DMAs in laptops — a window into the daily struggle within a Singapore classroom

Something interesting popped up in my news feed recently, and I think it’s worth a read. A bunch of students have started a petition on Change.org about the installation of Device Management Applications (DMAs) on school laptops which will among other things, monitor student laptop activity in the classroom, and surrender much control of the laptop over to the teacher. The argument presented by the petition drafter is well articulated and honestly very impressive — if I was his/her teacher I’d be rather proud — but (as usual) things are more complicated than it seems, and I want to present two contrasting angles to this issue, and why a reasonable way forward is more difficult that it seems.

Teachers feel like they need control of the classroom

Back when I was still teaching, and we were planning to roll out laptops or tablets (now termed as “Personal Learning Devices” or PLDs) for every student, this kind of DMA was simply a no-brainer from the teacher’s perspective. There are two issues here — one is the sheer addictiveness of social media and mobile games which has been well documented elsewhere. As adults many of us struggle to self-regulate our social media or gaming activity, what more teenagers? Every secondary school teacher knows that if you allow unfettered access to the internet, your student’s ability to pay attention in class will be significantly reduced (to zero in many cases), and to a certain point it’s not even the student’s fault. Social media hijacks our neuro-feedback loops to keep us addicted. Asking students to self-regulate is like putting a glass of beer in front of an alcoholic and insisting that he self-regulates. At some point, that kind of classroom design veers into irresponsible teaching. (And no, “character education” will not solve this.)

The second issue, which is the one I want to talk more about, is how teachers are made to feel that if they are unable to control their student’s unwavering attention, they have failed in their teaching. Before COVID, MOE has long considered rolling out PLDs to every student, but one big factor for delaying that (until COVID forced their hand) was that they felt teacher pedagogy hasn’t “caught up” to that kind of classroom setting. In some sense that is true — teachers do need new skills and to master new approaches when it comes to teaching with PLDs, and many teachers have neither the time nor the motivation to upgrade their skills — but I feel that teachers are often unfairly evaluated when the circumstances surrounding the classroom set them up to fail. And by giving every child a PLD, many teachers feel like there is no possible way they can “succeed” unless they have significant control over the child’s device as well.

Many many factors goes into this kind of teacher anxiety (a high student to teacher ratio and our teacher evaluation processes are but two factors), but ultimately this boils down to our education culture and education philosophy. For us, we still deem “good education” to be “successfully implement a set of skills which are to be tested in our exams”. Creative teachers may try some alternative pedagogies such as incorporating break times during the lesson for them to surf social media at will, extensive use of polling and other student-feedback collection tools, employing a flipped classroom, etc. But at the end of the day, it is still a hard requirement for the majority of examinable learning objectives (in the national curriculum) that the student pay attention to teacher demonstration and explanation— and it is precisely this classroom activity which is put most at risk with PLD usage. Teachers are fully aware, and they are anxious.

Students feel disempowered and devalued

Perhaps since time immemorial, teenage angst and struggle with authority have always existed and is a part of our human nature. But how adults and authority manage and deal with that angst has varied from culture to culture, and here in Singapore, the prevalent philosophy is “if you have good character you comply or else you get disciplined to obtain said good character”. In the social media age however, not only can teenagers search the internet to find alternative narratives and perspectives that justifies their continued rebellion against authority, they can also collectivize and perpetuate their angst through social media (and platforms like reddit) which had not be available previously. It is an extremely difficult time to be teachers (and parents!) of teenagers, and I would argue it is also an extremely difficult time to be teenagers.

I’m going to make a few over-generalizations here, but in my opinion our Gen Z and Gen Alpha teenagers feel more disempowered and devalued than ever before. One thing which social media does is to make every teenager feel more alienated (because of relentless peer comparisons) and hungry for external validation. If they also get hostility and rejection from adults, they will often feel devalued as individuals. I won’t go too deeply into societal causes for teenage depression here, but it is difficult for a teenager to feel like life is worth living if you already feel useless or inferior compared to your peers, and on top of that adults feel like you can’t be trusted so they take away your autonomy from you.

At the same time, our teenagers can’t help but feel terribly misunderstood and that their voices and feelings go unheard, when adults insist their opinions are correct and deny teenagers the chance to make decisions for themselves. Again this has been true for decades, but social media and the internet has given them alternative sources of epistemic authority aside from their parents and teachers (and perhaps, not always in a bad way). This results in an erosion of trust of all adults and authority figures in their lives, and for some, they feel that they can only obtain happiness by resisting the oppression of authority figures. This petition is not just an expression of that resistance, but also a display of the distrust of the maxim that “adults know better than them”, especially in the realm of IT security and other things which could go badly wrong with DMAs — something teenagers generally know more about than Gen X or boomer adults.

Conclusion: this episode will pass but the real impasse will not

This petition will change nothing, since parents will certainly side with MOE on this issue, and it will go away quietly since not that many of us listen to the platforms that teenagers use anyway. But I think this episode shows us a glimpse to the real impasse happening between teacher vs student, adult vs teenager. An impasse which has long been happening, and will long continue, since I don’t see our culture of education or our philosophy of dealing with rebellious teenagers change anytime soon.

But if you are an individual teacher or an individual parent, here are some things you can consider which I believe can help your particular situation:

(1) Listen to your teenagers. You don’t always have to agree with them, but allow them to express their feelings and listen to their arguments. Let them feel valued as real individuals instead of sheep to be herded. Be open to the possibility that they can surprise you with knowledge you don’t have and that your perspective can change after that.

(2) Acknowledge your own limitations as a teacher and a parent to your children. Don’t feel the need to behave like a role-model who never gets it wrong. If anything, role-modelling how to be humble when you made a mistake goes far greater than always justifying your views. Don’t mistake your own pride for good parenting or good teaching.

(3) Be aware that as great a role as you play, there are factors outside your control which shape the outcome of the teenager’s life. You cannot control every outcome of your teenager’s life, nor should you. If you unnecessarily burden yourself with responsibility you do not have, you will act out of anxiety and likely end up alienating the teenager even more. Loving your teenager well requires you to acknowledge your powerlessness over these many other factors.

Former educator based in Singapore. I write on the NBA, K-pop, Singapore Issues and the Christian gospel.

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