Time for tech: The future of learning

In between sips of coffee one morning, Professor Sow Chorng Haur contemplated how to better engage his physics students, who were often glued to their devices.

Two hours later, inspiration struck. He began working on “The Physics Professor’s Suitcase of Travelling Science Wonders”, an e-book on physics concepts.

The e-book is part of the new geNiUSbooks – interactive web-based books written by NUS teaching staff that aim to aid learning. Lecturers are able to incorporate multimedia content such as videos and photos into their e-books, which students will then be able to bookmark, annotate and customise. Furthermore, they will be able to use geNiUSbooks as a note-taking tool, and create their own - to use and share with other students.

They are complemented by geNiUSchannel, a repository of videos that are organised by topics, faculties, teachers and disciplines. It allows tutors to create and use video vignettes to supplement their teaching. Students can easily navigate the user-friendly site, engage in quick discussions and bookmark their favourite presentations, among other features.

“The word geNiUS is aspirational, and not meant to be arrogant. We want our people to learn from the best and to become the best,” said Associate Professor Erle Lim, NUS Vice Provost (Teaching Innovation & Quality), during the launch at the Technology Enhanced Learning e-Showcase on 26 Nov. “It is a bid to let students take charge of their own learning journey.”

As part of the event, various professors from NUS shared how they are wielding new technologies to drive new ways of learning. The showcase was recorded and the recording will be available on geNiUSchannel.

Zooming in on Science

For Prof Sow, teleconferencing platform Zoom is now his best friend. The Head of NUS Physics has transformed his office into a makeshift studio for lectures, with a black curtain as background, a trolley of demonstration apparatus, two cameras and extra lighting.

“We can bring demonstrations closer to the students because some of them may be seated too far in lecture theatres,” he said. “And if I’m co-teaching, another lecturer can answer questions in the Zoom chat when I’m busy presenting.”

But his greatest teaching innovation has been bringing practical lessons to his students, even during the COVID19 Circuit Breaker. As students stayed home – some across different time zones – he and his fellow tutors transported the lab to them. They packed simple apparatus into a “science box” and mailed them out to students. Some kits went as far as Colombo in Sri Lanka and Qingdao in China.

For his solid state physics module, for example, students each received a box of ping pong balls to build crystal structures for an online lesson. “Bringing the lab to students is quite fun,” he said. “They were able to visualise crystal structures in front of them in 3D.”

Playing games to save lives

At the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine (NUS Medicine), undergraduates are learning through gamified medical training. But it is not all fun and games.

Simulation plays a big part in medical education today, said Associate Professor Alfred Kow, the School’s Assistant Dean (Education). “It is crucial to move beyond traditional teaching methods in the age of the Internet,” he added. 

With COVID-19 disrupting classes, educators at NUS Medicine have turned to virtual reality (VR) to provide students with a safe, convenient and scalable training environment.

Launched in June, PAtient Safety aS Inter-Professional Training (PASS-IT) is a VR game that immerses students in an operating theatre setting. It includes scenarios ranging from dental clearance to anaesthesia evaluation, the handling of sharp tools during surgery and the safe conduct of operations.

For example, students learn how to protect sensitive areas such as the eyes and nerves when a patient is under anaesthesia. They interact with each other through VR headsets and hand-held controllers, and learn how to manage patient safety through smooth communications.

“(The game) is timely during COVID-19 because the operating theatres were out of bounds for students,” said Assoc Prof Kow. “It provides a realistic experience of being in the operation theatre and ensures that students can learn about the safety aspects.”

Associate Professor Stella Tan, Academic Director for Forensic Science programmes at NUS Science, also spoke on incorporating virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality into the teaching of forensic science.

Tutor-friendly plagiarism detector

For computing tutors, running plagiarism checks on thousands of assignments can be a major headache. It was time to revamp this “thankless task”.

“If it generates more work (away from teaching) for everyone, then that’s not teaching anymore,” said Associate Professor Kan Min-yen, the School of Computing’s Assistant Dean (Undergraduate Studies).

So he developed an instructor-centric source code plagiarism detection engine. When students submit their work, the system tokenises key lines of codes – converting them to simple data – to be compared across all submissions. This allows instructors to quickly note if any assignments were plagiarised.

What’s more, the system is also able to detect if a student is a repeat offender and show clusters of students with similar answers. The results will then be sent for a manual review before any decision is made.

“As instructors, we don’t want to accuse students based on one case,” said Assoc Prof Kan. “This system accumulates multiple events and can generate evidence of what they have been doing across a period.”

However, the aim is not to penalise but to correct behaviours. “Students who cheat made a wrong decision somewhere, and we can right that without being too draconian on punishment,” he said.

Learning beyond borders

The quest for knowledge at NUS has also gone global through edX and Coursera, two providers of massive open online courses (MOOCs) which are open to learners worldwide.

Today, students are able to access more than 2,500 global MOOCs available on edX and obtain verified certificates as part of Design Your Own Module (DYOM) – customisable Unrestricted Electives that supports learning.

NUS offers eight MOOCs, including one that teaches healthcare workers how to placate children in medical settings. In the course, Dr Hu Shijia from NUS Dentistry discusses children development and behaviour through a mix of lectures and scenario-based lessons.

On the built environment front, Associate Professor Patrick Janssen and Assistant Professor Clayton Miller from NUS Design and Environment have developed MOOCs that teach spatial computational thinking and data science respectively.

Meanwhile, Associate Professor Liu Qizhang from NUS Business utilises the edX platform in his lectures on campus, while supplementing the materials with his own videos, as well as face-to-face and online tutorials.

Adapting to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 has been a steep learning curve for all. But the accelerated innovations have also been an invaluable opportunity to revolutionise teaching and, more importantly, reimagine education