What's in the mix with blended learning?

The Education Ministry’s online /face-to-face Covid-19 measure is the first step in building a more resilient system, but care must be taken to help some families adapt to avoid creating more inequities

Blended learning prepares students, teachers and parents for a situation where schools could switch quickly and seamlessly from one mode of learning to another in the event of any disruption – such as examinations and marking (for national examinations), floods, transport breakdowns or even another pandemic. PHOTO: FADLIN M. YUSOFF

Education systems are set for a fundamental rethink, as we figure out how to integrate digital devices into teaching. Acknowledging this, Education Minister Lawrence Wong said last month during a Facebook Live session called After the Pandemic: Reimagining Education that "we are now thinking through how we can implement blended learning into our education system starting next year".

Indeed, blended learning - involving a mix of face-to-face and remote online teaching - is the beginning of a new approach to building resilience in the education system in the post-Covid-19 world.

The future is becoming more volatile and more unpredictable. Blended learning helps ensure that the education system stays open so that learning can continue through these disruptions.

Many positives

This hybrid mode of providing education has the ability to create a better learning experience, as well as retain the important social interactions that schools provide.

As the minister himself said: "Teaching and learning in schools is in many ways a social and relational process."

It is a rebalancing of approaches and is based on the belief that teachers offer invaluable human and emotional connection, empathy and support. The friendly interactions they provide are harder in a completely online environment.

Any policy change that is an answer to a problem has its own goals and is at best a trade-off among available options, coming with a set of costs and benefits.

Blended learning prepares students, teachers and parents for a situation where schools could switch quickly and seamlessly from one mode of learning to another in the event of any disruption - such as examinations and marking (for national examinations), floods, transport breakdowns or even another pandemic.

Experience is a fast teacher. For example, those countries that were hit by the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in March 2003 were psychologically and medically more prepared to handle Covid-19 than countries or leaders who had not been through the experience.

How it would work

What would a blended learning scenario look like if Singapore had three days of face-to-face schooling and two days of home-based learning weekly - perhaps starting with secondary schools?

How would home learning days be designed meaningfully for students? Would they be a replication of school-based learning, or would they evolve into something more experiential and out-of-home and out-of-school?

For example, students could be given tasks in the mall, zoo or community centre, to discuss the next day in school. It could be understanding a concept through a video, or experiments carried out in practice. It could include an immersive learning experience using artificial intelligence and virtual reality modes, and so on.

This approach not only creates individualisation, but also students may feel a sense of control over their time, place and pace of learning. Their readiness may vary but the lesson design endows them the personal agency over when and how they want to learn.

This is an important aspect of self-learning and lifelong learning.

As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently wrote: "The most critical role for K-12 educators, therefore, will be to equip young people with the curiosity and passion to be lifelong learners who feel ownership over their education."

According to constructivist theorists, learning involves the creation of meaning based on prior experiences and prior knowledge. What we know about the real world arises from the way in which we interpret our experiences. For learners to do this, they must build on the characteristics of independent learning and the skills of self-direction. This involves recognising their abilities and limitations and being capable of constructing learning processes - to define goals, make plans and implement them.

The blended mode of learning cannot solve all the issues that students and families face.

Still, some of the psychological traits that influence learning are motivation, interest, resilience, and adaptability - and the blended mode could enable students to study at a pace that suits them, not one dictated by the school environment. It is well-known that engagement drops when children try to learn at times that are not conducive for them.

Home study issues

How do we ensure home environments are spaces that are conducive to self-directed study and enable students to effectively prepare for learning while not in school?

A classroom is relatively "uniform" in physical conditions, unlike students' homes. Can home spaces provide a calm zone which promotes a comfortable transition with school? Can homes support or hinder students' physical, mental and emotional well-being?

We already know that some homes are not safe or conducive environments for students.

Will some students continue to come back to school on "home learning" days, even if their parents are at home? Community spaces have provided some students refuge from disruptive home environments and other distractions.

Despite the Education Ministry's best efforts to manage infrastructure and technical issues during the home-based learning period, the Covid-19 crisis exposed some societal differences. Home support does not end with a device and last-mile connectivity - parental support is equally necessary in supporting online learning.

For parents, there is certainly a need to partner more actively with the school to enrich children's learning. This is where the greatest inequities occur, due to socio-economic conditions.

Self-help groups play an important role in mitigating such inequalities.

Parents do need to take on multiple roles as an observer and instructor; they also facilitate directions for children. Parents will also have a window into what kind of learner their child is and can support them accordingly - for example, in learning maths concepts or to take on more reading. After supporting the child for a few sessions, parents do not need to hover over the child all day, but should instead encourage them to start assuming ownership of their schoolwork.

There could be children who simply do not know how to self-regulate alone and will therefore need scaffolding, with a structure and framework. The parents' role in facilitation is crucial here.

In the case of younger children, they would not themselves know, without guidance, how and where to navigate online. There could be parents who really do not know how to facilitate as well, and the children are then left to their own devices.

As we build resilience into our education system, we must be mindful that we do not inadvertently build in even more disparities in outcomes, because schooling and education is still the greatest social leveller.

Dr Uma Natarajan is a researcher and educator in the field of K-12 education.

Dr N. Varaprasad was the CEO of the National Library Board and is currently a partner with the Singapore Education Consulting Group.