chenThe interview with Dr. Nian Shing Chen

December, 2015

Interviewer: Shitanshu Mishra

Interviewer: Welcome to this IEEE TCLT interview at the International Conference on technology for education 2015. I am Shitanshu Mishra. I am currently a PhD student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. We are pleased to have Dr. Nian Shing Chen here with us today. Dr. Chen is a chair professor at the Department of Information Management at the National Sun Yat-Sen University, Taiwan. He has published over four hundred papers in the International referred journals, conferences and book chapters. One of his papers published in Innovation in Education and Teaching International was awarded as the top cited paper of the year 2010. He is the author of three books with one text book entitled “E-learning theory and practice”.

Prof. Chen received the distinguished research awards from the National Science Council, Taiwan in 2008 and 2011-2013. His current research interests include assessing e-learning course performance, online synchronous teaching and learning, mobile and ubiquitous learning, natural user interface and game-based learning. He has received several international recognitions including the vice-chair for international communications for IEEE’s Technical Committee on Learning Technology (TCLT).

Dr. Chen thanks for having accepted our invitation. During this privileged time with you, we would like to hear your thoughts about revolutionizing current learning environments to Smart Learning Environments.

Question: What are the major challenges of teachers and schools today?

Interviewer: You are publishing that there are many challenges to current education system. So, according to you, what are the major challenges of teachers and the schools today?

Prof. Chen: I think that major challenge for the teachers is the prior knowledge of students – the gap between students in one class is getting bigger and bigger. The reason for that is because now the internet has provided lots of learning resources. Not to mention, now, if you are interested, you can find any material in high quality, because there are many open educational resources or even like MIT open courseware or now the new coming a lot of MOOC courses, right, so if you are interested in certain subjects, I think, as a learner you can always find the material which you are interested in. So, you are mostly motivated to learn what you are interested in. And this creates a phenomena which has never existed in education. Because traditional schooling is more like an industrial model; it’s a mass production. Now, we kind of classify students into age and then we go from grade one to grade two. If you are a teacher, then you have a student in one class. Basically, you can assume that most of the students’ prior knowledge is almost the same or similar. So, under this condition, it’s much easier as a teacher, you know, to design your own course, to adjust the difficulty level to kind of satisfy the majority of students. But look at what happens now, because the students nowadays can spend a lot of time on what we call informal learning. Informal learning basically is driven by self-directed learning, by self-interest, right? So, day after day, what I have observed is that the time students spent in informal learnings is getting more and more. But we only have 24 hours a day, right? So, the implication will be, the more students spend time on informal learning, then the more students will acquire knowledge in their interested domain. And then, this creates the bigger gap among students. So, this is the big challenge to the teachers. So, nowadays, I would say, as a teacher, even if you have the same passion about your own teaching and you do exactly the same, you know, ten years ago you might satisfy ninety percent of students, and you do exactly the same way, but today maybe you can only satisfy sixty percent of students. Nothing is wrong with you but it’s just the student’s prior knowledge is getting bigger and bigger in the gap.

Interviewer: So, in one line, can I say that predicting the student models is very difficult these days? You can’t guess what the prior knowledge of my class is. In previous times we could have estimated, but now we can’t.

Prof. Chen: No, in the old days, you didn’t need to do that because it’s a page processing, it’s a mass production. So, you just assume and it’s the case. But, nowadays, it’s not the case. So, let me finish the challenge to the teachers is this big gap among students of this prior knowledge, okay and then the implication to the school, the formal educational system, is the importance of the value of the formal educational system is diminishing, right? Because the value, the service you provide to the students… the students only spend less and less time in formal learning systems, right? So, all the traditional schooling, all the traditional institutions, educational institutions, actually we all are facing this critical challenge because our value, because a student is our customer, right? And then, the students spend less and less time in formal learning. So, that means the importance of formal educational system is diminishing. So, to the teacher and to school, this is the challenge we cannot avoid and it’s getting worse day after day.

Question: Prof. Chen’s idea about self-directed schooling: How would students in a self-directed Smart Learning Environment make right choices for themselves?

Interviewer: So, you talked about self-directed learning and in your article you talked about self-directed schooling. So, can you elaborate some more on it?

Prof. Chen: Yes, because, you know, I’m kind of sick of our traditional schooling, say you have to start from kindergarten and then six years for primary school and then another six years for secondary, you know junior high and senior high, and then you may need to spend four years for University and then maybe two year master and four year PhD. It is so strict, right. So, I project in the future, you know, because nowadays we talk about student-centric and then students, you know, should be the active learner, right? And then, students can be self-regulated and students can do self-directed learning. But the implication, actually, the big picture will be… at the end actually, is the self-directed schooling. Okay!

