Smart in Singapore

Building the 21st century classroom with 3G smartphones in Sengkang New Town.

GUEST COLUMN | by Tan Chun Ming

WE Learn SingaporeEducation has come a long way since the era of chalkboards and book-based learning.  While we as educators deeply value the written word, we embrace ways in which education can become more efficient, and more accessible, to children.  An evolutionary transformation is underway; today’s industrial era-schools – developed over a century ago for a different economy and society – are moving to a 21st century model based on personalized learning which is made possible using cutting-edge mobile technologies.

Using wireless technology and smartphones as an extension to traditional information and communications technology (ICT) learning has been in place across many schools and popularized by the media for some time. In its infancy, adoption of smartphone related teaching tools complemented existing methods of instruction. Today, entire smartphone-centric curriculums are being designed and piloted across schools for the first time – bringing a fresh perspective to the ways mobile technology can be used in today’s switched on and continually-connected learning environment.

I am the principal of Nan Chiau Primary School. About a year ago, with the support from Singapore’s Ministry of Education, the Learning Sciences Laboratory of the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University (NIE/NTU), a group of private technology companies (including Qualcomm, Microsoft, Nokia and SingTel) and two American professors (Dr. Elliot Soloway from University of Michigan and Dr. Cathie Norris from University of North Texas), we started a pilot project called “WE Learn”.  This groundbreaking project is based upon the principle that we can enhance education with technology. We have provided 650 third and fourth-grade students with 3G smartphones, all equipped with a customized mobile learning platform, MyDesk, and six educational applications.

Central to the curriculum is MyDesk which is designed and built by undergraduates from the University of Michigan.  Applications populating MyDesk include concept mapping, drawing and animating that allow students to express their learning and understanding on a personalized platform. Work done by the students on their smartphones is backed-up and synchronized to a cloud-based Learning Management System where teachers can easily and conveniently review, assess and provide feedback.

Singapore-WE Learn photo_girl in classroomThe results of this pilot project are encouraging. Most importantly, the students have adapted to the new teaching methods and embraced the technologies for personal use in order to improve their learning abilities. Using the inquiry-based learning platform, students are given the opportunity to ask questions and express their point of views. By adapting a Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach for English and an inquiry-based learning model for science, students are able to better articulate their thoughts and ideas. Through English lessons, they will be exposed to philosophical questions such as “What is happiness?” For science, students are encouraged to extend their learning of science concepts beyond their classrooms through activities designed for their smartphones.

Test scores on 21st century skills (defined by Singapore’s Ministry of Education as self-directed and collaborative learning) have improved significantly. And we’ve seen the children flourish – with children showing significant improvement in their spoken English skills and ability to ask and respond to philosophical questions.  And in our science classes, there has also been significant improvement in the children’s ability to answer open-ended questions.

With the availability of affordable mobile devices layered with a technology-driven curriculum, every student is now able to develop higher order thinking skills such as critical and inventive thinking. Students are given the opportunity to log onto smart phone applications during lessons and for homework. This way, 21st century skills, such as self-directed learning, are evident as students take ownership of their own learning anytime, anywhere. Learning is no longer confined to classrooms and students are able to demonstrate their learning through applications found on their mobile devices.

The teachers are also adapting to new teaching methods, enjoying fresh ways of interacting with their students.  They have found new and effective ways of engaging their classes and evolving their methods in line with the positive reaction from students to implementing technology into learning.  Parents are also more open to using technology for learning after witnessing the positive benefits to be achieved through smartphones.

As a further extension of the project, Nan Chiau is sharing our experience with other schools in Singapore that are interested in implementing a similar curriculum.  We are thrilled that the pilot has worked so well and are eager for more children, parents and teachers to experience the benefits of mobile education.

Singapore is a technological hub and a city of innovation. As individuals and businesses are quick to embrace technological advancements, so is Singapore’s education system. In this environment, young students are growing up and maturing with technology. Students are more engaged and excited by tools that they enjoy and are familiar using. With the 21st century technological backdrop, it is simply not feasible to educate students the same way that their teachers were educated. Times change and the use of mobile technology is at the forefront of education reform and development.

Tan Chun Ming is the Principal of Nan Chiau Primary School in Singapore. Over the past few years, Mr. Tan has built Nan Chiau into a Future School, the highest accolade from the Singapore government for schools in terms of the adaption of technology in education. He is also instrumental in setting up a Centre for Educational Research and Application (CERA), the first research center of its kind in Singapore and South East Asia that brings together corporate partners and academics to translate technology into daily classroom practices. Mr. Tan sits in a number of professional bodies and policy review committees at the national level. Write to:   For more information about WE Learn, please click here.


Leave a Reply