First day of home-based learning goes smoothly after early morning hiccups

Brothers Kaleb (in white) and Oliver doing their home-based learning assignments with help from their father Leonard Ng, 39, in their Toa Payoh home on May 19, 2021. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO
Primary 6 pupil Sherrie Chan could access the section that provided links to a Zoom call with her teacher. PHOTO: COURTESY OF YEO SHA-EN

SINGAPORE - The first day of home-based learning on Wednesday (May 19) got off to a rough start, as students had trouble logging in to the official portal.

However, the Student Learning Space portal was up again before noon, and virtual lessons went smoothly for the rest of the day, parents and students told The Straits Times.

In response to queries from The Straits Times on Wednesday evening, the Ministry of Education's (MOE) information technology division's divisional director Tan Bee Teck said some users experienced intermittent accessibility from 8.55am to 11.50am.

Mr Tan said: "The system was momentarily back on track around 9.30am as the team scaled up more resources in an attempt to address the issue faced.

"Subsequently, through further investigations, the team established that the issue was due to an error logging system process that unexpectedly caused some of the web servers to be overloaded."

This resulted in problems loading pages or submitting actions on a page.

After some calibration, the issue was fully resolved at around 11.50am and there were no further reports of users experiencing issues, he said.

"This issue is different from the one encountered last year, which was due to a higher number of users concurrently logging into the Student Learning Space platform."

The platform has had teething issues before, when hundreds of thousands of students tried to log in for home-based learning in April last year.

Mr Tan apologised for any inconvenience caused and said that MOE is putting in place additional measures to optimise system performance during this full home based-learning period.

Parents said children had trouble with accessing some sections of the website after logging in, and the problem lasted between 30 minutes to more than an hour.

Ms Yeo Sha-En, 39, whose two daughters aged seven and 12 go to CHIJ St Nicholas Girls' School, said her younger child managed to log in at 8am but at 8.20am, the portal became slower when more people logged on.

Ms Yeo said the problems persisted till about 9am for her daughter, who is in Primary 1, and she could not work on her lessons. "We did work that could be done offline instead, like handwriting worksheets," she said.

Her other daughter, who is in Primary 6, could access the section that provided links to a Zoom call with her teacher. Having done home-based learning last year, she was also more familiar with the site and was able to work independently.

Ms Yeo, who is the founder of Happiness Scientists, which conducts programmes and talks on positive psychology, said: "For the younger one, we guided her to log in, and my husband and I have a schedule of her assignments and check in with her to ask if they are done and if she needs help."

With four family members spending the bulk of the time at home, communication with each other is most important, she added.

Ms Yeo said: "We coordinate in the morning. Whoever needs to talk will get the room where it is quiet, while those just listening to lessons can share another room.

"For the next 1½ weeks, we will just take it one day at a time, and look at the schedule the night before, to see what needs to be prepared."

Mr Leonard Ng, 39, said his two sons, aged seven and nine, could not get on the portal to do their work at about 9am.

He said: "The kids were not able to log on and I could see the parent chat groups flooding with texts about whether anyone was able to get through."

Both boys - one in Primary 1 and the other in Primary 3 - go to St Gabriel's Primary School.

The older boy managed to log on several times, but was met with a time-out page when he tried to go to some sections. At about 9.20am, there were no more problems for him, but his younger brother encountered issues until about 9.45am.

"We just kept trying to refresh the page, because we didn't know when we would get through," said Mr Ng, a counsellor with a social service agency. In the afternoon, home-based learning went smoothly, as the portal had no issues, he said.

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Mr Ng said his boys found that the portal's system can be rigid at times. For example, if the child provided an answer in plural but the answer was singular, the system would mark it incorrect.

He said: "They felt a bit disheartened. It is more about the technical issues and overcoming these difficulties… It's not the same as engaging a teacher."

If both parents are working from home and both children are also learning at home, sometimes work can be disrupted, he added.

"It's helpful when work colleagues and supervisors are supportive, for example, if I have to excuse myself during a meeting to see to my kids, they understand," he said.

Ms Constance Lim, 50, who works as an associate adult educator, said her family was better prepared for home-based learning this year - they moved into a new flat recently and could provide dedicated spaces for their nine-year-old and 13-year-old sons to do their schoolwork.

Ms Lim said she is hoping home-based learning will not be further extended, as she believes in the importance of attending physical lessons.

She said: "Online learning is no substitute for classroom learning. Meeting to learn is not just for knowledge. What's more important is the interaction with teachers and friends, and the environment."

Housewife Tammie Wong, 42, who has three children, aged six, 12 and 15, said one of her main concerns about home-based learning was excessive screen time and device addiction.

She said: "The IT support structure or apps or school measures for screen time control need to be robust and thorough. Our teens are more tech savvy than us and will find loopholes."

She added that she has caught her children chatting with friends on a separate window or playing games while an online lesson was going on.

Secondary 4 West Spring Secondary School student Anushka Barua, 16, said the first day of home-based learning went well, but it was quite tiring having live lessons via Zoom or Google Meet continuously.

She said: "Face-to-face lessons in school are more effective because I can ask teachers any questions I have in the moment rather than having to ask questions over video call, which can be quite a hassle due to technical problems.

"But one thing I really like about HBL is that I don't have to commute anymore and I have more time to do my work at my own pace and get enough rest."

Gavin Zhang, 13, a Secondary 1 student at Catholic High School, said home-based learning meant he was looking at the screen for long periods of time and putting a constant strain on his eyes.

He said: "There is an overall lack of motivation to do much when learning online.

"I think learning at school is better than learning at home, with the lack of awkward pauses over video calls and technical difficulties."

But home-based learning, he added, also meant he could spend more time with his family, and replay some of the recorded lessons to refresh his memory.

"There are negative and positive sides to HBL. I just hope Covid-19 finally blows over so we can return to our normal lives soon," he said.

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Additional reporting by Eleanor Katharine Yeo, Ivan Kwee and Gabrielle Ng

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