Commentary: Shift to home-based learning welcomed but has its shortcomings
Steps have been taken to ready students and teachers but HBL remains an imperfect tool in fulfilling the role of education, says NIE’s Jason Tan.
SINGAPORE: The news that all primary schools, secondary schools, junior colleges, Millennia Institute and special education schools will shift to full home-based learning (HBL) from May 19 to May 28, though distressing to many, is probably not unexpected.
Worrying signs had already emerged in the first two weeks of May, with the announcements of full home-based learning (HBL) in Edgefield Secondary School, Victoria Junior College and a few others after each of these schools reported that small numbers of their students had tested positive for COVID-19.
The latest Ministry of Education announcement about full HBL for all schools came a day after it had ordered so for seven primary schools from May 17 to May 28.
In the face of the latest round of disruption to school lessons and activities, it is probably true that most teachers, parents and students are better prepared for this abrupt transition than they were when an equally sudden move to HBL was made in all schools in April last year.
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A year ago, educators, students and parents scrambled to come to grips with the practicalities of online teaching and learning, along with the implications for co-curricular activities.
This time round, at the very least, there will be greater familiarity with the routines and protocols involved in conducting online lessons and the challenges posed by an online medium for instruction.
STEPS TAKEN TO BETTER PREPARE FOR HBL
In the intervening year, the Ministry of Education has taken steps to ensure better preparedness for home-based learning.
In December 2020, it announced plans for HBL to account for about 10 per cent of curriculum time in secondary schools and between 10 and 20 per cent at junior colleges and Millennia Institute.
It also established a professional development programme to enhance teachers’ capabilities in terms of implementing blended learning, or a hybrid model in which regularly scheduled home-based learning days complement face-to-face teaching and learning in schools.
At the same time, the Education Ministry announced that it had brought forward its original target of providing every secondary school student with a personal learning device from 2028 to 2021, as part of the National Digital Literacy Programme.
The provision of personal learning devices was to take place in two phases, with 86 schools receiving the devices by Term 2 of 2021 and 66 schools receiving the devices by Term 3 of 2021.
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The Education Ministry also decided to adopt a more cautious approach with primary schools by conducting a small-scale pilot study with personal laptops and tablets involving upper primary students in five schools in 2021.
All these steps to ramp up our students’ IT infrastructure and train teachers in an online mode of instruction should put us in better stead for HBL, if another such period is needed beyond the planned couple of days in May.
HBL HAS ITS LIMITATIONS
With the benefit of hindsight, five lessons from the experience of full HBL in 2020 can inform our approach to this second round of system-wide school closures and what educators should look out for.
First, the Ministry of Education has openly acknowledged that HBL cannot fully replace the benefits that students derive from being physically present in school that impact their learning experience.
For one thing, not all students are equally self-motivated to direct their own learning and some require closer supervision that may not be available in their homes.
Some students may lack access to Wi-Fi in their homes while others may have special learning needs best addressed within a school setting.
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Schools also provide a relatively safe and supportive environment for at least part of the day for students facing emotionally trying circumstances at home.
For these reasons, the news that schools will remain open for students who need extra support, as they did last year, is to be welcomed.
Second, it is largely impractical to conduct hands-on activities such as science experiments within an online setting over a prolonged period of time.
No doubt educators could devise experiments that could be easily replicated by students at home using commonly available household materials, or create online simulations.
However, there are limits to the feasibility of doing this, for instance, in the case of work involving certain chemicals or scientific apparatus, especially for secondary school or junior college students who will take laboratory-based subjects during their key national examinations.
Third, the suspension of co-curricular activities and inter-school competitions has implications for students’ personal growth and development.
Not only do these activities allow students to discover their talents and interests, they also aid in the development of social-emotional competencies such as responsible decision-making and self-management. Students may also develop friendships and learn values such as respect and responsibility.
For instance, there is probably a great deal of disappointment among athletes about the suspension of the National School Games competitions after they had resumed on a limited scale this year after last year’s hiatus.
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Encouraging some level of interaction, even collaboration, among students through break-out rooms that teachers, CCA coordinators and coaches can peek into, should be a standard feature of HBL that educators should look into developing and sharing best practices in.
Fourth, students in graduating cohorts, along with their teachers and parents, are understandably worried about the adequacy of examination preparation and indeed, preparation for other modes of assessment including the Direct School Admission auditions or interviews, within the setting of HBL, as were those in last year’s cohorts.
This is probably why the Education Ministry allowed these students to return to school during last year’s mid-year school holiday period, and will do the same this year too.
Fifth, managing parental and educators’ expectations is fundamental to a successful shift to HBL over a prolonged period.
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The incremental escalation of school closures in the first two weeks of this month is testament to earlier reluctance to opt for the total closure of all schools.
This reluctance was likely informed by a recognition of the vital importance of face-to-face schooling, not only for students’ academic learning, but equally importantly, for their non-academic development as well after much consultation.
Yet this stage-by-stage closure of schools likely aggravated some parents prior to the announcement, who felt that the safety of all students ought to be the paramount consideration as the number of COVID-19 cases in the wider community continued to rise.
There is little pleasing everyone and it was useful that the Education Minister Chan Chun Sing clarified on Sunday how the move was guided by health considerations on top of consultation with stakeholders to secure buy-in.
Listen to two parents share their front-row experience to their kids' educational journey of home-based learning during the circuit breaker on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
A LONG JOURNEY AHEAD TO IMPROVE HBL
We are not done in our journey to improve the HBL experience and ensure our students do not lose out in this shift towards online learning.
As the pandemic shows no signs of abating in the short-term future, the Ministry will have to work in collaboration not only with schools, parents and students, but also with the Health Ministry and others, to minimise the bewilderment, confusion and frustration that has, unfortunately, often characterised the schooling landscape for the past 16 months.
In other words, the key task is the resumption of some semblance of normality and stability in the midst of a volatile period.
Jason Tan is an associate professor at the National Institute of Education.