SINGAPORE: There is a joke circulating on social media that given the rise in children’s home-based learning in the wake of COVID-19, desperate parents will soon beat scientists to finding a cure for the dreaded disease.
This hilarious meme effectively captures the challenges of transforming your home into a virtual learning environment for children more accustomed to the structures and routines of school.
While the pandemic has compelled systematic adoption of online learning, it has also laid bare many of the issues that must be addressed before students can fully benefit from the digitalisation of education.
This home-based learning experiment will also provide a valuable glimpse into the myriad obstacles families may face when our education system shifts towards a model of personal digital device ownership as announced during this year’s Budget debate.
NO WALK IN THE PARK
Stripped to its essence, home-based learning sounds like a walk in the park.
Children can avoid the morning rush hour and remain at home to attend their classes online. They can meet their teachers and classmates in virtual classrooms to attend lessons, answer questions, exchange views, collaborate on projects and seek guidance. Simple, right?
Not quite. When teachers and students are dispersed across individual living spaces, each with its own characteristics and quirks, the learning environment is fraught with variability the teacher can never fully grasp, much less tackle.
Ethnographic research on technology domestication offers helpful insights into how particular factors vary across diverse home environments to facilitate or impede home-based learning.
While these factors relate to seemingly mundane, prosaic aspects of the home, they nevertheless weigh heavily on the students’ learning experience. They are namely - space, devices, access and skills.
In the first instance, when home-based learning commences, parents may be in for a rude shock. Your cosy and comfortable home may suddenly morph into an unfamiliar and altogether defective space that feels ill-suited for learning.
Whereas your children will usually head to their respective schools, they are now crammed into shared bedrooms or living rooms, with multiple classes going on simultaneously.
Your children will start to hush one another when they are unable to hear their respective teachers clearly, even with headphones on. Throw in a working parent’s conference call with her boss and you will have a very frazzled household.
Finding enough room for every child to settle comfortably with their devices and hard-copy reference materials, and to complete assignments while listening to online instructions will be another logistical feat requiring fortitude and resourcefulness.
Some rearrangement of the home living environment to optimise sharing space during this period will be inconvenient, but necessary.
Besides shared space is the matter of shared devices. In households where multiple family members share a laptop or desktop computer, and certain online learning platforms are best accessed via such hardware rather than mobile phones and tablets, home-based learning may put pressure on scarce resources.
Parents who use their laptops for work-related tasks will find themselves having to cede access to their children and work around their classroom schedules, even as they scramble to meet their own deadlines.
Siblings who share devices will need to work out an equitable way for everyone to access the learning platforms with the appropriate hardware and software.
Doubtless, some deft coordination is necessary and parents will find themselves having to strategise device-sharing so that everyone can be online, on time and on task.
With so many people online due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Internet speeds have slowed worldwide, let alone within individual homes.
Wi-Fi speeds that used to support the entire family without glitches may suddenly crawl when everyone is at home and online at the same time, accessing video and audio, while engaging in synchronous live chats.
Families that can afford superior broadband plans and signal boosting routers will clearly find the home-based learning experience a breeze, while those with more modest provisions may struggle.
Annoyances such as repeatedly disconnecting Wi-Fi signals and getting “kicked out of classrooms” can be distressing for students. Such problems will also demand that parents are nearby and nimble with their technical support.
Indeed, while we may not face a sharp digital access divide in Singapore with our high Internet penetration rates, a digital skills divide persists. Depending on educational levels and occupational exposure to technology use, some parents will clearly be more technologically adept than others.
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Tech-savvy parents will be more confident about negotiating the vast array of digital learning platforms and their processes, from basic chores such as registration and password entry, to more complex functions like navigating the interface and performing learning tasks.
Completing a quiz, attaching a document or uploading a video may be second nature to some parents, but not to others. Accordingly, parents will also vary in their ability to reinforce the content that is taught.
When children encounter difficulties with home-based learning therefore, the availability and ability of parents to provide support can diverge significantly across households and teachers must be sensitive to these variances.
WHAT TEACHERS AND PARENTS CAN DO TO EASE INTO HOME-BASED LEARNING
Despite these trials, there are tremendous benefits to home-based learning that we can derive. First, parents may actually gain a deeper appreciation of their children’s learning experiences.
Second, parents and children may find it easier to connect over what happens “in school” and this can foster communication and mutual understanding.
Third, home-based learning can encourage parents and children to teach each other how to use technology, thereby creating opportunities for shared media use and familial bonding.
Teachers can support students and parents by easing everyone into this learning journey. Start out with simpler activities and less technically onerous assignments as everyone gradually adapts to this new set-up.
Be mindful there are some very stressed children and parents on the other side of the screen who need time and assistance to figure things out. As you herd the cats in this extended classroom of yours, your patience may be in short supply, but never in greater demand.
Remember also that more technology is not always better. To mix things up, give students some off-screen activities before regrouping for some online interactions.
On their part, parents can support teachers by helping ensure their children adhere to the school routine as far as possible. However, they would also do well to not be too involved in their children’s online lessons.
Resist the urge to take over the task from the child but allow them to independently complete online learning activities, intervening only when absolutely necessary. By all means, be on standby to provide technical support but "leave” the classroom when your help is not needed.
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Parents should also be understanding of teachers who are themselves grappling with this novel classroom setting and not take this as an opportunity to assess the teachers’ competencies and find fault.
Well-resourced parents should refrain from demanding more complex or cognitively stimulating online assignments but bear in mind that the classroom has children of different abilities.
As we collectively embark on home-based learning during this ongoing health crisis, let us make the most of this time at home, living, learning and getting through this together.
When it all gets too overwhelming, there is always one period to look forward to – recess.
Lim Sun Sun is professor of communication and technology and head of humanities, arts and social sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. She is also a Nominated Member of Parliament. Her latest book is Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age.