Mr Flex Tio Choon Fook designs teaching modules based on his students’ level of readiness and challenges them to step out of their comfort zones. That’s what education is about, says Mr Tio, Senior Lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Engineering (SEG). He is a finalist of the President’s Award for Teachers 2023.
There is a distinctive humility to Mr Flex Tio.
The Senior Lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP) professes to have been a “typical 10-year-series kind of student”. But, as he wryly notes, “Everything became fuzzy when I entered the workforce; there was a different set of expectations I did not understand.”
He had a rocky start as an IT professional in the public service but found his sweet spot several years later as a lecturer in NYP.
Today, the Senior Specialist (Teaching & Learning) in NYP’s School of Engineering is known for designing unique learning experiences to prepare his students for the workplace.
He also emphasises that it takes more than good grades and technical competencies to thrive at work. In soft yet confident tones, he says: "I have walked the path, so now I can give students a smoother ride.”
Developing lessons that are industry-relevant
Of all the courses he has designed, Mr Tio is most proud of the Java Enterprise Development module.
This module packed in several layers of learning. One important lesson it taught students was that they cannot survive as an island, he says. “No one develops an enterprise system as a single person. We must do it as a team.”
Mr Tio turned the classroom into a mock software design house, first training the students in programming knowledge before placing them in small teams to work on tasks. The module culminated in a massive class project, run by the students taking on roles with differing levels of responsibility, much like the actual organisational structures common in the software design industry.
From ensuring accurate file-naming conventions, to assigning programming tasks that came with limited instructions, Mr Tio ensured that students had the full experience of co-creating a product as a professional outfit.
“The team-based environment allows students to see how their peers have different ways of solving problems. It is also motivating because they can tackle challenges in their groups instead of having to run to the lecturer for help.”
“Students who were allocated ‘managerial' roles felt the most uncomfortable because they couldn’t use their programming skills directly, but this is common when you move up the ranks at work. You will need to take on a less operational role, and coordinate efforts to ensure that everything comes together at the end.”
The module was retired in 2020, but it had inspired his colleague and laid the foundation for the class project introduced in the revamped Software Engineering Practices module of the same Diploma.
Co-creating a good user experience
Besides programming, Mr Tio also teaches user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) design, which looks at enhancing how users engage with digital processes through design thinking.
To increase student engagement, he invited students to co-create the Advanced UI/UX Design module. In so doing, he exemplified the first principle of UI/UX, which is to understand users’ needs.
“Students are happy when they get to control what they want to learn and how they want to learn. The empowerment and autonomy are exciting to both students and lecturers.”
Mr Tio also co-developed the Learning Experience Design (LXD) framework used throughout NYP. LXD is a framework to develop learning experiences based on principles of design thinking. In 2022, he also shared with educators his insights on LXD at the Joint-Polytechnic Teaching and Learning Mentor Move-In Programme.
The end goal is to make lessons even more engaging and effective.
He says, “Successful lesson engagement would cover the 3Ms: meaningful, motivational and memorable.”
Grooming leaders as an end goal
Inspired by Dr Brené Brown, an American research professor who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, Mr Tio’s leadership philosophy is to be “one who takes responsibility for seeking out potential in people and processes, and possessing the courage to develop that potential”.
“Students are happy when they get to control what they want to learn and how they want to learn. The empowerment and autonomy is exciting to both them and the lecturers.”
Mr Tio nurtures student leaders at Team DIMEnsion, a club for students of the Diploma in Infocomm & Media Engineering (or DIME in short). Each year, the student committee helps to run events such as the Open House and Freshmen Orientation. These platforms allow him to infuse values and life skills in his students.
One year, he set an out-of-the-box task for his students, which required them to engage complete strangers with a prepared anecdote.
“Is it something they’d want to do again? Of course not, but now when they meet a hard challenge, say, persuading friends to join an event or entertaining parents at a seminar, they won’t flinch because they have done something even more difficult before,” he laughs.
His students keep in close touch long after graduation. “It shows that they remember me, and hopefully they have benefited from the heart skills I’ve shared, be it in critical creative thinking or leadership,” he adds.
After 11 years of teaching, what keeps Mr Tio going? “I believe that the world will be a better place if we can build students with good character”.
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