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HBL – Prepare for the next pandemic

After SARs (2003) and H1N1 (2009), few would have thought of another health crisis striking Singapore, let alone to the whole world, and causing an imminent recession, or worse, a depression. It distresses businesses and the lives of people. A minority would have profited from the spike in demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); the majority suffers a significant drop in business or have to close down. A dearth of the population lost their jobs; new graduates see fewer openings in the job market. The only silver lining is a vaccine. It may take months to develop, plus the time to be tested, and even more, time to disseminate the vaccine to the people. The end is still not in sight as countries inch into the ranks of high infection cases and mortality rates.

Neither is the education spared. Schools are closed in many countries, and some started even in early March 2020. The foresight of the Ministry of Education, taking on the lessons from SARs and H1N1, has put contingencies in place that prove effective during this COVID-19 pandemic. Although there is an avalanche of criticism towards Home-Based Learning (HBL) on social media, there are still many who rallies behind these silent heroes from the Ministry. It is easy to rescind the effort to enable HBL, but it is equally vital to understand the perils, if not for HBL.

The Ministry keeps the education supply chain flowing

Education is about learning. In learning, there must be content. There is a generous offering of content on the Internet. Still, it takes great effort to curate suitable ones, create new ones, couple them with the correct pedagogical approaches, and deliver them through an integrated system. I am talking about the Student Learning System (SLS). The Ministry has spent considerable effort to determine what are the requirements of this content holding system from various stakeholders. They also incorporate many learning approaches to be enabled through the system and allow multiple media formats to deploy on different computing devices.

Students can log in with individual accounts to access the content, perform the activities such as voice recording to provide answers to questions, painting a digital drawing, uploading a photo of the homework, and learning from custom-made videos for online lessons. The Ministry also complements the use of Web Conferencing tools, such as Zoom, for real-time interactive lessons. Teachers can adapt quickly to these tools, overcoming any of the technical difficulties and render education services despite the closure of schools.


A primary one teacher of a local school in the East revealed the madness that she and her colleagues had gone through when school reopens after the one-week holiday break (16-22 March 2020). Some students and staff were issued the Quarantine Order (QO) or Stay-Home Notice (SHN), especially those returning from countries with high infections and mortality rates. There was an urgency to provide those at home with regular learning activities while still having to teach and manage the students at school.

However, adequately trained teachers showed resilience and tenacities to shoulder the loads. They emerged triumphant, balancing the attention to students’ needs in both domains, and is a testimony to the right training to the teachers. The Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge for 21st Century Learning (TPACK-21CL) provides the foundation for teachers to engender pedagogical changes and enhance their confidence to design ICT lessons for 21st-century learning. This is put to good use at times like now.


Parents who have schooling children deserve a pat on their backs. Apart from their role as parents, they are juggling as Work-from-Home (WFH) employees or home-makers, cleaners, chef-of-household, and now, assuming the roles of tutors and technical support officers. When the SLS could not capture the voice of students’ responses, parents came to the rescue to install additional apps or use current apps to do the recording and upload them through SLS. They also share their tricks online. The younger ones who are still new to HBL, such as spellings of sentences and even reading of the instructions, received support from the multiple-roled parents too. Children, please give your daddy and mummy (or whoever is helping you) a big big hug.

If SLS were not there; if the teachers were not able to adapt to using technology for teaching, and parents who took on the roles of tutors, our schooling children would not be having the quality of education in such difficult times. We must also not forget the developers and providers of infrastructures and utilities that support learning from home, such as the air-conditioning and connection to the Internet. Otherwise, the Ministry will probably have to declare an early and extended “June” holiday. So the next time the thought of complaining germinates, squash it because we are making the best of the situation, already.

“Lessons from HBL, Prepare for the next pandemic” is a multi-part series of writings to expound the impact of COVID-19 on the education system in Singapore, as well as in other countries. It will discuss what went right and what could have done better, pedagogically, and technologically. The series will end with the lessons learned so that we will not succumb to the same disorders faced in this health crisis.

Dr. Mak Wai Keong

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Home-based Learning as a Re-invented Approach to our Education Advancement

By Dr. Mak Wai Keong (CEO, Edtrix Solutions and Edtrix Innovations Pte Ltd, and Member of APARA), and Mr. Oliver Tian (Founder of Oliver Tian Associates and the Honorary Advisor to APARA)

This is also published at

Originally Published On: 14 April 2020

Home-Based Learning (HBL) is having the student to learn at home. HBL comprises a combination of:

  • E-learning (e.g., online assignments through appropriate media);
  • Student Learning Space (SLS) or other online learning platforms;
  • E-collaboration (e.g., notes or worksheets through emails); and
  • Progressive Assessments.

The implementation of HBL has revealed some fundamental flaws, noticeably, the time, space, and conflicting priorities of the HBL-WFH (Work-From-Home) combination. The lack of content and manpower and pedagogical preparedness were lessons identified in the wake of SARS. However, there was a lukewarm follow-up that causes the same issues to re-surface today.

