SINGAPORE - Late last month, Secondary 2 students from Riverside Secondary School were one of the first nationwide to receive their personal learning devices.
The excitement of getting a brand new tablet to tinker with was palpable.
On its Facebook page, the school, which opted for the iPad, described the experience as "unbox(ing) the wonders to an enhanced learning experience".
It gave out the tablets to Secondary 1 and 3 students on April 1.
Such digital devices are set to be a mainstay of formal education in Singapore, as all secondary schools and junior colleges start to implement blended learning for at least two days a month for some levels from the second half of this year.
This means that students will have a mix of home-based and in-school activities, tapping both online and offline learning methods.
The distribution of the devices - laptops or tablets - to support this format of learning is seven years ahead of the original plan, Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam had said last June.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Education (MOE) said that 12 secondary schools have received their personal learning devices, as of April 7. By the end of this year, the devices will be distributed to the rest of the secondary schools.
The push for regular schooling from home is part of a new national digital literacy effort that follows the implementation of full home-based learning (HBL), a year ago, during the circuit breaker.
Education Minister Lawrence Wong had said, last December, that HBL had reinforced the need for students to be more adaptable, self-directed and independent.
Teachers had seen their students grow during full HBL, as they took more ownership of their work and became more resourceful.
But many educators were also relieved that face-to-face lessons in school resumed gradually last June, as they felt remote learning could not replace the full school experience.
Still, traces of HBL remain.
Today, teachers continue to use technology in classrooms like online apps and software for group work, or interactive tools for quizzes.
Platforms like Slido, Mentimeter, Kahoot! and Padlet have become familiar names to students, who have picked up new ways of learning, such as using software for group assignments.
Dunman High School student, Wong Zi Yan, 16, said she uses Coggle, a mindmapping online app that allows her to work with classmates from home.
For example, while preparing for Chinese oral, they drew up an online mindmap on the significance of Singapore's hawker culture and how to preserve it, as well as the challenges that hawkers face.
One advantage of collaborative tools is that more reserved students are encouraged to speak up.
Zi Yan, who is in Secondary 4, said: "Sometimes the different groups' responses are shared on screen, or we can type our responses on the spot on an app. We learn from each others' answers.
"Previously I would be quite shy to share my thoughts in class as I wasn't sure if my opinion was inferior. But when I see all the answers on the screen, I feel more motivated to voice my opinions."
Some of her other teachers also use apps like ClassPoint to share presentation slides and set interactive quizzes, while assignments can be given and submitted online.
But Zi Yan added: "Both face-to-face and online ways of learning are important. One of the pros of using technology is that it saves time and we get information quickly.
"But we still need to have physical classes, to get more in-depth and immediate feedback from teachers."
Mrs Toh-Leong Sook Hing, vice-principal of Dunman High School, said its Year 1 to Year 4 students will have a learning device in May.
She said teachers have already been using the Student Learning Space (SLS) - a platform created by MOE - to host lessons, along with apps like Padlet and AhaSlides to encourage students to work together and showcase their learning.
Video software like Loom and Flipgrid are used in English literature for students to share their opinions, while they use another tool called Book Creator for humanities subjects to create and share content.
A spokesman for Riverside Secondary School said that besides accessing lessons on SLS, students will also have time and space to pursue their interests and learn beyond the curriculum, with the support of the devices and related applications.
The school's students have already begun to use the devices in and out of class and at home, for discussions during face-to-face lessons and online assignments.
"They also analyse digital texts and videos in literature lessons and use the inking function to annotate paintings in art lessons," said the spokesman.
Besides curating applications like the National Library Board app for students to access digital books and magazines, the school has also introduced learning routines during lessons like note-taking and setting reminders to help them monitor their learning.
"We believe this will enhance personal efficiency and effectiveness for students as digital learners," said the spokesman.
An MOE spokesman said it is providing professional development opportunities for teachers to prepare for the rollout of blended learning this year.
She said: "For example, teachers can access online learning modules on how to bridge in-school and HBL, and attend online workshops with master teachers to learn how to better monitor their students' learning progress during HBL."
Teachers also have resources and guidance from the ministry, she added, including how to design HBL days, and guidelines for curriculum coverage and student-initiated learning.
"In developing these resources, MOE took into consideration feedback from teachers, including requests for guidance on how to better plan and design lessons that enable students to exercise greater self-directedness through different modes of learning," she said.
The full school experience
She added that most co-curricular activities (CCAs) and school activities have resumed physically, as these are an important aspect of students' development and best conducted in face-to-face settings.
The only exceptions are overnight camps and activities with a high level of body contact such as taekwondo sparring, rugby scrum and tackle.
In the past year, CCAs have had to conduct their sessions through digital means, and through a mix of online and offline methods, as measures were eased to allow more students to take part in person.
Mr Wilson Tan, Northland Primary School's CCA subject head, said students and teachers are more comfortable with learning online, and are no longer apprehensive as they were initially.
Still, the online format can never replace face-to-face interaction, said Mr Tan.
He added: "In the past, CCAs would have a lot of learning journeys and excursions. We've converted these online or we invite organisations to our school for talks and sessions, but it's not quite the same as going to another venue."
Still, students must continue to have the full suite of learning opportunities in and out of the classroom, said educators like Mr Tan.
He said: "School is a space for social interaction, and CCAs provide that avenue for you to find like-minded peers and friends beyond your class.
"We also see them develop a lot as they discover their talent and potential. It's a big loss for children if they miss out on these activities in their school experience."
Days of learning from home
Full home-based learning (HBL) was implemented across all schools from April 8, last year, a day after Singapore entered the circuit breaker.
It lasted for about a month until May 4 before the school holidays began.
In June, students from different levels alternated between HBL and classes in school on a weekly basis.
Daily face-to-face classes were conducted only for the graduating cohorts of Primary 6 and Secondary 4 and 5.
Students from all cohorts returned to school daily from June 29.
During the month of full HBL, they spent about four to six hours a day on both online and offline learning.
This meant that students needed a laptop or tablet with Internet access to complete some assignments and attend classes on video-conferencing platforms conducted by their teachers, most of whom were also working from home.
The SLS platform, which MOE had earlier introduced in 2018, played a key role in HBL.
Teachers used it to curate and upload resources like videos and slides and track their students' progress while students could submit their work there too.
Teachers also found other means to make remote lessons more engaging through apps like Scribble, Kahoot! and Mentimeter to set quizzes and play games.