Dr. Jeanne Ho, currently the Vice-Principal of a secondary school in Singapore, was previously a teaching fellow with the Learning Sciences and Technologies at the National Institute of Education (NIE), Singapore. While at NIE, she co-led a research on the distribution of leadership in a school’s ICT reform. Her research interests include computer-mediated learning and school leadership. Before her attachment to NIE, she was with the Educational Technology Division (ETD), Ministry of Education, Singapore, to assist in its effort to promote the use of ICT to Singapore schools. She was involved in the implementation of the first 2 of Singapore’s ICT Masterplans, first as an ICT trainer, and then as a Senior Head in charge of the R&D division which spearheaded and investigated innovations in the use of ICT in schools.

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Q: As a current vice-principal of a secondary school in Singapore, could you describe your typical day at work?
A: This is a very difficult question to answer since there is no typical day – or rather a typical day depends on the time of the year. For example, at the beginning of the year, I spend at least 2.5 days at camp with one level of students. (In my school, we organize level camps for all our students: Secondary 1’s have an orientation camp; Secondary 2’s participate in an outdoor adventure camp; Secondary 3’s enjoy arts-related learning trips or workshops; and our Secondary 4’s go overseas to do community service.) During March holidays, I spend time checking the files of my graduating classes. Around mid-November and December, I lead my Key Personnel (KP) in self-assessment of the school’s programs for the year.

Generally, most of my time is devoted to teachers, students, parents, or processes. Specifically, I observe lessons, analyze my KP e(electronic) records on a fortnightly basis (because my school currently has two Vice Principals and we take turns each week), speak to students when necessary (e.g., before Secondary 2 streaming process*, discipline-related cases), speak to parents (queries, discipline-related cases, parent-teacher meetings), monitor pupils’ performance and work with my KPs to design interventions/to plan ahead based on the pupils’ performance data.

*In Singapore, at the end of Secondary 2, students are ‘streamed’ to study different subjects based on their performance in specific subjects. In my school, the different combinations include: a) Pure sciences classes with Additional Mathematics, b) combined science classes with Add Mathematics, and c) Humanities classes with Elementary Mathematics, with one class taking Pure Humanities, one class taking Humanities with Food and Nutrition, and another class taking Humanities with Art.

Q: Speaking of Singapore’s Information Communication Technology (ICT) Masterplans, you were involved in the first one launched in 1997, and the second one in 2002. Could you elaborate on your role in the implementation? What is the most important lesson you learned from your participation in the Masterplans’ implementation?
A: In the first masterplan, my main role was a trainer. We trained ALL the teachers in Singapore. Initially, we designed generic training courses, as in the same course was designed for a primary school teacher and a secondary school teacher, regardless of subject. However, as we progressed, we realized that teachers had difficulty ‘visualising’ how to harness the affordance of technology unless we gave them specific examples related to their subject areas. Leveraging our team’s collective expertise, we designed and conducted more customized courses. In Singapore, from the first masterplan, we designed our courses to focus on the pedagogy behind the use of the technology. For example, if I taught the teachers how to use Inspiration (a software which supports concept mapping), the focus on how the use of a digital tool was different (and thus added value to student learning) from doing concept mapping on paper. Therefore, I linked the use of the software to the specific subject area. For instance, using Inspiration for Literature instruction. We gave teachers the example on how to help pupils to build a ‘growing’ map of their Literature text as they read the text and understood it better over time. For English, we shared that Inspiration could be used to support the brainstorming or elaboration process in writing.

In the second masterplan, I had a change in my job scope – I joined the R&D department where I worked with selected schools to pilot emerging/relatively new technologies.

From the two masterplans, my personal takeaway is that we should focus on technology which is accessible to teachers and schools (accessible as in affordable, preferably free especially now with the Internet & web 2.0, and easy to navigate). I also feel that open tools (compared to tutorial/drill and practice software, which anyway are usually expensive) are more useful as they enable pupils to construct knowledge on their own, which is aligned to my belief in constructivism. However, with open tools, the role of the teacher as a designer of the learning environment becomes ever more critical. For example, we can’t just leave our pupils to use Inspiration on their own without any guidance/scaffolding.

