• October 25, 2014

In Wired Singapore Classrooms, Cultures Clash Over Web 2.0

20100901-SMU-126

Norman Ng, OnAsia

Project Manager Magnus Bengtsson (right) helps freshman Hu Zheng Bin through a class on information systems at Singapore Management University.

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Norman Ng, OnAsia

Project Manager Magnus Bengtsson (right) helps freshman Hu Zheng Bin through a class on information systems at Singapore Management University.

Dozens of freshmen at Singapore Management University spent one evening last week learning how to "wiki," or use the software that lets large numbers of people write and edit class projects online. Though many said experiencing a public editing process similar to that of Wikipedia could prove valuable, some were wary of the collaborative tool, with its public nature and the ability to toss out or revise the work of their classmates.

"It's dangerous, actually," said Liu Huan, one of the students, in an interview after the training session. "I can change everything that others have done."

Why is that so bad? It puts students in the awkward position of having to publicly correct a peer, which can cause the corrected person to lose face.

"It's a very Asia context," said the student sitting next to Ms. Huan, who said her full name is Arathi. "You have to be more aware of others and have a sensitivity to others."

While colleges have been trumpeting the power of social media as an educational tool, here in Asia, going public with classwork runs counter to many cultural norms, surprising transplanted professors and making some students a little uneasy.

The Chronicle sent me to Singapore to see this kind of difference. This is the first of a monthlong series of reports on how digital technologies are changing teaching, research, and university life here, as well as in China, Korea, and India.

Publicly oriented Web 2.0 tools, like wikis, for instance, run up against ideas about how one should treat others in public. "People were very reluctant to edit things that other people had posted," said American-trained C. Jason Woodard, an assistant professor of information systems who started the wiki project two years ago. "I guess out of deference. People were very careful to not want to edit their peers. Getting people out of that mind-set has been a real challenge."

Students are also afraid of embarrassing themselves. Some privately expressed concern to me about putting unfinished work out on the Web for the world to see, as the assignment calls for them to do.

Michael Netzley, an assistant professor of corporate-communications practice at the university, said he has also faced hesitancy when asking students to use social-media tools for class projects. Few students seemed to freely post to blogs or Twitter, electing instead to communicate using Facebook accounts with the privacy set so that only close friends could see them, he said.

"The students here seem to display a certain resistance or reluctance to actually adopting education 2.0 in a deeper or more meaningful fashion," said Mr. Netzley, an American scholar who got his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota. "In a small country like Singapore, the traditional face-to-face network still reigns supreme. Members of a network are extremely loyal to that network, and if you are outside of it, a lot of times you aren't even given the time of day."

Yet the professor argues that he has a duty to train students to master skills that employers now look for, whether the students like it or not.

'Knowledge Workers'

In fact, Singapore's future depends on technology and innovation at least according to its leaders, who have worked for years to position the country as friendly to the foreign investment that serves as its lifeblood. The city-state literally has no natural resources except its people, who it hopes to turn into "knowledge workers" (a buzzword I heard many times during my visit).

As a result, Singapore has attempted to brand itself as a sort of Internet oasis—it has free islandwide wifi access, for instance. And the state invests heavily in education, attempting to import the best approaches from around the world, including the new Singapore University of Technology and Design that it is building in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Chinese institution.

Yet this is a culture that many here describe as conservative, where people are not known for pushing boundaries. That was the first impression that Giorgos Cheliotis had when he first arrived to teach in Singapore several years ago from his native Greece. He's now an assistant professor of communications at the National University of Singapore.

"It took me some effort to get used to the different student mentality," the professor told me over drinks of fresh watermelon juice in the university's open-air food court. "I was used to a culture of people being extremely outspoken and being very vocal on any social or political issue. That's often not the case in Singapore or Southeast Asia."

