Students today learn in a connected, information-rich world that exists outside the campus and IT is upgrading to mee the new expectations.
Since the internet rose to prominence in the 1990s, the way students and teachers process information has undergone several changes.
The internet has become an encyclopedia updated in almost real time. It’s also an online community for social interaction and collaborative learning. These tools have changed the way students and teachers interact.
“Computers and other digital equipment enable access to sensory information which in turn enhances the richness of learning stimuli. It also helps to personalise the learning process,” Sheldon Shaeffer, Director of UNESCO Bangkok says.
Accordingly to the Pew Internet and American Life project, the study discovered that teenagers use the internet extensively. Roughly 17 million students age 12 to 17 use the internet to locate information for school research; that number represents 94 per cent of the youth in that age bracket. In 2004, 77 per cent of public schools had a majority of teachers who used the internet as a vital tool for instruction, up from 54 per cent in 1999, as stated in a survey from the Fox media company.
Students are known to learn better when working in a collaborative environment. In addition, technology is necessary for distance-learning, giving opportunities to students who otherwise would not have access.
With both students and teachers replying on web information greater numbers, it would not be surprising to see web access and collaborative tools becoming a mandatory part of learning, for ever younger students.
Using the web in new ways
The use of the web as education and research tool can no longer be ignored, says a researcher with a particular interest in how teaching and technology influence each other.
“The web has provided new opportunities at all levels of education for supplementary fact finding. This applies in part to classroom instruction that employs student exercises using libraries, social networking and for formal assignments requiring extended information sources,” says Professor Brian Garner of Deakin University, in Australia. He is a specialist in e-learning and knowledge management.
The impact of new access technology can be felt in exam-taking, for example. Online exams, or e-exams, will grow in importance.
There would be some issues that need to be considered when designing e-exams, says Garner. For example, the balance between security versus accessibility for students during the e-exams. When PSTM spoke with NUS about their e-exam methods, they stressed security, such as student authentication and restricting accessibility to any network or applications. Garner opts for holistic view.
“An online exam is far from simply being an exercise in paperless workflow. The questions can be more searching because students have access to the web resources in compiling their responses; the questions can also draw on and integrate previous student contributions. The range of artifacts that can be used for student comments and analysis is also much wider,” Garner said.
Garner supports the idea of giving students access to all online information. The difference of opinion between NUS and Garner would therefore seem to be more in teaching philosophy than in exam method. Nothing the NUS system precludes more network openness, when necessary.
Garner also suggests that Virtual Private Networks may be included should the requirements of the exam warrant it.
To sum up his winning formula to implementing e-exams, Garner lists three components. “Good governance, transparency and assessment integrity are very important.”
NUS networks An early champion of the use of technology for more effective teaching, the National University of Singapore has used e-exams for the medicine faculty since 2004.
Medical students taking the exam had to see large, high-resolution images, making them the ideal candidates for electronic exams. From 2004 onwards, images can be viewed on the candidate’s computer. Previously, candidates had to look at an overhead projector during the exam, an unwieldy method as the invigilator had to wait until everyone was ready before advancing slides.
However, Gong Wei, Assistant Manager for Network Group at the NUS Computer Centre and Junius Soh, manager of NUS Centre for Instructional Technology had an idea for exams to be entirely done on a server, doing away with the conventional paper and pen system. According to Gong Wei, NUS has been deploying a Virtual Private Network (VPN) since 2003, not specifically for exams, but for administrative and other purposes.
They evaluated various vendors and eventually turned to Juniper web VPN to provide the secure access for e-exams.
When students take the e-exams, they are “locked in” a virtual desktop mode where all applications, including web browsers, are disabled. Thus, a student will not be able to access search engines like Google and Yahoo for the exam answers. Should a student insert a USB memory key into the computer when they are in secure mode, all documents inside will be rendered invalid.
“There is really no point trying to cheat our system because any effort to do so would only slow down the system, which in turn, wastes your own time,” Junius said.
The exam system did not require an overhaul of the existing campus infrastructure.
“It is as simple as it can get. You don’t have to physically scale your PC or format any PC. Virtual mode switches off all other applications instantly. That is why we decided to implement it. There is little complexity for everybody,” Junius said.
The new system has certainly benefited the students at NUS. Although some students still prefer the conventional system, the general consensus is positive. Some benefits include computerised marking of closed-ended answers. There is a fixed space allocated for short-answer and essay questions which gives students a gauge of how much to write.
While the simplicity of implementation is critical to any new system, reliability is also of utmost concern. At NUS, the system is a production service used 24/7 by the staff, thus daily testing is very important.
“We have two boxes in different data centres. One is located in campus and one is off campus about 2km away. In case of complete failure, the other box will take over. Both sets can perform at the same time yet can perform independent of each other,” Gong Wei said.
Asia’s developing nations see connectivity as vital to students Several countries in the region are making sure their students are not left behind in the connectivity race, and are investing millions to wire up schools and building IT-savvy citizens.
For example, in Oman, the e-Oman strategy is set to revamp education and training in schools. Under the strategy, Dr Salim Al-Ruzaiqi, CEO of Information Technology Authority, Sultanate of Oman responsible for the implementation of the Digital Oman Strategy said, “We have plans to include IT in basic and public education. We will construct wireless infrastructure in schools and an education portal will be implemented. All our teachers will be certified in IT literacy.”
Another developing country that is embarking on vigorous plans towards IT-based education is Vietnam. “Based on our ICT Development Strategy to 2010, all ministries will have access to broadband internet. 100 per cent of research institutes, universities, colleges and high schools have access to high speed internet. By 2010, we hope to have over 100,000 IT under-graduates and graduates,” Dr Pham Manh Lam, National Institute of Posts and Telematics Strategy said.
Similarly in Sri Lanka, under the ICT Capacity Building Programme, there are plans to establish her as an ICT destination while providing education opportunities for all citizens using the constructed ICT infrastructure. In Brunei, under the Mobile Teaching & Learning Project (Mobitel), more than 2000 laptops will be distributed to both primary and secondary schools to aid in teaching by the end of 2007.
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