SINGAPORE - Tuition and enrichment operators have quickly moved classes online following the authorities' decision to suspend all centre-based classes from last Friday (March 27).
The move to put on hold such classes until the end of April was made to reduce mingling of students from different schools.
Parents The Straits Times spoke to are relieved that tuition centres have reacted almost immediately to the changes, with classes delivered virtually, though not all have taken to the idea of forking out the same amount for these online substitutes.
Two separate online petitions had been set up by parents whose children attend two major centres, The Learning Lab and Berries World, expressing frustration at the quality of online classes put up.
Many operators have tried to appease parents by giving discounts, credit vouchers or allowing them to enrol in more than one online class per week at no extra cost.
Several parents with children from The Learning Lab said they were unhappy with how the centre had used an online discussion forum as a replacement for primary school classes.
The centre had also split up class slots and scheduled some online lessons at timings which differed from original face-to-face classes, which was difficult for families if they had other commitments.
Mr Shaun Chin, who has two sons in science classes at The Learning Lab, said: "Parents understand how Covid-19 impacts organisations and individuals alike. Refunds will cause financial strain to the centre and in turn negatively impact teachers.
"However, alternatives should be explored for parents who are unable to adopt home-based learning," said the 40-year-old, who works in the insurance sector.
He noted that some teachers had over the weekend taken matters into their own hands by using Zoom, a video-conferencing app, to conduct lessons. These were more useful than trying to teach via a discussion forum, he said.
The complaints from parents have prompted The Learning Lab to change tack. Its chief executive, Mr Hamilton Lau, said in a circular to parents this week that Primary 3 to Primary 6 classes will be Web video-conference sessions, along with more interactive tools for learning, from tomorrow (April 1), and these will follow the time slots of children's regular classes. These pupils will also have access to more online quizzes and interactive activities to help with revision.
Nursery 2 to Primary 2 pupils will be able to go for replacement classes later as they require physical interaction with teachers for learning to be effective, said Mr Lau.
Mr Su Wei Li, whose Primary 5 daughter and K2 son attend The Learning Lab and Berries World, said: "These are not normal times. I don't expect online classes to be the same as physical sessions, but their solutions must be viable."
The 47-year-old, who works in advertising, said he has engaged a home tutor for his daughter to start lessons in two weeks' time.
"I don't think this suspension will only be for 30 days, it could be months, and we are definitely concerned about how the changes will affect learning," he added.
In response to queries, a spokesman for The Learning Lab said it has heard parents' concerns: "Over the past few days, we have rolled out our first sessions of Web conferences and online discussion forums. Since then, we have been evaluating the programmes based on experience to find out what worked well and could be improved, a major part of which is listening to feedback from students and parents."
He said that its interactive sessions for older students were well received. "However, we have also received feedback on the discussion forum sessions implemented for our Primary 3 to Primary 6 pupils, asking that a more interactive approach be adopted. An issue of class scheduling for this same segment of students was also highlighted."
He added: "We have faced an unprecedented number of inquiries since the Government's announcement on the mandatory closure of centre-based classes; and this has slowed our ability to respond. This has been frustrating for parents and we need to improve in this area so we can fully understand and discuss all concerns in order to find solutions."
The Learning Lab is also offering a credit equivalent to 25 per cent that will be deducted from the next term's fees as a means of support, he said.
But Mr Chin said: "It just seems so commercial. The discount is only for those who sign up for the next term."
CAUGHT BY SURPRISE; MOVING LEARNING ONLINE
Tuition and enrichment centres said the move to suspend their classes caught them off-guard as there had been no indication of school closures.
Ms Huai Chew, business development director of Hua Language Centre, said: "As we found out through reading newspaper articles online, just like our parents, we were not able to formulate a response to parents who called in immediately after reading the news online on Tuesday evening, close to the end of our operating hours."
Physical classes will be postponed and resume when the suspension is lifted, she said.
"We do not think that our parents would be happy with an online class in any format being a substitute for the classes they paid for," she said, adding that students can access online lessons at no charge during this period so they do not fall behind in learning.
