Most students in Singapore go through a couple days of e-learning at some point of their lives. But in the last few months, the COVID-19 pandemic forced online education to take center stage.
Governments around the world have closed schools and universities in order to reduce the risk of transmission on campuses. According to UNESCO, nearly 1.2 billion students worldwide are affected by these closures.
Likewise in Singapore, students and teachers have stayed home and experienced the drastic switch to full online learning.
Methods such as live broadcast lectures, video conference lessons, and online assessments became an everyday occurrence in place of traditional classes.
Currently, as Singapore enters its phases of safe reopening, institutes of higher learning (IHLs) will still keep most activities online with the exception of practical and lab sessions that must be done on campus.
University students are now on their term break until around August or September.
After online education capabilities have been put to the test in the past few months, does this open the possibility that it could become the new normal?
Universities moved online before the outbreak
Even before COVID-19, universities in Singapore started to embrace the use of digital platforms to facilitate teaching and learning.
In fact, these shifts had been taking place across Singapore’s universities since as early as 10 years ago.
The National University of Singapore (NUS), for one, has been intentional in their efforts to leverage technology in education.
In 2012, the school launched its ‘Learning Innovation Fund—Technology’ grant for faculty members to redesign classes with the integration of online and in-person learning.
The next year, they partnered global learning platform Coursera to make some of their courses available to the world online, and create online materials to begin experimenting with the ‘flipped classroom’ model.
This later led to adopting a wider range of tools including virtual and augmented reality, large-scale in-class participation systems, gamification, virtual whiteboards, and virtual lab exercises, said an NUS spokesperson.
Similarly, Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), the country’s sixth autonomous university, kickstarted their online learning system in 2007—the school was then known as UniSIM, under the Singapore Institute of Management.
Before COVID-19, the majority of its courses already featured both online and face-to-face components, and about 60% of textbooks were offered electronically.
Besides these two schools, others like Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore Management University (SMU) and Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) were also commonly weaving in flipped classrooms, online courses and self-learning modules.
These early adoptions of digital platforms helped them transition more smoothly during the pandemic.
For example, many of NUS’ modules were already ported onto the school’s digital learning management system, so the key difference was mainly in the use of tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or WebEx for live discussions.
Likewise, SUSS transitioned to conducting about 450 classes over Zoom weekly, along with timed online assignments for over 15,000 students, in response to the pandemic.
Despite being exposed to small doses of online learning before COVID-19, some students find it hard to get fully on board.
Students are skeptical about digital education
NUS student Dylan Teo shared that while it wasn’t difficult to adapt to the change in routine, taking all classes online definitely impacted the learning experience.
He had already been accustomed to watching pre-recorded webcast lectures and attending flipped classrooms for a handful of modules since his first semester at NUS.
However, the complete lack of face-to-face interaction during this period has been a totally different ball game.
“Without the physical presence of the lecturer, I find myself more easily distracted as I know that I can simply do other things such as surf the internet or talk to friends on messaging apps without any repercussions,” he said.
Not to mention that connectivity and audio issues cropped up commonly and would disrupt the flow of the lessons, he added.
Similarly, SMU student Dylan Lim’s main concern is also about the effectiveness of the online learning environment.
In his perspective, it boils down to habits and discipline: “Hardworking students will find a way to study, focus and get the most out of the class—whether it’s in person or online—while not-so-hardworking students will find a way to slack and then catch up later on.”
For the latter type of student, having too much freedom with online classes only make it easier to slip away, he said.
Others like Damien Poh from NUS and Lindsie Nguyen from PSB Academy also expressed that it’s harder to have quality communication and discussions online, which hinders subjects that are heavy on group work.
Beyond that, let’s consider a few other pros and cons:
Educators must be trained differently
Aside from a change of medium, education delivered online shouldn’t compromise on imparting the same standard of knowledge and experiences as traditional teaching.
That said, one of the major challenges for online education to be effective comes down to how well educators can teach through digital means.
Each lecturer may be differently skilled when it comes to technology, and this can result in inconsistent standards of teaching if schools don’t place enough emphasis on training.
Lecturers must become adept in using collaborative tools, running livestreaming classes, designing alternative assignments, and using online proctoring tools to oversee assessments.
However, technical skills are not the only thing—they also need to update their teaching methods with an understanding that students learn differently online.
This may involve creating new ways to retain their attention, foster interaction and ensure that each student gets the help they need.
Paying the same tuition fees will make no sense
Among the students we spoke to, all of them said they would not be willing to pay the same amount of tuition fees if learning went fully online.
It was important to them to be able to use their school facilities, consult lecturers face-to-face, and experience campus life with their friends.
“I believe that students should have access to all resources provided by the school, for the school fees that we are paying,” said Damien.
The good news is that Singapore’s six autonomous universities have cancelled their planned fee increases for students enrolling in 2020.
However, this was not aimed at addressing the temporary shift to online education. Instead, the move was made in line with the one-year deferment of government fee increases due to the poor economic situation.
The question still remains whether the value of university education will drop if it goes fully online.
Students will lose the opportunity to build up their networks, take part in enriching student society activities, and use physical resources provided by their institutions.
Not all students are well equipped at home
While the biggest hurdle for most students is whether they can learn effectively online, a small group will struggle with the resources they have to attend lessons from home.
Online learning becomes a big challenge for students who may not own a laptop, or don’t have reliable access to the internet.
To address this digital divide, some universities have initiatives to loan laptops to students in need.
Students can learn at their own pace
Of course, online education has its merits as well. On the positive side, the flexible structure of online lessons allows students to study at their own pace.
Unlike traditional lectures, where those who struggle to keep up can end up falling behind in class, online materials are a lot more forgiving.
Dylan Teo said he preferred to watch recorded lectures whenever he had the choice pre-COVID-19, as he could easily “speed up the video, pause, or playback” whenever he needed.
With the advantage of being able to go at their own pace, students may also retain information better.
More students can access learning opportunities
Another great thing about the rise of online learning is that it can extend education to more students of different backgrounds and age groups.
For various reasons, students who are not able to attend university in person may be extremely thankful for the chance to learn at home.
Online education could also attract more adult learners who want to continue studying after they have spent some time in the workforce.
This is becoming even more important as the changing economic landscape puts greater emphasis on re-skilling and up-skilling.
Online education will complement traditional learning
COVID-19 has put online education to the test and shown that mass adoption can definitely work when the situation calls for it.
However, even though digital tools can add value to teaching and learning, there are many reasons why going fully online is not the best long-term plan once the pandemic is over.
Associate Professor Lee Wee Leong, who is the director of educational technology, production and online learning at SUSS, explained that online learning has become an important part of university education, but plays a complementary role.
When it is safe for schools to reopen, students will be looking forward to returning to campus.
With the lessons learned from this period of online learning, universities can develop deeper plans to integrate the most useful aspects of online learning into their programs.
Blended learning models, which were already being used before the pandemic, could go even more mainstream and take over as the norm for most courses, so that students can gain the flexibility to learn better online and offline.
This article was first published by Vulcan Post.