Why is that? Because, if I decided I want to master this degree, and then I can from the internet, I can find the optimum pace for me, you know. From now, maybe I can choose different courses from different places from different institutions, because more and more institutions will provide online courses, right? So, this is more like self-paced, because in the flipped classroom, the teacher will kind of provide more flexibility for students, so students can have more authority to control their own progress. So, based on this concept, what I mean by self-directed schooling is to master this profession or this degree, maybe you only need five years but another student, another learner he might say, “No I am not in a rush.” “Okay! In the meantime I want to do something else. So, I want to spend ten years.” It’s not possible in our traditional schooling, but it’s possible in the future, right? So, each individual can then have their own self-directed schooling because the educational system will be re-engineered to provide all this kind of flexibility.

Question: How would students in a self-directed Smart Learning Environment make the right choices for themselves?

Interviewer: This variable time and fixed learning is a very, very encouraging idea. But in self-directed learning mode, if I am a student, how would I ensure that I’m going to correct, appropriate resources? How would I know which resource is suitable for me?

Prof. Chen: Yes, so when I say self-directed schooling, the implication is not, you really… you know, throughout the whole learning process, you learn a lot, okay, because if there are say many students that all adopted this kind of concept and it’s not just a concept; maybe in the future, you know… because the private sector will also set up a lot of cyber-schools, or teach to schools or, you know, private-sector provide educational services more and more, which means a lot of students, actually, do the same self-directed schooling. So, then we would have enough number of critical mass of this type of students. Educational service providers will design many kinds of learning systems, which will support collaborative learning, which will support scaffolding, which will support individual facilitation. So, all this kind of research we have been doing in the last twenty to thirty years of Educational Technology will be really implemented in real systems and then the educational service provider, not just the public sector, but the private sector, I think… because education becomes a global market. So the private sector can see the potential. So, they will be the major player. So, the question you asked, actually, I would say educational service providers are also very concerned about all these issues, so they will provide better services.

Question: Prof. Chen’s idea about Education Robots: How are they more effective than the traditional learning aids (such as peers, big brothers, etc.)?

Interviewer: So, in your article, you talked about educational robots. So, how are the educational robots more effective than the traditional learning aids, such as a student who is aided by his peers, by his family members? So, how are the educational robots and can they replace these factors?

Prof. Chen: I think the educational robot is the future. It is like, you know, we once said personal computer, right? Every single one has a personal computer. And it has already happened; we all know. And now, we say everyone should have a smartphone. Yes, indeed, everyone has a smartphone, right? So, I project in the future everyone should have an educational robot. When a child, you know… since the time a child is born, the parent will buy an educational robot as a learning companion. So, the educational robot actually grows with the kids, since the childhood, okay, and then the robot can play many roles. At home, the robot can play as a peer. This is very important because in China they have this one child policy. So, at home you don’t have peers. You don’t have brothers and sisters. So, robot can then play as a learning peer, right? And then, you go to school, right? And then, from the pocket, you can take out your personal robot, your educational robot. And then, the teacher will incorporate educational robots in their learning activity, okay? Of course, we don’t want the future generation to just, you know, learn with machines, but what we project is that the robot can provide a lot of services which the teachers might be limited, say at home, where it’s not accessible to teachers and then, in the school, in the classroom, sometimes even you assign certain students to do a team work. How about if we add one educational robot as a team member? And then, this robot, because it’s connected to the cloud… so all of pedagogy actually can be enforced by this educational robot. So there is a lot of potential by which educational robots can help in the future. And I would say… because the ultimate goal is personalized, adaptive learning, but we just don’t have the kind of capacity of teachers to be able to provide say one-to-one tutoring – then how about the robots? All the teachers’ expertise and knowledge and skills can be hard coded on the cloud and then the robot can be a proxy, or agent. It behave like a very experienced, capable teacher.

Question: Prof. Chen’s idea about Lifelong Profiling: How is it useful? Would it not be an invasion of individual privacy?

Interviewer: Another thing in your article was about the lifelong profiling. Please elaborate more on this, how do you think it would be useful in the future?

Prof. Chen: I would say, because now even we have a very long pace of learning from primary, secondary, college but our learning portfolio, actually, is not accumulated, right? But, the more we used technology, then the more we can track all the learning processes, right? And then, all of this kind of log data can be accumulated in a single place. So, the reason why this is important… because the goal is to provide individualized, adaptive learning. So, the more the system understands each individual’s learning profile, by using the learning analytics, right, because if the system fully understands what exactly is this individual learner, then of course at the end, we can come up with the best material, strategy, pedagogy, content, etc. So, lifelong profiling or the lifelong learning portfolio is the key to realize this ultimate goal of adaptive learning for every single individual.

Interviewer: Lifelong learning systems would be tracing each and every, and most of the activities that one student does. And, would it not be a threat to individual’s privacy?

Prof. Chen: Yeah, privacy is always an issue, and no, I am not worried about privacy issues, because it’s… I can use two examples. One is a bank at the beginning – money is the most treasured stuff. And then, in the old days, our grandmother or grandfather put money under the ground. But now, everybody puts money in the bank. Why? Because there’s a trusted system which already has matured and people trust it. Then, for these educational service providers, if they want to track lifelong portfolio, then they must have some mechanism to earn the trust, so that they don’t invade too much of the privacy issue. And another example is like now, social media, say for example, before the telephone system, taping was very easy, because there was a central point. But now, for this, like Skype or Line is point to point. So, with point to point we can use encryption. So, the technology’s layer is just, you know… the benefits or the commercial profit is not ready for loss, you know service provided to put effort to provide a kind of service. But it will come.