HBL is a decisive response to continual learning for the students in the current health crisis, and Singaporeans are thankful to the MOE leadership. Despite their best efforts, many have taken to social media to air their grievances. One notable complaint is that the adopted Learning Management System can only work on the computer. For tablet or mobile device users, they need separate apps installed to complete the assignments. Virtual keyboards become “virtually” useless on these devices, causing parents to snap up the cheaper laptops and Bluetooth keyboards at stores island-wide.

Parents on WFH, also have to juggle with a colossal of tasks: dealing with family matters, performing housework, preparing daily meals, and most importantly, office work. For those with children, they assume the role of “home teacher” to their children in the same space and time. It did not help when HBL instructions sent through different channels, with some having conflicting instructions via emails, phone messages, the Parents’ gateway, and Class Dojo systems.

Besides, children tend to switch to YouTube or other sites if unsupervised. Further, security breeches with online platforms and tools were also discovered within the first week of deployment. Conclusively, parents are struggling, both physically and mentally, in their convoluted “new” role. WFH parents with a few schooling children or toddlers having no children care support will not be able to fulfill their job duties. Teachers, who are parents themselves, have to deal with HBL of their students and their own children concurrently.‍

A Remedy for the Short Term‍
What can we do to remedy the situation in the short term?

The assumption that a trainer who trains in a face-to-face setting will be able to train as effectively in an online environment is an exaggeration. The assumption that a learner who learns excellently in a face-to-face situation will excel in an online learning environment is untrue too. Even for adult learners, studies done on Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have seen completion rates of less than one percent, let alone the passing rate for these online courses.

The Framework of e-Learning developed by the first author looks at CCA, an acronym for Content, Collaboration, and Assessment, respectively.

Apart from subscribing to existing content by vendors, educators can easily re-purpose existing content by providing voice-explained slides, splicing the slides into manageable chunks (6-10 slides per lesson), converting them into an online interactive format using special software. Some educators are already delivering live lessons through video conferencing tools.

Another approach to content delivery is to re-invent the pedagogy by leveraging on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotic technologies. As the Socratic method enables learning through a questioning–and-answering process, the use of chatbots and deep learning will enhance this learning experience.

The second “C” is Collaboration, referring to online discussion based on the Constructivism approach. It is wilful to assume learners will know how to “discuss effectively” in an online environment. Students must be aware of their roles as participants, and trained moderators to dictate the “rules-of-engagement” to create and manage a productive online discussion.

“A” is for Assessment. It uses the revised Bloom’s taxonomy by pairing the six levels of assessment objectives: Remember & Understand, Apply & Analyse, and Evaluate & Create. For instance, if the aim is to ensure the learners know the elements in the periodic table, you can have multiple-choice-questions (MCQ) to test their recall of the properties of the elements. Learning analytics will help teachers to appreciate better the strength and weaknesses of the students.‍‍

A Remedy in the Long Term‍
In Singapore, the Smart Nation Office has announced five National AI Projects that will deliver economic and social impact for the country and its citizens. One of them focuses on “Personalised Education through Adaptive Learning and Assessment,” which comprises three initiatives.

The first is an Automated Essay Grading that will be implemented by 2022. MOE is currently evaluating two potential solutions.

The second initiative is on Adaptive Learning and Assessment. It means students will get a personalized learning experience tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. Adaptive assessment can use AI, Big Data analytics, as well as Item-Response Theory and statistical modeling, to better engage and measure students’ ability.

The third initiative is the Learning Companion. Each student will have a virtual partner as they learn, helping them to develop a growth mindset and nurture the joy of learning. Presently, there is a challenge for a Proof-Of-Concept to develop a digital learning companion on the Open Innovation Platform that is managed by Infocomm and Media Development Authority (IMDA) of Singapore.‍‍

The introduction of an innovation or technology may face initial hiccups and resistance to its adoption. Though in its infancy, the HBL exercise has opened the Pandora Box that learning from an alternative location other than at school may be a viable option. Will we change to a 4-day week, where parents and children work and learn from home, collectively? If so, we will see more innovative HBL approaches be adopted, as well as radical or evolutional changes to working from home.

Amid the hype, there must be a proper balance in pedagogy and technology – finding the balance point is crucial and sometimes elusive. In the aftermath of the pandemic, when normalcy prevails, will we resort to taking a back-seat, as seen in the wake of SARs? We have to learn the lesson from this pandemic and to move ahead in bold and innovative, but calculated steps.

Millennials do learn differently; the school system has not kept pace with massive adoption of innovative learning approaches suited for the new generations – we are still much at the didactic mode with variants and shades of active learning. However so, if the method of assessment for high stake examinations (PSLE, GCE “O” and GCE “A” Levels) does not change; we are very much stuck in the way we teach and learn; even though pockets of innovative teaching methods peppered the school teaching and learning landscape with varying degree of success.

It is probably too soon to throw in the towels, without giving time for things to settle down. If we can brave through these challenging times, this resilience may change the paradigm of learning, where HBL becomes the norm of learning in Singapore and the rest of the World.

“Fight on, parents and children. Singapore, you can do it!”

Dr. Mak Wai Keong