The other personal takeaway is that if we want teachers to use technology, the hardware must also be truly accessible. In Singapore, we provided every teacher with a notebook – which at least helps them to become comfortable with technology for their own productivity and learning. Our ratio of pupils to computers is roughly 7:1. However, beyond providing the number of computers, it’s also important that access to the computers and to Internet must be quick. This is particularly pertinent in Singapore where each subject on average has about one hour of lessons each day. By the time the teacher brings the pupils to the computer lab and they settle down, they have very little time left and thus access to the computers and to Internet must be quick. Over the years, based on teachers’ feedback, Singapore has increased the speed of access to the Internet.

Q: Over a decade later, how do you perceive the changes brought by Masterplans since its first launch in 1997?
A: I do see more pervasive use of technology, particularly of the Internet. There is also a shift from teachers’ use of technology to more examples of pupils’ use of the technology. All teacher trainees who graduate from Singapore’s one and only training college are now trained to use ICT from the start, so it’s easier to persuade teachers to use ICT.

In addition, in this third Masterplan, the Ministry of Education implemented an ICT mentor system – where they trained about 4 ICT mentors per school with the intent for each ICT mentor to then train 2 mentees in their school every year. This is the Fan approach. The training provided was pretty detailed, including coaching skills. This approach I believe is useful in bringing other teachers on board.

Q: What is the most surprising finding in your research on distributed leadership of ICT reform?
A: This is an excellent question which forced me to pause and think. I don’t think I found anything very surprising in that my study confirmed the importance of support from school leaders, both the Principal and the Vice-Principals. It also confirmed that with regards to technology leadership, the person(s) providing the instructional leadership aspect has to have a certain level of technical expertise (in my case study, this included an understanding of the functions of Excel) and pedagogical expertise (the ‘instructional leader’ in my case study was familiar with Jonassen’s concept of technology as Mindtools). I did find that when it came to transformational leadership, it was not necessary for the school leaders to be familiar with technology, as long as they showed commitment to the teachers’ use of technology, and expressed a belief in the value of ICT to support learning. I guess this was exciting for me, because it really showed the potential of distributed leadership when implementing ICT. Unlike most other ‘strategies’ which mainly required pedagogical expertise, the use of ICT requires both technical and pedagogical expertise. Indeed, if you are familiar with Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK), the use of technology requires technological pedagogical content knowledge. When I first started my research on technology leadership, I had not expected this link between technology leadership and TPACK.

Another thing which was interesting (though I would not say surprising) was how using Activity Theory (AT) as an interpretive lens helped to explain barriers to teachers’ use of technology – there were conflicts between the subject departments’ ‘main’ activity of teaching and learning (which may or may not include ICT) and the ICT department’s push for the use of technology to support learning. This surfaced a systemic ‘tension’ which was not a concept highlighted in the field of distributed leadership. I am currently doing a third draft of an article on the use of AT as a lens for a peer-reviewed journal – hopefully, if it gets accepted, I can share this article at a later date.

Q: With your experience in both research and leadership practice in schools, what are the current challenges of ICT reform in Singapore?
A: I can only answer with regard to my school, since I have left the Ministry and it would be inappropriate to speak on behalf of other schools.

