Commentary: Home-based learning is strange, new ground. But we can conquer that too
COVID-19 is forcing a digital revolution in education but that is a good thing, says Crispina Robert.
SINGAPORE: When the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced a one-day trial for home-based learning (HBL), it was tough for everyone – the system had issues, parents were confused with conflicting information and those who had to work and watch their children all but threw their computers (and their kids) out the window.
Looking back, that appeared to be a precursor for a more serious “circuit breaker” when the ministry announced on Apr 3 that everyone will go on HBL until early May.
Among my teacher friends, there is a lot of angst. “Don’t use HBL, it’s a bad word!” said one in a group chat. Others struggled with all sorts of tech issues – setting up and figuring out how Microsoft Teams works, if Zoom is safe enough, how to get around weak wireless access or secure networks and so on.
Even before the full roll-out on Apr 8, there were many issues to sort out – like how to deal with students who do not have internet access or laptops, arranging loan equipment and sorting out IDs and passwords.
COVID-19 DISHES OUT SOME LASTING LESSONS
COVID-19 has forced everyone’s hand in the area of education technology and this is a good thing. When everyone comes out of this storm, perhaps some lasting lessons on how to use technology to learn can be found. After all, the world has moved at such a pace, to teach using primarily the chalk-and-talk way was not sustainable in the long run anyway.
To say that we haven’t been paying attention to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) would not be a fair description of what was going on in schools and Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs).
Since 1997, MOE has been rolling out regular five-year blueprints for all schools to integrate technology into the classroom. Its fourth ICT plan was launched in 2015 and schools were already converting face-to-face lessons and adding more digital elements into their lessons.
Selected schools have piloted the use of digital tools and online learning and the move has gained pace throughout the entire education spectrum.
But what we are dealing with today is a completely different scenario. There is no time for proposals, meetings or structured plans that take time to implement.
In the US and in Europe, millions of students were forced out of schools literally overnight. They have found themselves in exceptional circumstances that leave no time but to adapt and roll out lessons online, some in just 24 hours.
One such school was the International School of Monza, in the Lombardy region of Italy, which was badly hit. The lockdown of the city was rushed and so the principal Iain Sachdev hunkered down with his teachers over 48 hours to come up a plan to continue lessons for 270 students.
They called on their networks of schools who had done this before and started with simple video conferencing software. There are daily check-ins and suggested activities for students to do. Teachers are available throughout the school day to take questions.
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In interviews with the media, Mr Sachdev said his wasn’t a “techie school” but they managed to do it successfully, even organising social gatherings online where students can share poems, play music and sing to each other.
This school in Italy shows us that terrible times foist challenges that seem overwhelming but a nimble, can-do spirit is often the best way out.
LEARNING TO LET GO OF OLD IDEAS
Last year, when I was teaching in a polytechnic, there was a plan to create one e-learning lesson for all modules as a way to test out the system.
The instruction was simple – just convert your current face-to-face delivery slides and make it accessible for the online content management system. There is a huge difference when the teacher is present in class. So putting ourselves in the shoes of the learner helped.
If you don’t have a teacher present, what do you need? Clear instructions, a way to deliver concepts interactively and an avenue for you to ask questions if you didn’t understand something. Based on these criteria, we went to work and after a few drafts, a lesson plan was ready.
It was time to think quite radically out of the box. For a start, to shed the idea that a teacher has to read the slides for a student to know what’s going on.
Our slides had to have enough information to get the gist of the lesson and links for reading more if they didn’t understand. We used videos, infographics and pictures to explain concepts instead of sticking only to words.
YouTube videos became essential – the topic we taught had ready material, so it was easier. The challenge is for teachers who need to make their own videos from scratch but today, there are so many products on the market to help teachers with simple videos.
In our case, we ended up using very basic tools we were already familiar with – like Telegram, Kahoot, Mentimeter, Padlet and Skype. Of course our phones were buzzing all hours of the day – the strict separation of work contact and personal contact went out the window.
Despite some glitches (mostly technical), I found the experience to be just as rewarding as being in a classroom.
The faster kids completed their work, handed in their assignments and scored well on the final quiz. The ones that needed more help took longer and needed more digital hand-holding.
It was interesting to me that the students who caught on faster, jumped in to explain to their teammates in their group chat. In the final exam, everyone did well for this topic, including the weaker kids. Plus, I discovered very useful stickers I could use on Telegram.
There is a very big caveat here: My ex-colleagues and I were developing lessons for 18-year-olds who are adept at self-directed learning. But creating an online lesson for an eight-year-old who needs a firmer guiding hand is another matter altogether.
This is why parents are struggling too. There are no clean answers but this is a good time as any to find out what works and what doesn’t.
WHAT TEACHERS AND PARENTS NEED
We are at an inflection point in the way we educate our children and how we assess them (did anyone imagine doing away with all mid-year exams?). Now is a good time as any to start asking some radical questions – do all subjects need paper exams for instance?
Can some assessments be done differently without compromising the standards Singapore is known for?
Studies show that students can be more engaged and self-directed to find solutions to problems when tech tools are utilised in their lessons but this depends heavily on two things.
One, teachers need to be given resources to develop good online lessons that do not compromise on content but are also not so overproduced that they lose their value of being accessible and easy to understand.
They should be given the freedom to adapt and tweak or change if something doesn’t work. In other words, have a checklist instead of a prescriptive template on how things must be done.
Subjects vary in depth and scope, meaning science can be taught online so much more differently from math for instance. So giving teachers agency may go some way in making the most out of this forced experiment.
Two, parents need to try their best to let go. Such a new way of education can only work if the most important partner in this endeavour understands what makes it effective.
I know this is tough for very young primary school children who may need more help – but try asking them to figure something out first before you jump in. Any child above 10 should be able to sort a digital problem faster than you (unless you work in IT).
Experts also say it is not practical to have a very young child sit in front of the computer or do something for anything more than two hours. “Lessons” can be learnt from building things, playing a game, baking, gardening and the like.
I can imagine the time it takes to supervise these things but a parent or adult tag-team system may work. I hope parents can share ideas on social media to help each other out.
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There’s no way around this – it is a tough time for everyone. Teachers are exhausted, parents are anxious and students are caught in the middle of it all.
But through this pain that is COVID-19, I believe there will be lasting change – both for educators who are now forced to pick up valuable digital skills (without having to spend a single SkillsFuture dollar) and for students who can harness the best that technology has to offer so as to deepen their learning.
The change was coming but COVID-19 gave it one final push so everyone has no choice but to jump into this new edtech sea.
Crispina Robert is an editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees podcasts. Previously, she was a media lecturer for 12 years at a local polytechnic.