As the mid-trimester break rolled around, academic staff at the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) were busier than ever. The clock was ticking — they had just 10 days to move their curriculum online.
As Singapore tightened safe distancing measures to minimise the spread of Covid-19, educational institutions were forced to conduct classes remotely. How did SIT, a university which heavily emphasises applied learning, adapt to deliver quality education to students under these conditions?
GovInsider catches up with Professor Chua Kee Chaing, Deputy President (Academic) & Provost of SIT, to find out more.
All hands on deck to prepare for e-learning
SIT first made the decision to bring their classes online in April at the start of Singapore’s Circuit Breaker, just as the mid-trimester break began.
The university immediately stepped in to ease lecturers’ transition to online teaching. “Prior to campus closure, SIT created and launched various types of training for faculty members to provide online learning,” comments Prof Chua. These workshops included guides on running effective live-streaming classes, designing alternative assessments, and creating narrated slides.
Such measures helped faculty members feel more comfortable with online lesson delivery methods. These enabled them to hit the ground running with lessons as the trimester resumed, minimising disruptions to students’ learning.
SIT also recognised that assessment methods would have to be altered. In administering online exams, a fine balance had to be struck between reducing potential dishonesty during examinations, while still accurately evaluating students’ learning.
“We had to appeal to our faculty members to set exams that are short, so that we minimised problems related to online proctoring of the exams,” says Prof Chua. Yet, the tests had to be effective to allow SIT to test students’ learning in a reasonable manner.
In lieu of physical invigilators, SIT incorporated technology such as lockdown browsers — software that prevents computers from accessing other websites while an exam is running — to facilitate testing. The university also required students to turn on web cameras during their exams. Using artificial intelligence algorithms to detect instances in which students behaved suspiciously on-camera, invigilators were then able to flag instances of inappropriate conduct and reached out to students, if necessary.
Support for the community
Beyond ensuring the technical viability of online classes, SIT also took steps to ensure that all students had equal access to quality learning, unhindered by financial obstruction or unconducive learning environments.
“When we went online, some of our students had no technical support,” explains Prof Chua. Some students lacked Wi-Fi broadband services, while others did not have access to computers.
SIT’s Student Life Division and several staff members stepped in immediately, delivering devices to affected students. The university also set up the Student Relief Fund at SIT (COVID-19) to assist undergraduates facing unexpected financial hardship due to the outbreak. With more than $800,000 in donations to date, grants from the Fund go towards students’ daily living expenses, tuition fees, laptop costs and more.
Challenges still lie ahead
Despite the university’s best efforts, some aspects of face-to-face education cannot be readily substituted with an online environment.
“We are very much an applied learning university,” comments Prof Chua. “A lot of hands-on interactions, a lot of project work, a lot of interaction with companies. So the challenge of bringing all those on to an online platform is really huge, and we may not be able to bring all of that online.”
Most notably, SIT’s flagship Integrated Work Study Programme (IWSP) has taken a hit. The programme requires students to undertake six to 12 months of relevant work attachments during the course of their studies, and some attachments had to be put on hold due to the pandemic. The university is discussing with employers about how to pivot and provide new programmes.
The pandemic’s disruptions are felt most acutely by the graduating Class of 2020, many of whom experienced the double whammy of disrupted attachments and an unfriendly job market. To combat this, SIT is providing the cohort with further learning opportunities to boost their employability.
SIT is taking part in the SGUnited Traineeships Programme, an initiative spearheaded by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and Workforce Singapore (WSG). The programme aims to provide up to 21,000 paid 12-month traineeship opportunities for fresh graduates.
Traineeship positions are available across SIT’s corporate and academic divisions, ranging from project engineers and research assistants, to cybersecurity trainees and project officers. These traineeships, the university hopes, will go a long way in helping graduates develop industry-relevant skills and build professional networks.
The university is also offering the graduating cohort free access to over 190 Continuing Education Training (CET) modules at SITLEARN Professional Development, the lifelong learning division of SIT. The modules span a wide variety of topics, from management training to machine learning. These offer fresh graduates an opportunity to upskill while the economy recovers.
Looking forward: “Don’t waste the crisis”
Prof Chua encourages educators to take advantage of these uncertain times, to look towards the future of educational pedagogy.
“Don’t waste the crisis,” he urges his colleagues. “One of the good things that came out of this [pandemic] is really to get us to think even post Covid-19. The crisis allows us to take a step back and assess how we can improve in our lesson delivery.”
“You could get students to look at online materials, then bring them [into class] for a face-to-face discussion. The ‘flipped-classroom’ method of delivery could lead to a lot of enhancement in student learning.”
Contingency plans against similar situations in the future would also require tech-forward solutions.
“How do we make better use of technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality to do some of this more practical work? We already have some of these technologies in place for some of our modules, but can we deploy them for other lessons as well? These will be some of the things that we are thinking through,” adds Prof Chua.
These are challenging times for educators and students alike. But with flexibility, resilience and care for the community, SIT intends to ride the waves of disruption.