For the Tuition Industry, It’s Business as Usual With a Few Hiccups

Despite its previous stance on keeping schools open in Singapore, the Singapore government has decided to close schools in line with its circuit breaker measures. The announcement came amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases in the country, in spite of the government’s best efforts at controlling the viral outbreak.

In place of physical classes, students will partake in home-based learning, which have taken place since April 8, and will continue till May 4.

However, public schools in Singapore are not the only ones making the switch. Tuition centres and private home tuition are also adopting home-based learning to adapt to the new regulations for the sake of public health. 

Home-Based Learning for Schools

Students doing home-based learning (Source)

Home-based learning allows students to utilise online platforms to continue their academic learning from the safety of their homes. It enables students to attend online classes and complete assignments at their own pace.

However, home-based learning has brought out the rich-poor divide in Singapore. The Ministry of Education (MOE) has loaned around 12,500 laptops and tablets, as well as 1,200 internet connection devices to needy students who require them. This is to ensure that nobody is left behind, and all can reap the benefits of home-based learning.

A poignant question to ask is whether home-based learning caters to the needs of children who need the extra help. If school-based enrichment classes are not provided to those who need it, be it in an online format, then it is almost certain that they will fall behind. Often, these are the very children that need require the most financial support as well. Hence, the level of inequality is further increased in academic terms.

The implementation of home-based learning has also affected students’ school-based exams. All mid-year examinations will be cancelled this year. National examinations such as the GCE O- and A-level Mother Tongue Language, the Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE) and year-end assessments, however, will proceed with due precaution. For parents with children who are about to sit for these national exams, the transition to home-based learning could pose significant concerns regarding the quality of the classes. It is precisely at this time that their demand for tuition and the extra academic coaching that they provide for their children are at an all-time high.

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Tuition Centres Take on the Home-Based Learning Approach

The quick answer is yes. But the 850 MOE registered tuition centres vary in their approach of home-based learning, though most have chosen to take their lessons online. For some, sending out pre-recorded videos of their lessons is the way to go. While for others, leveraging on online video conferencing tools, such Zoom and ClassDo, seem like a better choice.

When it comes to tuition centre owner Rubin Tan, the use of digital platforms has been critical to his centre’s transition to home-based learning. For starters, his tuition centre, Future Achievers, now uses Zoom to conduct all classes online. According to him, the move has been rather seamless for most students due to the existing home-based learning imposed by MOE in schools. This has given students a prior opportunity to familiarize themselves with digital gadgets and interfaces, which have come in handy when attending tuition online.

A person sitting at a desk with a computer

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Mr. Rubin Tan conducting online tuition classes as part of home-based learning

He has also subscribed to certain online programs which allow his students to complete timed practices and to submit their assignments at home. Moreover, these programs enable him and his teachers to subsequently mark and provide crucial and timely feedback to their students. This helps to ensure that his tuition centre continues to mimic the classroom setting as much as possible while enhancing its students’ learning process.

In response to whether there is a difference in the teaching quality online versus face-to-face, Mr. Tan shared that he did not feel teaching online compromised the quality of his students’ education.

However, some parents might beg to differ on this point. To them, online teaching makes it hard to give one-to-one attention to students.

To this, Mr. Tan acknowledged that while his small class size permits him to give greater attention to each student, might not be the case for other tuition centres. He notes that the quality of the class will become more compromised with an increase in class size, especially in an online setting.

“For us, because of our small class size of around 4 to 6 students, our interaction with them is still the same.”

Parents’ Responses to Home-Based Learning for Tuition

Some parents across Singapore have shown considerable frustration over such an alternative mode of learning. To say the least, this group of parents feel extremely short-changed.

To put things into perspective, the cost of attending tuition in Singapore has well risen in recent years. This is partly attributed to Singaporeans’ culture of “kiasuism,” where parents send their children to tuition to give them the best chance at excelling in their studies. It is precisely the exorbitant cost of tuition that have prompted parents to question whether they are truly getting their money’s worth with the new norm of online tuition.

This pent-up frustration that parents feel has manifested in the creation of online petitions against certain tuition centres. They perceive the home-based learning adopted by these tuition centres as lacklustre and does little to aid their children’s learning.

The online petition against Berries World (Source)

One such tuition centre which has come under intense scrutiny is Berries World, which provides Chinese Language enrichment for pre-primary to primary children. In a now removed online petition, which had garnered more than 1,000 signatories, parents of students studying in the centre shared how its home-based learning resources are simply inadequate. The centre’s e-learning resources are said to last just 20 minutes instead of the usual 1 hour and 45 minutes during face-to-face classes. This drastic decrease in learning time has exasperated parents, who must fork out extra time to teach their own children the learning material. Parents view this as very unfair, considering the high costs of tuition. Furthermore, there is insufficient interaction between the teachers and their students, which renders online classes much less effective.

As a result, several parents have sought a refund of the tuition fees they have paid. Others are pushing the centre to postpone all classes till after the circuit breaker has been lifted.

The online petition against The Learning Lab (Source)

Another tuition centre which has come under fire is The Learning Lab. The tuition centre faces criticisms over its differing class times as well as its online learning resources.

To begin with, complains were made regarding the timings of their classes, which differed from the agreed upon timings of the students’ usual classes. This has led to parents having to deconflict other commitments to accommodate the online home-based learning sessions. When this was not possible, The Learning Lab did not make any alternative arrangements.

