple schools. If the risk factors, triggers and escalation paths are the same or similar, then a centralised system could potentially manage interventions across several schools simultaneously.

2. Better data – the more schools are contributing data to understand risks and how best to mitigate against them, the better. The more data, the more variables can be considered and the richer the decision making process.

IMPLEMENTING SRM

In the business world, CRM is as much a philosophy as it is a software service At its core CRM is seen as a more customer-centric way of doing business enabled by technology. The focus of CRM is also shifting to encompass social networks and user communities.

For SRM to work in a schooling system the organisation must analyse its workflows and processes; some will need to be re-engineered to better serve the overall goal of tailoring services to students.

If student relationships are the heart of effective schooling, then SRM can be the engine that mediates relationships at scale.

Further information

http://www.gartner.com/technology/media-products/newsletters/datatel/issue1/gartner1.html

http://download.microsoft.com/download/6/9/3/693d3df0-9202-42cd-a961-1bb7b1b8b301/MSDynamicsCRM_EDU.xps

https://partner.microsoft.com/40062157

Cloud Watching #2 – How to Manage 30Bn Trees Worth of Data

Data is fundamental to operating schooling systems. Without data schooling systems would grind to a halt – teachers wouldn’t get paid; students wouldn’t get transported; taught and fed; and essential services would cease to operate.

As the value of good data for decision making is becoming more widely understood, the quantity of data in the world’s schooling systems is ballooning. But how much data are we talking about, how fast is it growing, and how can it be better managed.

To get a sense of how big the issue is, let’s start by looking at Charlotte Mecklenburg in the US – a School District that has paid a lot of attention to its data and information systems recently. According to David Fitzgerald, Vice President of the Education Group at Mariner, Charlotte Mecklenburg School District in the US plans to use 70 Terabytes for a system with 140,000 students – 524.3MB per student.

The US and Western Europe account for ~10% of the world’s school students population – 0.12Bn. So, assuming similar levels of consumption across these regions, we can estimate that in these areas alone there is 60,000TB of data in schooling systems. 1TB = 50k trees worth of paper and print, so we’re looking at 3bn trees worth of data. Imagine that every student on the planet used the same amount of data as Charlotte Mecklenburg – that would add up to 30bn trees.

Whilst it’s currently unlikely that the amount of data in schooling systems adds up to this amount yet, there are several factors pushing it hard in this direction.

For example, major countries such as Russia, Mexico and Brazil are developing and running massive student data operations, increasing both the quantities and sophistication of data used.

UNESCO (2003) state that most countries develop education databases, and they also specify the optimal datasets that should be maintained. Let’s suppose that this adds up to a minimum of 1/2 a typewritten page on each of the student population living outside the USA and Western Europe, roughly 1 Kilobytes each. Rounding-off, we can estimate that 1bn students x 1Kb = 954GB. It’s interesting to think that this could be kept on a single external hard drive no bigger than a paperback book. However, add other data, say a single low-resolution image per student, and that rises by a factor of 8. Add digital work produced by students and this number grows exponentially.  

Also, there is a sharp increase in the rate at which data is used in developed countries. Take New South Wales for example. Last year, New South Wales Department of Education and Training – which has 1.3m students – used 280TB of storage space – but this has been doubling every year for last five years!

The amount of data used in schooling can only increase as governments around the world recognise that it is core to improving effectiveness.

WHY IS MANAGING DATA CORE TO IMPROVING SCHOOLING EFFECTIVENESS?

Driven by the need for better accountability for how public funds are spent, and the widespread use of international benchmarks such as PISA, there is a sharp increase in the number of governments and private companies that are investing in solutions for data driven decision making. These investments aim to use data to:

  • Improve student performance: Give students, parents, teachers and administrators a clear picture of student performance at an individual or group level so they can adjust and personalise learning accordingly
  • Make better management decisions: Inform routine decisions and strategic planning across all enablers and disciplines with accurate, readily-available data
  • Increase accountability: Quickly and easily understand performance across organisations
  • Manage resources more effectively: Gain a better understanding of projected revenues and expenditures; keep track of financial health; compare costs against those of other organisations
  • Drive administrative efficiencies: Improve time and effort taken to report information. Improve quality and presentation of information.

SO WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT DATABASES THEN?

Why is it that peoples’ eyes glaze over when you start talking about databases? Most web pages that you will experience – including this one – are driven by databases. For most people databases are “black boxes”, and few care about how they work or what they do. However, a basic understanding of databases and how they work is essential to understanding how ICT can make schooling more effective – so let’s take a quick database 101:

WHAT IS A DATABASE?

Databases arrange data as sets of records, and these records are arranged as rows. Each record consists of several fields which are arranged in columns. The rows and columns combine to form a table.

 

Most large scale databases are Relational, which means that they can connect data from two or more tables.

  • Forms are a main way to enter data into a database
  • Queries are used to get data out of a database.
  • Reports format and display data from the database.

Indexes improve the speed of data retrieval operations by querying a unique key which in turn uniquely identifies each row in a table. Metadata – data about data – can include tables of all tables, their names, sizes and number of rows in each table; or tables of columns, what tables they are used in, and the type of data stored in each column.

DATABASE ESSENTIALS

At the heart of a database is the Database Engine – software for storing, processing and securing data; providing controlled access and processing capabilities. The structure of the database is described in a Schema, and this is usually written in a language called “Structured Query Language” SQL. This language determines how data is inserted, queried, updated and deleted. Different database vendors have different extension to SQL – T-SQL is Microsoft’s extension to SQL.  

A Data Warehouse is a database that extracts data from operational systems for reporting. It can aggregate data from different sources, and ensure that the integrity of operational data isn’t compromised by the processes associated with analysing it.