Now he brings a plastic bag full of power strips to his social-media class each week (so everyone can plug in their laptops), and asks students to chat on Twitter during his lectures. And chat they do. They've written more than 500 bursts of text since classes started three weeks ago. He says he suspects they may be more comfortable because they are seniors, and because they feel that it has been assigned, and so they must.

The day I sat in, the sound of typing was constant, as students posted discussion questions, joked about the material, and retweeted zingers and provocations. As one of the students wrote in a post: "Twitter allows everyone to express their ideas at the same time, without interrupting the presentation:)"

Though his students may be comfortable online, they are still not the most argumentative bunch, as revealed when he asked students to act out social networking in the real world using Post-it Notes and colored markers. It was a blur of motion, giggling, and, well, politeness.

They "tagged" fellow students with descriptions of their traits, in much the way that Twitter users can add keywords to their posts to make them easy to find.

What struck me most was how darn nice every last tag was. Take the Post-it Notes stuck to the green T-shirt of Chainn Miin, a senior communications major, for instance: "initiative," "hard-working," "efficient," and "fashionable." The sarcasm and edginess I'm accustomed to seeing in American classrooms was absent here, and several students said that, as a rule, the same goes for their Tweeting and blogging as well.

"Singaporeans tend to practice a certain level of self-control when communicating online and when on social-media platforms, people tend to be less negative and more sensitive," said Cedric Sia, one of the students in Mr. Cheliotis's class. "I have some experience in online games, and Western gamers tend to be less sensitive and use harsh languages when communicating, whether in forum discussions or in-game chats."

In The Geography of Thought (Free Press), Richard E. Nisbett, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, argues that this difference between East and West stems from contrasting notions that people grew up with about the complexity of the world.

The argument: Americans and others in the West see the world as a series of objects that can be rationally controlled and easily described, while those in Singapore and the East focus on the flow of systems they see as connected in complex and ineffable ways. And that leads the latter group more likely to hold their tongues while they sort through problems. "There is certainly a long tradition in the East of equating silence rather than speech with knowledge," he wrote.

Mr. Nisbett hypothesizes that the different habits of mind—and the culture of critique and debate prevalent in the West but avoided in the East—have a huge effect on the rate of scientific innovation in a culture. "In the decade of the nineties, scientists living in the United States produced 44 Nobel Prizes and the Japanese produced just one, despite the fact that Japanese funding for science is fully half that of the U.S.," he wrote.

Fear of the Government

Then again, students in Singapore may have more practical reasons to limit their public criticisms and debates.

The government monitors online speech, and some here told me that people in Singapore have developed a habit of not speaking out for fear of upsetting the authorities.

Several students pointed me to an incident in August when a 27-year-old engineer was arrested for a comment he made on Facebook. In a comment criticizing the Youth Olympic Games, he wrote that he wanted to "burn" the sports minister and called on Singaporeans to "rally together and vote them out." The arrest led to widespread complaints that the government—which interpreted the engineer's comment as a physical threat—had overreacted.

The outcry came in the form of blogs and Tweets, which indicates that, despite the arrest, people are feeling more free to express themselves online.

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to jeff.young@chronicle.com or @jryoung on Twitter.

Comments

1. wjsonn - September 10, 2010 at 07:07 pm

This article is a joke. Look at the Nobel Prize data of the last decade, not just the nineties. And look at the trend. Who has been rising and who has been stagnant or setting?

2. wommo - September 14, 2010 at 08:07 am

I question how a sample like the Nobel prize (a subjective, often politicized and very, very narrow slice) can be used to draw make a really good point here. Dramatic yes, but what if we looked at scientific knowledge and skills over the whole population? In that case, Singapore seems to significantly outperforms the U.S.--as one example. In Nobel prizes 1990 to now in Physics, U.S. won or shared 31. In Chemistry from 1990 to 1999 11 and from 2000 - now 16. I would not call an increase over the last decade stagnation. But so what? The issue is about intercultural relations, not silverware.

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