National servicemen starting school at the National University of Singapore (NUS) next year will get a headstart - without having to turn up in class.
For the first time, they can choose to take some modules online soon after they complete national service. They can do so from next January, instead of waiting for school to start next August.
Eight such courses - ranging from computing to philosophy - will be offered exclusively to them, as part of NUS' push to combine online learning with classroom teaching.
The pilot programme is also aimed at helping NSmen who may need a longer time to adapt to university life after being away from school for two years or more.
About 2,600 students will be eligible for the programme.
The online components - which will include lecture video snippets, pop quizzes and assignments - will be hosted on the platform of Coursera, a key provider of massive open online courses, known as Moocs.
For the first three months, each course will be conducted entirely online, allowing the freshmen - most of whom would have completed national service by then - to learn in their free time.
They have to turn up for "real" classes only for the next three months, when they will have face-to-face sessions with professors and coursemates.
Students will be expected to spend two hours on campus once every two weeks, but requirements may vary for different modules.
And they will have six months to complete the whole course, instead of just 15 weeks in a normal term.
At the end of the course, they will be tested the same way as those who took the module the traditional way.
The longer duration, and the online format which allows students to learn at their own pace, will help ease national servicemen into the academic environment in a "more gentle way", said NUS provost Tan Eng Chye.
"We hope to give these students a headstart in university education as they are about two years behind their female peers."
While NSmen are now allowed to enrol in two special terms of six weeks each before school starts, the take-up rate is low as many feel that the pace is too hectic.
The online segment is free for students to try out.
But if they decide to continue with the on-campus segment, they will have to pay about $746 per module.
NUS is in talks with the Education Ministry to allow students to use a cash award given to all NSmen to pay for the course fee.
More details will be given to students at a later date.
The initiative is one of the most ambitious attempts yet by a local university to combine online learning and classroom teaching.
Some universities, including NUS, are adopting the "flipped classroom" approach, in which students learn from pre-recorded lectures and other online material before coming to class for in-depth discussions.
Said Professor Tan: "The Mooc platform cannot replicate the campus experience... However, with the introduction of Mooc modules, we can expect to have more engaging face-to-face sessions that focus on higher order skills and deeper engagement."
Mr Lee Kian Chong, 19, who will be studying chemical engineering at NUS next year, is keen.
"I like the idea of not having to follow a strict timetable. It frees up my time to do other things," said the Temasek Junior College graduate, who intends to apply for an attachment with a research institute after NS.
Added Anderson Junior College graduate Lim Xiao Feng, 20, who will be studying science at NUS: "I can repeat or pause the online video if I find it hard to follow. But you can't 'pause' a real lecture."