Integration Services are the means by which data from various sources can be integrated, extracted, transformed, and loaded into data warehouses.

OLAP – or Online Analytical Processing – enables data to be manipulated and analysed from multiple perspectives. Eg a Longitudinal analysis could involve the study of student progress over time, and take advantage of an OLAP Cube to interrogate a number of different dimensions over a given period.

 

Analysis Services supports OLAP by allowing the design, creation, and management of multidimensional structures that contain data aggregated from a range of data sources, such as relational databases.

Data Mining – is about extracting patterns from large sets of data, to yield Business Intelligence (BI) for example, high achievement correlated with the number of books in the family home, or low reading ability impacting examination results. Data Mining Services enables the design, creation, and visualisation of data mining models.

Reporting Services – enabling reports to be published in various formats drawing on content from a variety of data sources. They also centrally manage security and subscriptions. Portal Integration – it’s crucial to for end-users to work with operational data – in ‘dashboard’ format ideally – through a portal site.

 

To be able to manage databases is crucial and several key tools are used for this. Master Data Services is the means by which all applications across the organization can rely on a central, accurate source of information.  Replication – copying and distributing data and database objects from one database to another, and synchronizing between databases to maintain consistency. Automated compression and backup are also key tools.

WHAT HAS THIS GOT TO DO WITH THE CLOUD?

With massive growth in the amount of data used in schooling comes questions about sustainability, cost and management. The Cloud offers some major advantages here:

1. Ubiquity

Having data in the cloud makes it easier for authorized users with internet access to access that data from almost anywhere.

2. Management

In an enterprise architecture where resources are distributed, organisations usually have a single SQL Server back-end with WAN links and/or multiple distributed SQL Server installations that replicate data with each other. Maintaining this kind of environment is time consuming and expensive. With the cloud, replication, backup, compression etc are all taken care of.

3. Pricing

As with other Cloud services, you only pay for what you use. During the peaks and troughs of schooling system operations, one can expect to see varying amounts of data storage requirements.

SQL AZURE

SQL Azure is Microsoft’s Cloud Database solution, and it offers the following benefits:

  • No physical administration required – software installation and patching is included, as SQL Azure is a platform as a service (PAAS)
  • High availability and fault tolerance are built in
  • Simple provisioning and deployment of multiple databases
  • Scale databases up or down based on business needs
  • Multitenant – i.e. a single database can provide services to multiple organisations
  • Integration with SQL Server and tooling including Visual Studio®
  • Support for T-SQL-based familiar relational database model
  • Option for pay-as-you-go pricing

The SQL Azure suit currently comprises of the following offerings, some currently on limited availability:

SQL Azure Database – a Platform as a Service (PaaS) relational database. Highly available and scalable .

SQL Azure Data Sync – allows organisations to extend their current sets of data into the Cloud. It provides synchronisation between an organisation’s current SQL on-premises databases and SQL Azure Databases in the Cloud.  Currently available in Community Technology Preview.

SQL Azure Reporting – a complete reporting infrastructure that enables users to see reports with visualizations such as maps, charts, gauges, sparklines etc. Currently available in Community Technology Preview. 

The Windows Azure Platform Appliance under limited trials, this will eventually enable organisations to deploy their own Cloud Services from within their own datacentres. The Windows Azure Platform Appliance consists of Windows Azure, SQL Azure and a Microsoft-specified configuration of network, storage and server hardware.

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF CLOUD DATABASE SERVICES

Taking full advantage of the Cloud is not something that is going to happen overnight. Besides careful analysis and planning for migrating existing services, Cloud computing opens up a whole set of questions around what new services could be offered. For example, the rise of virtual schooling across the world – as brilliantly analyzed in the US by Clayton Christensen in his book “Disrupting Class” – will be a major beneficiary of cheap, ubiquitous database services at massive scale.  

As pointed out in the Cloud Watching #1, moving to the Cloud is not without effort and risk. David Chappell, in his excellent paper “The Benefits and Risks of Cloud Platforms: A Guide for Business Leaders“ points out that storing data outside their organization makes people nervous. Many countries have regulations about where certain kinds of data can and can’t be stored, so before putting data into the Cloud platform, it’s important to ensure compliance.

A key question is to ask whether any given data centre is more secure than those of the major Cloud service providers. A significant data breach for a Cloud services provider is likely to mean a huge financial loss, so there’s a very strong incentive for them to keep the data they hold secure.

David Chappell also advises – “as with any new technology, starting small can be a good approach. Perhaps your first cloud application should be important, for instance, but not truly mission critical”. The same can be said for data.

CONCLUSION

Whilst its early days for Cloud based database services in Education, we’re beginning to see interest turning to into plans and action. For example, Curtin University in Perth, Australia, has started to move some of its services to the Cloud and intend to take advantage of SQL Azure. 

Educause Horizon Report 2010, includes an analysis of Cloud amongst other key and emerging technologies – http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2010/chapters/trends/ It states:

“The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing”.

Cloud will no doubt change how data is gathered, manipulated and interrogated, and by making vast amounts of storage available at extremely low prices we can look forward to seeing innovative organisations build completely new services to reach growing numbers of learners in completely new ways.

FURTHER INFORMATION

A great introduction to databases: http://www.microsoft.com/student/en/us/techstudent/handson/database.aspx

Getting started with SQL Azure: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/gg309175.aspx   

Migrating to SQL Azure: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ee730904.aspx  

“How much data is that?” – http://www.jamesshuggins.com/h/tek1/how_big.htm

Thanks to Sven Reinhardt, database guru, for input into this article.