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 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 Sec 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 Sec 1 cohort in 2017.

Said its principal 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 Sec 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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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2021, with the headline Software helps students focus on learning. Subscribe