There’s currently a lot of talk about the use of Information
Technology in teaching at NUS with the assumption that IT
is good. I’m a strong advocate of IT in teaching, but
I believe we must realise that IT is no panacea, and that
not all of its use is effective.
I started using Computer Algebra Systems in my classes in
1993; I put up my first course web page in 1994; and I set
up a calculus lab in 1996. I’m also very interested
in language learning, and I have been following the development
of language learning software closely. I’m very excited
about the way computers enable us to do things we couldn’t
do before. Yet people are using computers to do things there
was no reason for them to do in the first place.
First of all, the focus must be on teaching, not IT. A lot
of courseware looks incredibly flashy, and is obviously designed
by expert graphic designers and programmers. But are there
clear pedagogical goals or are they just trying to show off?
For example, most language learning software allows you to
record your own voice, and look at a graphical representation
of the waveform. What exactly is this supposed to teach you?
If you are learning Chinese and need help with the tones,
you need a program that can analyse the pitch. This is totally
different from looking at the waveform and requires powerful
Thanks to the current fascination with the web, some people
seem to think that the way to be world-class is to create
a course web page. I believe that the web is a great way to
make information available to the students, but does any actual
learning take place on the web? It’s very rare that
I see a web site that I believe students would learn much
IT shouldn’t become an excuse for poor teaching. With
the current talk about putting our lectures on-line, I would
be praised highly by the administration if I do so. But what
if my lectures were not very good in the first place? Are
our lecturers so good that they are worth recording?
A sure way of improving your course evaluations is to type
out your lecture notes and give them to the students. Instead,
I prefer to start the semester by saying that if they want
something nice-looking to read, they should buy the textbook.
In the past, the university seemed to agree with me, but now
the attitude seems to be that I should put the notes on the
At the moment, it is possible for technologically savvy
people to be rewarded for doing things that the administration
supports, even though the pedagogical value might be questionable.
Some non-IT inclined people are often afraid of disputing
the value of IT in teaching for fear of being seen as ‘backward’.
Some people who are involved with implementing IT realise
that this is good for their career, and are reluctant to rock
the boat by questioning what is being done. Another problem
at NUS is that most IT projects originate from people high
up or the Computer Centre, unlike at American universities
where new IT projects are usually implemented by dedicated
staff members who want to use it in their classes.
Another rarely mentioned issue is the way IT changes the
content of what we teach. In mathematics, computers have had
a dramatic impact. Some techniques that used to be crucial
are now no longer as important, while several topics that
previously were beyond our reach, have now become manageable
thanks to computers. Our teaching should reflect this new
reality. The increased use of computers in a wide range of
fields means that people need more mathematics, presenting
a golden opportunity for mathematicians. But we must be open-minded,
and teach the mathematics people really need, not just topics
that were important when we were students.
Despite the above reservations, there is at least one productive
use of IT in teaching. Over the years, I’ve spent more
and more time answering email from my students. I’ve
now started an electronic discussion forum for my class. My
answers are now available to all my students, and it’s
easier for me to justify spending that much time answering
questions. The discussion forum is an example of how IT is
only useful if it reinforces already good teaching. If you
just want to scare the students away so you can spend all
your time on research, then there’s no point in setting
up a discussion forum. It will only be of use if students
feel you are approachable and helpful.
The true potential of the forum will only be achieved when
it becomes not just a way for me to communicate with the students,
but a way for the students to communicate with each other.
I personally believe that encouraging active learning is one
of the main challenges facing us here at NUS. However, for
active learning to flourish at the NUS, we need a totally
different attitude among students, staff and administrators.