Lessons learnt, opportunities seized amid Covid-19: Ong Ye Kung

In his Annual Workplan Seminar speech to school leaders, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung explained how the move to home-based learning during the recent circuit-breaker period prompted the Ministry of Education to bring the National Digital Literacy P
In his Annual Workplan Seminar speech to school leaders, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung explained how the move to home-based learning during the recent circuit-breaker period prompted the Ministry of Education to bring the National Digital Literacy Programme forward.ST FILE PHOTO

Online learning put on the fast track as MOE moves to bridge the digital divide, says Education Minister

The Covid-19 pandemic may have wrought havoc elsewhere, but it has put e-learning on the fast lane.

Each secondary school student was to get a personal learning device by 2028. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has decided to make sure they all get a personal laptop or tablet by the end of next year.

In his Annual Workplan Seminar speech to school leaders released yesterday, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung explained how the move to home-based learning (HBL) during the circuit-breaker period prompted MOE to bring the National Digital Literacy Programme forward.

"Overnight, all teachers shifted to delivering online lessons. Those who were IT-savvy taught those who were not. Parents helped to set up spaces at home where their kids could focus on learning, supervised the younger children, and accepted this mode of delivery. Out of this crisis, and by virtue of necessity, we gained something quite extraordinary - mass acceptance of online learning," he said in the speech.

He also spoke about how online learning highlighted the challenge of the digital divide.

Many students did not have devices to participate in home-based learning, which led to schools loaning out over 20,000 digital devices to students, and more than 1,600 dongles.

"Now that we have bridged the acceptance gap of online learning, it is time to also close the digital divide," he stressed.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times last week, he went into the lessons learnt during the crisis, and how schools and MOE were seizing opportunities even in the most difficult of times.

Q Some say, until recently, online education was optional; in the future, it will be fundamental. Do you agree with that statement? Why is the National Digital Literacy Programme being brought forward by seven years?

A Yes, it is fundamental. We will make home-based learning part and parcel of the curriculum, and we may start with once a fortnight in primary and secondary schools.

Online learning is already a reality. We learn so much from the Internet, from "googling", so sooner or later formal education systems will have to accept it and embrace it.

We have already taken some steps through the Student Learning Space and the National Digital Literacy Programme. The pandemic accelerated the whole process and helped us widen our perspective to say "actually, we can do more and do better".

The key benefit is independent learning. Students are on their own, no peer pressure, no classmates, no teacher at home. You pretty much have to exercise independent, curiosity-driven learning. And if done frequently, there is a higher chance of inculcating this as a lifelong learning habit in our children.

PARTICIPATING IN FUTURE ECONOMY

Digital and financial literacy are synergistic. E-payments are becoming more common - in time, they may be the default. To be an active participant of the future economy, you need to be both digitally and financially plugged in.

EDUCATION MINISTER ONG YE KUNG, on the need to do more to ensure greater financial inclusion, from a young age.

We must accept that online learning is useful, but also recognise that we can't do away or substitute classroom learning altogether... We need face-to-face teaching and learning, because that's when we can have values transmission, hands-on applied learning, project work discussions and so on. Education is fundamentally a social process.

The sensible thing to do is to complement classroom teaching with HBL, and make HBL a permanent and regular feature of education.

Q But of course there are downsides to online learning - the effects of increased screen time, for one thing. The higher incidence of cyber bullying is another. How will schools manage this?

A I will reframe that question. There are downsides to too much device usage - for example, going to undesirable websites, being subject to cyber bullying.

We have to accept that most kids out there have their own devices and are literally left to their own devices. So, they are already being exposed to the downsides. Why don't we counter it by filling the space with something positive, like online learning?

 
 
 
 

I announced earlier this year we are going to expand and emphasise CCE (Character and Citizenship Education). Covid-19 brought CCE lessons to life - about personal and social responsibility, about caring for others, about emerging stronger. CCE also encompasses digital literacy, cyber wellness and mental wellness, and these days also financial literacy - how to spend, how to budget, how to save. These are fundamental skills our children need for life.

Q The pandemic also shone a spotlight on the other divides and inequities among children. Schools stepped up their efforts to provide help to these children and their families on many fronts. What more should be done to close these gaps?

A Over the years, some people have had doubts about our system, that it breeds inequality, elitism, entrenches the privileged. It's only when the schools had to move to home-based learning that people realised that schools were doing more than just providing education. They were providing meals, after-school care, counselling and so on. It has been a major social leveller. Inequality is much worse without school.

During the circuit breaker period, even though schools were open for children who did not have support at home, many chose to stay home and some missed out on the meals that schools continued to provide during this period.

When we tried to give some of these children cash to buy meals, we realised that many of them didn't even have a savings account. MOE did a survey and found that about one-third of our Primary 1 students do not have bank accounts.

This highlighted another imperative: We need to do more to ensure greater financial inclusion, from a young age.

Digital and financial literacy are synergistic. E-payments are becoming more common - in time, they may be the default. To be an active participant of the future economy, you need to be both digitally and financially plugged in.

That's why the move to help parents set up the Child Savings Account (CSA), which will operate like a regular personal bank account. But there will be no minimum balance requirement, fees or charges. We will explore options to equip the CSA with digital enablers, like PayNow and SingPass. With this, it becomes a lot easier for our students to receive monies from awards or financial assistance.

Q Universities, the polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education have already started emphasising inter-disciplinary learning for some years now. Why the urgency to expand and boost inter-disciplinary learning further?

A Our current model produces graduates of various disciplines that industries tell us they need. If you meet their needs, you are set.

Not for our children though who are growing up in a different world. Technology is advancing rapidly, industries are ever-changing. Solving big challenges like climate change or social inequality requires expertise that spans across disciplinary boundaries. When they step into the workforce, they will already be wondering what skills and knowledge they need a year or two later.

Covid-19 will accelerate these trends. The imperatives of tertiary education have therefore changed. It has shifted to ensuring our young are versatile, adaptable lifelong learners.

Q This year, the six autonomous universities held a second admissions exercise, mainly for those whose overseas studies have been disrupted by the pandemic. The applicants also included many polytechnic graduates. Will there be additional places in the university for them?

A If their studies are disrupted and they meet the admission criteria, then, yes, we will increase the number of places to help them continue their studies locally, even if it means going beyond the 40 per cent cohort participation rate.

Polytechnic graduates who have changed their plans because of the weak job market also have the option of work-study programmes, where you can study for a degree while you work.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2020, with the headline 'Lessons learnt, opportunities seized amid Covid-19: Ong Ye Kung'. Print Edition | Subscribe