Singapore is located near the equator in Asia, south of Viet Nam and at the end of the Malay Peninsula. If you fly from the U.S. westward in a grand arc, you will pass Tokyo and Hong Kong on your way. From British Colonial times until recently, this small island nation was distinguished by its mixed population, very representative of the greater region, and its strategic location to international sea travel and now air travel. Today, Singapore is distinguished because English is the common language and, more importantly, because the combination of technology and education is a way of life.
Singapore sees itself as a hub for the rest of the world. When I recently visited, an article in the newspaper reported Vietnamese families travel to Singapore for shopping holidays. Singapore is rapidly becoming the mall to world. Yet, there is nothing of the mall-like behavior seen elsewhere in its school children, college attendees or life-long learners. Singapore is an education miracle. There are several reasons for this, including several stages of national development and reflection, and now a thorough embrace of technology, change and flexibility.
Last year, Peter Segall, Blackboard’s president of North American higher education, and I interviewed about 60 U.S. and Canadian college and university presidents, chancellors and provosts. We learned that the most daunting problems confronting higher education were students who were ill-prepared for college or did not stay to graduate. We also learned that managing institutional outcomes and accounting for institutional success was the next largest issue. To see our findings, click here.
With that work complete, I have embarked on another whitepaper, this one aimed at global education: What are the present trends, what are the current, most pressing issues, and what is being done to solve them?
Early in my work, I began to realize that since most education is funded by governments and, in today’s world, is turning into a global knowledge economy, governments seek more highly educated citizens. It stands to reason, greater education leads to better lifestyles for individuals and better economies for nations (or, in the U.S., for states).
However, more often than not, the governments that fund education (be they national or regional) and the returns they expect on their investments are often quite at odds. It turns out that institutional output – the production of secondary school and college, technical or university graduates – is not well coordinated with government planners. Institutions often are stuck in their ways and government agencies are little better. The problems can be described easily, but changing education culture is daunting. In Singapore, however, things are quite different – it’s a bit of an education Shangri-La.
The higher education in Singapore – a country of 4.5 million – is carefully designed and coordinated. The prevailing research university, National University of Singapore, works alongside the more technically oriented, Nanyang Technological University, which in turn helps support Singapore Institute of Management, the institution for adult learners. Singapore Management University, which recently hosted BbSummit Asia ’07, provides business and economics education. Teachers attend the forward-looking National Institute of Education (NIE). The results are stunning. Singapore is often ranked at the top of the education charts. Blackboard, by the way, operates in every institution except NUS, which maintains a long-standing, home-built e-Learning system.
While the Singaporean government helps immensely in the planning for how education and the economy can work together, it has learned to maintain a critical distance. Government members provide expert, world-class advice and consultation, but at each level of education there is considerable autonomy. Simultaneously, Singapore invests heavily in technology access for its entire population and presumes and encourages education to be at the leading edge of that change, not at the tail end.
At NIE, I was treated to a glimpse of the classroom of the future. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take a picture or turn on my video camera, because the future looks good: In a set of modern rooms, hidden in a traditional higher education building, I saw a small slice of education in the future, where “teach less, learn more” is both the dream and the theme being put into practice. There were rooms with wonderful flat screen tabletops where students worked in pods and could communicate in real time with students at another pod (which could be located in Bulgaria). Seated in one of the pods, I summarily lost a game of tic-tac-toe with one of the NIE technical staff seated across the room in another pod.
Another room had a panoramic, curved wall on which images were projected across its 30-foot expanse. Wonderful Origami wireless tablets enable students to work together and receive a teacher’s assistance when they need it. We walked through an actual subway door on to a mock-up train car that had imbedded screens which would register my arrival by a signal transmitted by my cell phone. At “home” in a modern house, I could walk into the building and receive a message from my mother reminding me to complete my home work located in a folder on the wall-sized monitor.
During my visit to NIE, I was told the Singaporean ideal for education is that teaching and learning will be a way of life that does not happen just inside a building surrounded by four walls; instead, education will be ubiquitous – in all areas of life – and be concentrated when need be.
A famous U.S. presidential candidate once said, “It takes a village to educate a child.” Increasingly, I think, it takes an entire nation to do the planning, to be bold enough to allow experimentation, brave enough to harness the natural learning energy of children and wise enough to distance itself from dictating.
As my 18-hour return flight from Singapore to San Francisco completed its grand arc and landed, part of me felt I was going back in time.