In November 1982, I read in the Singapore Bulletin – a monthly newsletter sent to Singaporeans studying or working overseas – that the Singapore Polytechnic is considering setting up an open university in Singapore.
I was then working in the External Studies Unit of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) as a course coordinator, overseeing the instructional design, development and delivery of distance learning materials. It was my fourth year with RMIT, my seventh in Melbourne, and I relish both the work and the wide open spaces of Australia. Still, home and family is where the heart is and I constantly look out for similar work opportunities in Singapore.
Imagine my joy – and utter amazement – at the news of an open university in Singapore! How forward thinking of Singapore Polytechnic, I marveled, to be considering open learning which is associated with students in far flung places rather than students on a tiny island within easy reach of the poly. I wrote to the Principal, Mr Khoo Kay Chai, detailing my experience in both distant and face-to-face teaching and course development and my hope to be part of his open university vision.
Shortly after, I receive a reply – and job offer!! It is not from SP Open University, but from the Head of the Department of Educational Technology (ETD), John Cable. Mr Cable was an Electrical Engineer from Huddersfield Polytechnic recruited 12 months earlier to transform SP’s Audio Visual Unit so that it can provide not just AVA support services, but also educational development and technology expertise to the academic departments. Since the polytechnic courses are all in engineering, Mr. Cable thought my engineering background would be an asset.
I arrive in SP on 14 Nov 1983. The sweeping red brick steps leading up to the Administration Block I have seen on SP brochures looks even more impressive as I stand at the bottom of it. On the fourth floor, the Head of Personnel Department, Ms. Caroline Hu, warmly welcomes me in her elegant qipao.
My office is on the upper floor of a solid, white-washed colonial building that used to be part of the British barracks and sits regally atop a hillock. At the foot of the hill, the new ETD home – Block T1A – is in the final stages of construction. I share the spacious room with a rather noisy Carrier air conditioner and a very jolly Alan Webster, also from the UK. The three of us, all engineers turned educators, are to conduct workshops for SP lecturers on teaching and course development.
At the Library, the beaming Librarian, Mrs. Rosemary Yeap, shows me the state of the art collection of books, monographs and journals on education. Her enthusiasm is catching and delightful as she walks me around the Library, stopping now and again to gently chide any student behaving inappropriately. I quickly make friends of her very helpful library staff – and the extensive collection under Dewey call number 371. The Library becomes my favorite hangout.
The first month in SP sees me taking the “yellow bullet train” linkways to move around the campus without getting lost. For lunch, I have chicken rice from a canteen near the Mechanical Engineering Department – everyday, much to the horror and disbelief of all I cheerily mention that to!!! Whatever they thought, the chicken rice tastes heavenly to me who had not eaten it in seven long years…
So begins my rich and rewarding career with SP. Rich and rewarding because it is challenging. Example: my very first task is to run a workshop on “Design and Production of Educational Video” with ETD’s newly acquired Sony video equipment – all of which I know practically nothing about! I also sense a certain skepticism towards ETD workshops. I have begun at the deep end of the pool…
Because I do not drown, I learn a lot through the workshops I facilitate – workshops on curriculum evaluation, writing learning objectives, teaching methods, student assessment, using OHP and AVA, education trends and issues, even workshops on transactional analysis and teambuilding. Those on teaching and learning form the basic Teaching Methods Course all new SP lecturers attend. SP Open University does not come about, but SP shows its pioneering spirit by being the first institution of higher learning to recognize the importance of teaching and educational development, the first to set up a department to provide that.
In 1988, ETD is renamed ESDD – Educational and Staff Development Department – under its second head, Dr. Doreen Cheong. The change in name cements the focus away from hardware technology to software and heartware educational and staff development. The vision is for education expertise not just to be centralized in ESDD, but to be ubiquitous throughout the academic departments as well. Lecturers are selected to take on Master in Education courses to broaden and deepen their insights, so they can be advocates of education innovations in their own departments. The initiative gave me the opportunity to study at Stanford University – a truly unforgettable experience, because I not only get to meet and study under education luminaries, such as Lee Shulman, Ralph Tyler, Eliot Eisner, John Gardner, but I also lived through the Big Californian Quake of 1989, a 7.1 temblor that brought down part of the Stanford Memorial Church and the Oakland Bridge in San Francisco!
SP forges ties with British institutions of higher learning and adopts their modular course design and peer approach to academic quality assurance. Nottingham Trent University is invited to run workshops and provide attachments for course review panels while Sheffield University conducts its Master in Education course in SP. Fachhochschule of Mannheim in Germany and St. Gallen in Switzerland introduce their system of practice oriented technical training. Having studied engineering in Germany, I share with colleagues my knowledge and experience of the German dual system, its internship training approach, and the project and transfer oriented training model PETRA devised by Siemens.
I left SP in 1992 feeling privileged to have been part of SP during its early educational explorations and innovations – one cherished decade of my life.
Seated L-R: Ophelia, John Cable, Mei Chin
Standing L-R: Margaret Chia-Watt, Evangeline Goh, John Ooi, Ahmad, Tay Boon Chwee, Peter Tan, Phang Kwok Khuan, Lee Siang Neng, Eric Chan, Sapuan, Chan Pak Hong
-- Contributed by Margaret Chia-Watt