Question: Elaborate more on “team-teaching”?

Interviewer: You talked about team-teaching. So, it was an interesting concept about teachers in SLE. What is team-teaching? Can you elaborate something more?

Prof. Chen: Yeah! I have been dreaming, you know, to do team teaching for many years and now I can see in flipped classroom, because the teacher has to record a lecture, right? And then, I realized, in FLIP actually, not every teacher has to do this. If you are teaching a fundamental course, then only one teacher needs to do this video lecture recording. It can be shared. Like Khan Academy, he already recorded 4 hours or something of video clips. Because it’s a basic knowledge. So, this is one way of showing the benefits of the team teaching. In FLIP, just a few teachers need to do the video lecture recording and then I just adopt. So, it seems like I am doing team-teaching with that particular teacher who kind of saved me time so that I don’t need to lecture myself. So, team teaching could be in many different forms. Another [example]… like if we also re-engineer our course structure and also re-engineer the process of how a course is taught, then we can divide a course into many different tasks and then each task will be carried by one specific teacher. And we can all collaborate together. So team-teaching is very difficult to implement in the physical classroom, but will be much easier to implement in Smart Learning Environments by using the technology.

Interviewer: So, there are many concepts of team-teaching. They can be adapted in traditional classrooms, today also, in the current time also. So, what is specific to Smart Learning Environments?

Prof. Chen: No, in the tradition traditional classroom it would be very difficult. Say, you and me, we go to the same classroom; how are we going to collaborate? We have to design beforehand, we have to discuss, say, “Okay this is the level of division. You take care of this part, I will take care of this part.” So, a lot of coordination is required. In the physical classrooms, it’s like we kind of take turns, or we divide students into two groups. You take care of half; I take care of half. Then, this is not the way we want to see 1+1 get the benefits more than two, right? But, with the help of technology, then I see much easier, more flexibility for a group of teachers teaching the same subject to collaborate. So, team-teaching I think, in the future, will be more feasible.

Statement: Prof. Chen’s idea about Flipped Classroom.

Interviewer: You talked about flipped classrooms, and you mentioned one statement: “Flipped classrooms allow teachers to deliver the course content in a more interactive and efficient manner.” So, how do flipped classrooms allow more interaction? Because, intuitively, it appears that in a traditional classroom, the teacher is allowed to interact with the students more and if the students are going back to their hostels and they are just watching videos, then how is their interactivity increasing?

Prof. Chen: Yes, of course. Because, in the traditional mode of teaching, even we say in the physical classroom, it’s face to face; it’s much easier to do two-way interaction. But, in reality, most of the teacher in the physical classroom just do one-way lecturing. And then, if you ask the students “do you have any questions?”, then in most of the cases, the students don’t have any questions. So, now we say “FLIP” which means one-way lecturing. Students can listen in their own town. So, when all students come to the physical classroom, the teachers don’t do lectures a lot. So, we save a lot of time. So, the second challenge to the teachers to apply FLIP classroom, actually, is to design learning interactive activities which can be conducted in the physical classroom. So, to answer your question, this is the reason why it increases the interactivity, because the one-way lecturing is already eliminated. So, the more time, in the classroom, I can do Q&A, I can divide students into different group so they work together… Before, you didn’t have enough time to do this, but now you do, if you adopt a flipped classroom concept.

Question: How would an employer ensure consistency of competencies among students for a similar skill-set if students are from different locations/demographics?

Interviewer: You said that Smart Learning Environments would focus on competency-based assessments. So, if I am an employer, how would I ensure the consistency of competencies among students, if I know that my students, who are coming from Smart Learning Environments, are from varied backgrounds and maybe have exposure to varied learning environments? So, how would I ensure that the competency set of my prospective employees is consistent?

Prof. Chen: Yeah, for this, I can use very simple example like the language competence. For instance, if you want to do study abroad, your language proficiency needs to reach a certain level. So, there are standard there; you have to pass a certain score, or TOET (Test of Elementary Training), or TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), right? So, the idea behind this, actually, is the separation of learning and assessment. So, I project, in the future, assessment will be separated from teaching and learning, because now, if you are a teacher, you are actually in charge of all this – you design a course, you conduct a course, you facilitate students to do learning, and then you do assessment, you design the exam sheets, right? But, all this kind of traditional mode of teaching will be re-engineered. So, everything will be decomposed. And then, this is like the outsourcing concept. So, to provide the best quality of service, you know, each stakeholder just focuses on one service. So, assessment will be separated, not just language, but each competency skill will be separated. So, the question you asked or your worried about, there are standards there.

Interviewer: Dr. Chen, thank you for your valuable comments and your coming here. We are grateful to Prof. Chen and with this we are ending this interview.

Thank you Prof. Chen.

Prof. Chen: Yeah, it’s my pleasure, thank you!