MOE flexible on students' use of learning devices after school: Lawrence Wong

Secondary 3 students from Bukit View Secondary School using their personal learning devices during a self-directed learning session. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BUKIT VIEW SECONDARY SCHOOL

SINGAPORE - Parents and students will have some flexibility in how they wish to use their learning devices after school hours, said Education Minister Lawrence Wong.

For instance, they could have the option to customise the device software settings at home, or turn off the software so that there is no monitoring of online activities.

More details will be given as schools hand out the learning devices, said Mr Wong in a written reply to Mr Patrick Tay (Pioneer) on Wednesday (Feb 24).

"The Ministry of Education's objectives are focused on the school environment and on ensuring good teaching and learning outcomes in school," he added.

Mr Tay, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee for Education, had asked the ministry what information will be tracked by the security software built into learning devices.

The devices are meant to support home-based learning, which starts from the third term of this year, for at least two days a month in all secondary schools, junior colleges and Millennia Institute.

But some students had raised concerns about privacy and schools being too restrictive in implementing the device management application, a software that is meant to monitor how they use their learning devices.

In response, Mr Wong said the software "only collects information required to facilitate a conducive environment for teaching and learning, and to encourage good online practices".

This refers to basic student information such as his or her name, school and e-mail address, and does not track details like identification numbers, passwords and the location of the device, he said.

With this information, the Education Ministry and schools will be able to centrally update the devices - for instance, to install new learning applications or security patches.

Another purpose of the software is to support teachers in managing learning in classrooms, said Mr Wong. For instance, they will be able to see and support students' work on the devices during lessons.

The software will also help filter out harmful Internet content such as pornographic and gambling-related websites or those with extremist content, he added.

"In our engagements with parents, this feature of the software was something they strongly welcomed, as they were very concerned about excessive screen time and their children's access to inappropriate content online."

Mr Wong noted that any student information collected by the software is stored in secure servers managed by appointed vendors with stringent access controls.

"This is in line with the Government's personal data laws and policies to safeguard sensitive data collected by public agencies," he said.

Secondary 3 students from Bukit View Secondary School using their personal learning devices during an English language class. PHOTO: COURTESY OF BUKIT VIEW SECONDARY SCHOOL

Software helps students focus on learning

When Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) began using digital devices for learning nearly a decade ago, parents were given control of their sons' Apple MacBooks, but the school soon realised that things were getting out of hand.

Even though it had restricted students' permission to download new applications, they were turning to online sites like Facebook to play games after school.

"We had feedback from parents about their sons getting addicted to gaming," said the school's principal Mr Loo Ming Yaw.

In 2016, the school switched to using Google Chromebooks pre-installed with a device management application (DMA) that tracked students' online usage.

Initially, it took a "blacklisting" approach, restricting access to objectionable material like pornography. As the number of blacklisted sites grew, the school adopted a stricter stance. Since 2018, the boys have had access to only "whitelisted" sites and videos that are relevant to learning. Teachers have to submit the resources they need for lessons to the school's IT department for whitelisting. Students can make similar requests.

"The parents are a lot more satisfied... But of course the boys would complain," said Mr Loo, recalling a student's request to let him use Spotify to listen to music.

"But I told the boys this is a learning device and I'd rather that they use it only for learning purposes. Almost all of them have their own phones, which would already be their entertainment device."

He added: "We want to teach them there's a place and time for learning and entertainment, and you cannot mix both."

Mrs Jeannette Chan, 48, whose Secondary 3 son Christopher attends ACS (Barker Road), said: "The DMA helps him be less distracted and treat the Chromebook as a work gadget."

Mrs Chan, who works in wealth management, and her husband also use a parental control app for her son's smartphone and other devices at home.

"We both agree on the limits and explain why it is good for him in order to get his buy-in," she said.

Christopher, 14, admitted that when he was in Secondary 1, he and a few friends tried to bypass the school's restrictions to access online games and YouTube.

"We got a warning from the IT head... I didn't realise how much my learning was affected," he said. "For students, it can be annoying, but without the DMA, I guess no one will be doing his work."

Another school which is also using Google Chromebooks is Bukit View Secondary School, starting with its Secondary 1 cohort in 2017.

Said its principal Mr Kevin Ang: "We explained very clearly that the DMA is to ensure that the device is used only for learning, instead of social media, games or accessing unsavoury content."

It has added more sites including YouTube to its blacklist, especially after it noticed students playing games or surfing the Internet during lessons.

But the school is also flexible.

For instance, students can propose educational YouTube videos or channels to be made accessible.

In response to parents' feedback, the school also extended the cut-off time for students to use the devices at home, from 10pm previously to 12am.

"We know students have their own devices to use if they really want to stay up late. But setting the daily timeout helps us to communicate the importance of having enough sleep and shaping good habits," said Mr Ang.

Housewife Winnie Fong, 43, said having the DMA in her daughter Tania's learning device puts to rest fears about increased screen time or access to inappropriate content.

Tania, 14 and in Secondary 2, said: "Many websites are blocked on the personal learning device, so it keeps me more focused, as I'm limited to only websites that are relevant to my learning."

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