SINGAPORE: Home-based learning should be made a “regular part” of school life to complement classroom teaching, said Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung on Sunday (Jun 28).
“Perhaps once a fortnight, there can be an HBL (home-based learning) day,” said Mr Ong.
“It can be done at home, or in school. The HBL day should not be packed with lessons and curriculum teaching, nor should it be a free-for-all where the student does whatever he wishes.”
Mr Ong was speaking to teachers and leaders in education for the opening of the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) annual workplan seminar, where he highlighted four areas of focus for the ministry.
In a video message posted on Facebook, he said some students have told him that they liked having home-based learning.
“I asked why, and they said that they could learn at their own pace, pose questions to the teachers in private – no peer pressure,” said Mr Ong, noting that students, teachers and parents went through “an unexpected crash course” in home-based learning during the COVID-19 “circuit breaker” period.
“Like all lessons and courses, we learn most when we adopt a mentality of humility. When we do, we will accept that HBL can be a useful mode of education delivery, because it encourages more independent, self-directed learning,” Mr Ong added. “This is one of the most important lifelong skills.”
Noting that home-based learning cannot be a full substitute for school, Mr Ong said: “The sensible thing to do is to complement classroom teaching with HBL and make HBL a permanent and regular feature of education.”
Home-based learning would be most useful with “a looser structure”, said Mr Ong, to allow students time to read on their own and explore topics outside of the curriculum.
The COVID-19 outbreak had highlighted another challenge for schools – many students did not have the necessary devices for home-based learning, said Mr Ong.
This prompted the ministry to bring forward its earlier plans to equip secondary school students with a digital device.
All secondary school students will now get a personal laptop or tablet for learning by next year, seven years ahead of the original target of 2028.
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In his video message on Sunday, Mr Ong noted that schools loaned out over 20,000 digital devices and more than 1,600 dongles to students for home-based learning.
“Now that we have bridged the acceptance gap of online learning, it is time to also close the digital divide,” he added.
The education ministry will use bulk tenders to keep the devices affordable, at about “several hundred dollars” each, said Mr Ong.
As announced at this year’s Committee of Supply debates in March, students will get a top up in their Edusave accounts to help them buy the devices. Students on financial assistance schemes will receive further subsidies so that their out-of-pocket expense is zero.
For students without a Wi-Fi subscription at home, MOE will also work with the Infocomm Media Development Authority to help them get free subscriptions, added Mr Ong.
HELPING STUDENTS FROM VULNERABLE BACKGROUNDS
For students from vulnerable backgrounds, the COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the challenges they face, said Mr Ong.
“When schools close, they suffer the most. During the circuit breaker, when agencies and charity organisations tried to render assistance to the students, we faced challenges. With most of them being at home, we couldn’t give them a meal in school,” he said.
Mr Ong noted that when the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund tried to give these students money to buy food, many of them did not have bank accounts to receive the transfer of money.
The MOE later found in a survey that one-third of primary one students do not have bank accounts.
“This highlighted another imperative: We need to do more to ensure greater financial inclusion, from young. Digital and financial literacy are synergistic. E-payments are becoming more common – in time, may be the default,” said the minister.
“To be an active participant of the future economy, you need to be both digitally and financially plugged-in.”
While most students have a bank account by secondary school, some students on financial assistance “fall through the cracks”, Mr Ong added.
“We should have a safety net to catch these students, to make sure that they are financially plugged in.”
Even though every Singaporean baby is given a Child Development Account (CDA), where the S$3,000 First Step Grant is credited to, not all parents activate the account, said Mr Ong.
He added that MOE is reaching out to these parents to encourage them to activate the account and access the grant, which can be used to pay for pre-school fees or medical expenses.
Second Minister for Education Indranee Rajah is also getting donors and charity organisations to help top up the CDA account of children from lower-income backgrounds, said Mr Ong.
“That way, they can take better advantage of the dollar-for-dollar matching from (the) Government.”
The ministry also wants to equip every child with a bank account, Mr Ong said, adding that offering parents the convenience of opening a Child Savings Account at the same time when they open the CDA “makes sense”.
The account will operate like a regular personal bank account, with no minimum balance requirement, fees or charges, he added.
"We will explore options to equip the CSA with digital enablers, like PayNow and SingPass,” said Mr Ong, adding that parents can opt out of the savings account if they do not need it.
With bank accounts and e-payments, it will be “a lot easier” for students to receive awards or financial assistance payouts, said the Education Minister, adding that safeguards will be in place to help families manage the saving accounts.
Lastly, a “bigger transformative push” is needed to expand inter-disciplinary learning in tertiary institutes, said Mr Ong.
While older generations believed that a good tertiary qualification could see them through their careers, children today are “growing up in a different world”.
“Technology is advancing rapidly, industries are ever-changing. Solving big challenges like climate change or social inequality requires expertise that spans across disciplinary boundaries,” he said.
“In time, when they step into the workforce, they will already be wondering what skills and knowledge they need a year or two later. COVID-19 will reset the competitive playing field, and accelerate these trends.”
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In response, institutes of higher learning are moving towards inter-disciplinary learning, but “they all agreed that bolder moves are needed”, said Mr Ong.
For example, the National University of Singapore (NUS) plans to pilot 10 inter-disciplinary undergraduate programmes, or Cross-disciplinary Degree Programmes (CDPs), in the academic year of 2021/2022.
Some possible pairings of complementary disciplines include economics and data science, computing and project management, as well as engineering and business, said the university in a separate press release.
To graduate, a student needs to complete the same number of credits needed for a four-year Bachelor with Honours degree programme. However, the credits will be spread out among fundamentals for each of the two majors, projects integrating both majors, general education modules and unrestricted electives.
This programme is different from traditional double degree or double major programmes, where students acquire in-depth knowledge in two distinct disciplines. The new cross-disciplinary approach “breaks down the boundaries of two disciplines and focuses on the integration of these disciplines”, said the university.
Senior deputy president and provost of NUS Professor Ho Teck Hua said: “We believe that this novel cross-disciplinary model will enable our graduates to not just meet market demands, but to have mastery of a unique set of skills which they themselves have created.”
NUS is working with faculties and schools to implement the CDPs, and more details will be available by the end of the year, it said in the press release.
The other universities and polytechnics are also starting similar reviews of its curriculum structures, said Mr Ong.
The four initiatives announced on Sunday are MOE's way of “rolling with the COVID-19 punches”, said Mr Ong in closing his message.
“COVID-19 is a devastating global event - but we have a choice about how we emerge from it, bloodied but unbowed.”