  • In Singapore, although we value and support holistic education, grades are understandably still important as they provide the doorway to higher education. Our teachers have produced results even without the use of technology – so the challenge is to persuade them that we need to use technology to engage this generation of learners, and that the use of technology will not jeopardize the students’ grades if it is used appropriately and where it supports learning. [Having said this, none of my teachers have used grades as a reason why they don’t use technology. In my school, I have a big range of teachers who do use technology, from the beginning 1st year teacher to a teacher who is retiring next year and who is also one of my ICT mentors.]
  • Challenge of time. We have a rigorous curriculum with very comprehensive outcomes. For some of my teachers, especially the Humanities teachers who have very few periods per week (for lower secondary, they have about 2-3 periods per week – each period is about 30 minutes long) and a lot of content to cover, it can be a challenge finding the time to use technology. Having said that, my teacher who uses technology quite extensively, and to encourage higher order thinking (which takes time), is a Geography teacher (and also one of my ICT mentors).
  • Challenge of finding the right ICT tool for the specific topic/subject. Take mathematics for example. My Math teachers use Graphmatica – they find that it supports their teaching of graphs. In addition, they subscribe to a math portal which my HOD/Mathematics says has a lot of useful applets to illustrate mathematical concepts. However, for my Literature, History and Social Studies teachers, their main use of ICT would be the Internet and mainly information related. There are History and Social Studies teachers who get the students to use some discussion forum to discuss historical events. However, this is where the challenge of time comes in.
  • Accessibility to the technology. In my school, we have 3 computer labs (40 PCs each) and at least 4-5 mobile labs (about 20 notebooks each), so quantity is not an issue. However, in part due to security protocol, every time the student logs on to a new notebook, it takes a long time (very long considering each lesson is at most 1 hour) to access the notebook. We try to work around this by telling teachers to design their lessons such that a) pupils try to use the same notebook each time (by booking the same mobile lab and assigning each child to the same notebook), and b) pupils key in their username and password first and teacher does some preliminary teaching/introduction by which time the notebook should be ready. These are the kinds of small details and problems that school leaders may not see, but which can put teachers off using technology even when there is clear value add. Our school’s technical assistance (the Ministry of Education provides at least one per school) is currently trying to resolve this slow access issue as well.

Q: If you have a group of American school principals visiting your school, what is the core message you want to share with American peers?
A: Technology use in a school must be supported by the school leaders, particularly principals, because time is needed for teachers to design quality ICT-based lessons, time for teachers to share quality lessons with their peers, and teachers sometimes need a bit of ‘pushing’. In my school, we encourage teachers to use ICT by suggesting that their lesson observation for the year (we observe all teachers at least once a year) include the use of ICT if they have already conducted a DI lesson (differentiated instruction is a pedagogical approach we adopted for our school). When a lesson is good (pedagogically sound), we encourage teachers to share their lessons at staff meetings/staff learning symposiums. I find that sharing actual examples of good ICT lessons does help to inspire some of the other teachers, and they know who amongst them they can ask for help. Also, when I observe an ICT lesson, I am patient and show understanding/try to help when there are technical issues so that the teachers are not stressed by the technology/regret trying out the ICT lesson.

Q: What advice would you give to our doctoral students in school technology leadership program?
A: When I did my dissertation, I found that there was very little quality research done on school technology leadership in that much of the literature was prescriptive/descriptive (but not as a detailed case study – general descriptions) and published in not so well known journals. More research (both quality and quantity wise) has been done on the use of technology.

This means that the field of school technology leadership is still pretty nascent, which can be stressful but also exciting. I would advise to start small though. I think I was too ambitious in my choice of thesis (distributed leadership in technology implementation) as I ended up having to do research on five related fields: technology leadership, leadership in general, distributed leadership, teacher leadership, and middle management. I ended up with a thesis over the 80,000 word limit.

To ensure the quality and usefulness plus impact of the thesis, I would still advise the doctoral student to go beyond research on technology leadership to research on educational leadership. S/he could focus on one of the 6 leadership constructs mentioned in Leithwood, K., & Duke, D. L. (1999). A century's quest to understand school leadership. In J. Murphy & K. S. Louis (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Administration (2nd ed., pp. 45-72). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

There are also some relatively newer concepts of leadership they might want to explore to see if relevant to technology leadership – e.g. parallel leadership.

I personally feel middle management is very important in helping to push for technology use amongst teachers. If I remember correctly, there was little research on the role of HODs/ICT. This is another exciting area for research, though you would need to include how the HODs/ICT work with the subject heads of departments and with the school principal.

Finally, for STL doctoral students – good luck and enjoy the process.