“We are now thinking through how we can implement blended learning into our education system starting next year,” Minister of Education Mr Lawrence Wong said during a Facebook Live session on Reimagining Education, as part of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Asia Thinker Series in October 2020. He emphasized the importance of a fundamental rethink of pedagogy and instructional design, as education systems figure out how best to integrate digital devices.
Home-Based Learning in Singapore
A week before the planned school closure in April 2020 due to COVID-19, the Ministry of Education (MOE) had announced a one-day trial of home-based learning (HBL). It was an initial struggle for parents and children as there was an imminent shift from a five-day physical school week to a five-day virtual school week with only one day of practice session to prepare for the change. Simultaneously, parents also started to work remotely at home with their children around, instead of being at a physical office space outside of their home.
By and large, the teething problems settled as our government ensured that everyone had access to hardware and connectivity. Students were also provided with the necessary resources to cope with the shift with MOE loaning out over 15,000 laptops and approximately 1,500 Internet dongles to needy students. All these were in addition to partial opening of schools to students with parents who were in the essential services.
Could Blended Learning be a Long-Term Possibility?
The shift to online learning was temporary and it was a great sustainability mechanism. However, academics have cautioned that a total shift could make teaching and learning very lonely and didactic, which may result in too much practice-type work. One large-scale review conducted by the United States Department of Education a few years ago found that there were very limited published rigorous research studies on the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students.
An online mode of learning is where the teaching and learning happens mostly online. A blended mode of learning is a hybrid; a combination of both online and face-to-face experience. It has the ability to serve a better learning experience as well retain the social interactions that schools afford.
The Minister remarked, “We’ve been through many waves of technological change, and humanity has thrived and prospered. We ought to cultivate and harness our human strengths – our ability to build relationships…” It is a rebalancing of both online and face-to-face approaches, emphasizing the invaluable human and emotional connection, empathy and support, and the friendly interactions teachers provide, which are harder to replicate and sustain in a completely online environment.
Policy change is typically a solution to a problem that has its own goals and is at best a trade-off among other available options, and that comes with a set of costs and benefits. What does the blended learning scenario look like if – perhaps for secondary school as starter – we implement a four-day face-to-face school week and one day of HBL?
Designing Meaningful Blended Learning Experience
There could be ways in which HBL is designed meaningfully for students since we have just emerged from that experience. It could be planning science experiments at home that students can discuss about the next day at school. It could be understanding a new concept through videos. It could also be an immersive learning experience using artificial intelligence and virtual reality platforms, and so on. These approaches not only afford individualization, but also allow students a sense of control over their time, place, and pace of learning. The readiness varies during the day but the design endows them the personal agency over when and how they want to learn.
According to constructivist theorists, learning is a complex process where learners construct interpretations of the world based on prior experiences and interactions (Ertmer & Newby, 2013). The real world exists, but what we know about it arises from the way in which we interpret our experiences. For learners to do this effectively, they must first develop the characteristics of independent learners and be adaptive. When they are faced with situations that are new and demands of the tasks change, they need to be capable of constructing learning processes to innovate, improvise and negotiate meaning in those conditions.
Blended Learning May Solve STEEP Issues
STEEP is an acronym for Social, Technical, Educational, Environmental and Psychological. While any education system cannot solve all the STEEP issues students and families face, I will attempt to view these issues through the use of the STEEP analysis tool to provide a way to factor in the ecological aspects, and the positive influences and challenges faced by some students.
Psychological aspects could be traits related to motivation, interest, resilience, adaptation, etc. Blended learning could possibly enable students to study at a pace that suits them instead of one that is dictated by the school environment within a regimented day plan. It is well known that engagement drops when children try to learn during times that are not conducive for them.
What about social and environmental aspects? How do the different home environments ensure spaces that are conducive to self-directed study and enable students to effectively prepare for learning while not being physically in school? A classroom is relatively “uniform” in physical conditions than different children’s homes. Can the home spaces provide a calm zone that promotes a comfortable transition between school and home? Can the homes support or hinder the students’ physical, mental and emotional well-being? Will some students continue returning to school on HBL days even if their parents are at home?
Importance of Parental Involvement
Despite MOE’s best efforts to manage infrastructure (technical aspects) and social (environmental aspects) issues, the crisis exposed some societal differences. Parental and home support are equally necessary for online learning.
As parents, there is certainly a need to partner with the school more actively to enrich children’s learning (educational aspects). As an educator and a parent myself, and as someone who facilitated my daughter’s HBL everyday for six weeks, I am aware of the psychological and environmental support I provided. We approached the learning flexibly where her readiness to learn was not time-bound and real-life home experiences were aplenty!
Parents need to facilitate directions for children – by working closely with the school – for an effective HBL to occur. Without the necessary support and guidance, children will go online and end up not knowing which way to turn to and what to focus on. As such, the role of parents during HBL is critical; they have to be the facilitator by providing a path, a direction, a push to do things that will ultimately help the child learn effectively at home.
Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43–71.