Singapore’s Education Ministry: Lessons from e-learning

By Tian Jiao Lim

Interview with Aaron Loh, Divisional Director of Educational Technology at Singapore’s Ministry of Education.

As Singapore moved into partial lockdown in April, all schools and institutes of higher learning moved online. Some 600,000 students from primary school to university were abruptly required to attend lessons remotely.

Amidst these shifts, how did Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) help students, teachers, and parents to transition effectively into over a month of online classes?

Aaron Loh, the Divisional Director of Educational Technology at MOE, tells GovInsider how the Ministry supported teachers and students during this period, and how the e-learning experience is continuing to shape MOE’s initiatives.

Creating solutions on-the-ground

As all schools scrambled to implement home-based learning, MOE tapped on existing technology to ease the transition. These systems served as “building blocks”, enabling the Ministry to respond “quickly and effectively” to the rapid changes, Loh says.

MOE scaled up its national e-learning platform, the Singapore Student Learning Space (SLS), to respond to the pressing demand for home-based learning. “SLS [was] scaled up to support a far higher number of concurrent users, and far higher intensity of use,” says Mr Loh. The portal, launched in 2018, became the main vehicle of communication between students and teachers during the five-week e-learning period.

Teachers’ familiarity with the SLS interface made it easier for MOE to roll out smoothly e-learning, Loh notes. The platform had already provided teachers with “tools and resources to enhance teaching and learning” — during the home-based learning period, MOE delivered “more than 4,000 additional resources” for teachers to use during online lessons.

The Education Technology division also expanded on an existing feedback portal, allowing them to quickly respond to teachers’ feedback about the latest e-learning policies. This “constant access to ground feedback” was “critical” for the team, because support measures and decisions were often implemented on very short notice with little chance for in-depth consultation beforehand, Loh explains.

MOE’s focus on feedback will continue beyond the Covid-19 period. “Sensitivity to the needs of schools and teachers will continue to be central to our planning and implementation approach in future,” Loh says. The Education Technology team will further improve their systems to gather, track, and quickly respond to user needs and inputs.

Faced with the sudden shift to remote teaching, teachers also generated many ground-up, innovative solutions to help students learn. Many shared their routines and best practices on online communities. “For example, teachers shared various approaches to using technological solutions to collect, mark and return hardcopy homework efficiently while students were not in school,” Loh elaborates.

Holistic wellbeing

Helping students keep abreast of academics was not MOE’s only priority. The Ministry employed a variety of strategies to keep track of students’ mental health as they transitioned into new living patterns.

Schools adapted technology to keep monitor and maintain students’ well-being. “Teachers leveraged video-conferencing to have regular check-ins with students, maintaining their personal connection to students and enabling them to extend care and concern especially to students who needed additional support.”

The Ministry also worked closely with parents, who were also working from home during the partial lockdown. MOE developed Parent Kits, a series of online resources. These “helped assure and guide parents as to how best to support their students’ learning and [included] tips for capitalising on the situation to facilitate parent-child bonding,” Loh says.

Looking forward, MOE is working to build protected time for student-initiated activities into the curriculum. The e-learning period gave many students a chance to “pursue their interests and passions while at home”, from baking to learning instruments and writing code. By setting aside time for them to independently pursue their passions, the Ministry hopes to “develop [students]’ curiosity, intrinsic motivation and joy of learning,” Loh explains.

Mental wellbeing has been a priority for the Ministry for some time. A new mental health and cyber wellness curriculum will be rolled out in schools next year, with peer support as a key pillar of the programme. The programme will guide students to “support one another emotionally and socially, promote mental well-being and cyber wellness among their peers, while still having teachers and counsellors to turn to if they need help.”

Empowering students

The sudden shift to e-learning cast a spotlight on the fact that not all students have access to stable internet connections or devices.

MOE moved quickly to ensure that all students could continue lessons uninterrupted. Over the e-learning period, schools loaned out “over 20,000 digital devices and more than 1,600 dongles” to students. A small number of students also returned to schools to use computing facilities, Mr Loh tells us.

Moving forward, the Ministry will be accelerating its plans to issue personal learning devices — a tablet, laptop or Chromebook — to students. “Every secondary school student will have a school-issued personal learning device by end-2021, instead of 2028 as originally planned.” MOE will also continue working with Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority to help low-income students apply for computing devices and internet access, Loh adds.

MOE is also working to encourage student-initiated learning. “During home-based learning, we saw how students became more self-directed and independent in their learning, enabled by the use of technology,” says Loh. MOE is now exploring ways to make self-directed learning “a regular part of [students’] learning experience”.

The Educational Technology team is set to personalise e-learning with AI, Loh adds. In future, AI models will be able to track students’ progress, helping teachers to target the gaps in students’ knowledge, and automatically grade short-answer questions and essays, freeing up time for teachers to support students, for example. These will “better customise the learning experience for each student.”

“Covid-19 has accelerated the adoption and acceptance of technology as a critical element in teaching and learning,” Loh concludes. “It has also brought forward ubiquitous access to personal learning devices for all students, and made e-pedagogy an indispensable skill that every teacher requires.”

Fuelled by these changes, Singapore’s education landscape is set to transform. Technology will work hand in hand with traditional teaching methods, giving each student a more personalised, comprehensive learning experience.