Mr Lim Wee Ming, headmaster of Mentalmatics, an abacus and mental arithmetic centre, did the same after deciding that online lessons would not benefit the students.
"We've seen other centres tell customers they will do online abacus classes, but it's totally impossible. We need to see the children's fingering techniques, how they move the abacus beads, and all this is very precise," he said.
To help their students keep up with practice at home, his teachers have made recordings of themselves explaining formulas - they have done 53 video clips so far - and students are able to access these videos via the centre's website. They can also arrange for video calls with teachers to have one-to-one sessions, so they can ask questions.
"We have pushed back all lessons until the suspension ends, and are not charging parents, so they are happy. We will use this month to take stock of where we are, do a bit of goodwill," said Mr Lim.
"We are affected, but we will get through this. We just need to keep our spirits up, and with the proper measures taken, hopefully this pandemic will pass."
For centres which have switched to remote learning, the first week of virtual lessons is going smoothly, despite initial teething issues.
Ms Kristie Lim, founder and principal of Mind Stretcher Education, said: "Some parents were understandably sceptical and asked to defer classes at first but changed their mind after trying out our live online offerings and found them effective."
All students across her 19 centres have started using Zoom and a new communication app the group developed since last Friday. "Some of the feedback we have received is that quieter students are now more vocal and ask more questions, and the students are actually less distracted because they're not next to their friends physically," said Ms Lim.
Mind Stretcher has arranged for make-up classes for students who had experienced teething technical issues, and is also giving a 25 per cent discount for all April course fees.
Mr Low Chong Khiang, 44, a real estate agent whose Secondary 1 daughter is with Mind Stretcher, said: "The online classes were very smooth and all the instructions were clear. She liked seeing her teacher and friends.
"I can tell a lot of planning went into each class, and the teachers are also making every effort to make the virtual lessons engaging and enriching. It's pretty close to attending physical classes, but with the added convenience and safety of staying at home."
Mr Samuel Seah, co-founder of Aspire Hub Education, said it is using a few platforms like Edmodo and Zoom for its classes now.
These allow for interactive two-hour long sessions, where teachers provide real-time feedback and present slides, and students can submit work online.
Said Mr Seah: "About 75 per cent of students have come onboard, and we expect this to go up as we encourage more of them to try out the online classes."
He added that students are also allowed to attend two online lessons for the cost of a single lesson during this period. They also have the added option of a one-to-one online consultation for an hour per week to seek further help from teachers.
"We understand that younger children may not be able to sit in front of a screen for two hours at one shot, and they may need more parental help," he said.
Housewife Elsie Tan, 53, whose Primary 5 son attends English and Chinese classes at Aspire Hub Education, said he enjoyed the interactive nature of the online class.
"I'm more relieved knowing that the centre will help him through his work and prepare for exams, even amid all the disruptions."
Mrs Katherine Barg, chief executive of The Write Connection, an English and creative writing centre, said its teachers had started to pre-record videos, when the announcement broke. Its students can now view these videos as part of their weekly sessions on an e-learning platform, she added. Worksheets and compositions can be sent via e-mail.
"We spent the weekend organising our teachers into different teams, production, IT, video editing," said Mrs Barg.
A handful of parents have requested to defer lessons, and their fees will be pro-rated accordingly, she added. The centre is also giving those who take up the e-lessons a discount - instead of $60 to $70 for a two-hour class they pay $45.
Self-help group Mendaki has also started online classes for students under its tuition scheme, and its tutors have created WhatsApp groups for students to ask them questions.
Madam Nurai'sha Hassan, 46, said her Secondary 3 son was very engaged by the classes conducted on Google Hangouts Meet.
"He could even concentrate better, perhaps because interacting with a screen makes the students feel like they're being watched."
The enrichment trainer added: "My initial concern was that the Mendaki classes were suspended, and help is critical for him in his upper secondary years.
"There will be imperfections and glitches, we are all learning, but I'm thankful Mendaki reacted fast."