The home-based learning that was conducted by the centre did not consist of any student teacher interaction. There were no video conferences held by the teacher or any pre-recorded learning aids done up by the teacher. All the students had were videos to watch, quizzes to complete, and a messaging box for any questions they might have. As one parent puts it, “It basically replaces the class environment with a bulletin board or forum board where individuals post replies to each other”. In essence, it is the very one-way approach to learning that parents find a problem with.

In an online petition that is still ongoing, 567 signatures have been collected to urge The Learning Lab to postpone or to refund tuition fees to parents due to their perceived substandard home-based learning approach.

Tuition Centres’ Responses to the Criticisms

In response to the flurry of criticisms, Ang Weifeng, the assistant manager for corporate communications in Berries World, emphasized the tuition centre’s commitment to improving its learning resources.

He also offered explanations as to why its home-based learning has such a wide disparity in learning duration as compared to its physical classes.

“Some videos and interaction last more than an hour, but for younger children, videos are segmented into 10 minute to 20 minute portions.”

“Pre-school children have shorter attention spans, so if video lessons stretch beyond 15 or 20 minutes, it will be very challenging for the child.”

“The children would have the activity books so they will perform the exercises in tandem. After that, if parents permit, our teachers will do a live face-to-face video call to check on their progress.” 

In recognising the looming national exams that lie ahead of its Primary 5 and 6 students, “a combination of home-based online learning and live interaction will be conducted,” Mr. Ang commented.

He surmised that the short notice to stop all face-to-face classes meant that “the centre had to scramble to come up with more engaging materials, such as videos incorporating music and dance for young children, on top of existing home-based learning resources”.

In view of the novel situation that the centre finds itself in and in acknowledgement of parents’ feedback, Berries World will credit vouchers between S$50 and S$65 to students across all levels.

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On the other hand, The Learning Lab responded that it decided upon its home-based learning approach based on what its students were already accustomed to. This was done to aid their online transition.

However, the centre also stated that it is open to the feedback of parents, which will be taken seriously.

“We are listening to our parents, taking their feedback and seeking to incorporate more interactive features such as web conferences.”

“This is an unprecedented event from which all of us are learning, and we are committed to do better by our students and parents.”

By understanding the various learning needs of their students in different age groups, the centre posits that it has come up with various programs to suit these needs. Home-based learning will not be catered to its younger students as they require greater physical interaction in their learning. Hence, these students have been offered replacement classes for when the circuit breaker measures are eased. Older students from Secondary 1 onwards will engage in online conference sessions and discussion forums to aid their learning.

Upsides to Online Home-Based Learning for Tuition

There seems to be a lot of negative opinions regarding online home-based learning, particularly for tuition, which parents pay a hefty sum for. However, not all is gloom and doom. There are some positives to be found in this alternative mode of teaching. They just have to be explored.

Interestingly, Mr. Rubin Tan highlighted some potential advantages of home-based online learning as compared to attending physical classes.

“Students can use the group chat function to ask me questions if they feel shy. So, I think sometimes it can be quite beneficial to some students, especially the quieter ones, who can ask me privately during the online sessions without feeling scared.”

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Mr. Rubin Tan responding to the queries of students during online tuition class

Private tutor Esther Yeoh also believes in the power of online teaching. According to her, teaching online requires a lot more preparation as compared to face-to-face classes.

“With face-to-face classes, you can teach even without doing the necessary preparations, but for online teaching you need to do the preparations, else it is very obvious that you have nothing to give. Teaching class online exposes, at least for the English Language and English Literature subjects, the amount of (preparatory) work that is done (on the tutor’s part).”

Ms. Esther Yeoh Teaching an Online Class

Ms. Yeoh also shared how she can now spend more time with her students past official class hours because she no longer needs to rush off to another class. “I don’t have any more travelling and transport constraints that forces me to rush off,” she pointed out.

She especially likes how convenient it is to share videos and pictures with her students at any point in time when she teaches online. “I can share screen and that makes it very easy to share information,” she said with a grin.

When asked about which mode of teaching she prefers, Ms. Yeoh chose online teaching with little hesitation. It seems like it is also a mode of learning that some of her students prefer. In fact, some of her new students which have begun classes with her online during the circuit breaker period will likely continue to do so even when the circuit breaker eases.

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What’s Next for the Tuition Industry?

Given the current economic outlook, where unemployment is expected to rise, many Singaporean parents may soon find themselves unable to secure a stable income to support themselves and their families. Tuition may then become more of a luxury than a necessity. But on the other spectrum, the rich can continue to provide quality education for their children by giving them the extra help to excel. This further entrenches the rich-poor divide in Singapore, which skews the academic playing field towards those who can afford tuition for their children.

But one thing is for certain. The online home-based learning has become the new norm for tuition centres and private tuition these days amidst the circuit breaker measures. Granted, there are pros and cons to this alternative mode of learning. Nevertheless, it has opened up greater teaching possibilities, which has allowed the tuition industry as a whole to explore such an option.

When it comes to Singaporeans, the consensus remains that face-to-face teaching is much preferred over online teaching. It is a stance that the tuition industry is likely to gravitate towards because it is the dollar votes of these Singaporean parents that bring in the business.

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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