It stands to reason that, following the coronavirus pandemic, home-based learning (HBL) could be set to become routine in the new normal, with schools perhaps setting aside several days every month for online learning. The advantages of HBL became apparent during the circuit breaker period. Teachers, students and parents came to terms quickly with the possibilities of digital technology so as to replicate school at home to the extent possible. Teachers delivered online lessons, parents created learning spaces at home and, most important, students adjusted to the new learning environment. Online learning became a viable temporary alternative to the structured physical environment provided at school.
For HBL to become a permanent part of education, if only as a supplementary tool, one of the lessons learnt from the circuit breaker will have to be kept in mind. This is that children must possess the means of access to digital technology. While this access exists for most of them, some from less fortunate backgrounds do not enjoy it. Something as fundamental as the availability of digital devices and a stable Internet connection at home, which the vast majority of Singaporeans take for granted, could be a luxury for children from families that are yet to plug into the technological broadband of the economic mainstream. The Ministry of Education's decision to bring forward the National Digital Literacy Programme is an important step in the educational empowerment of the young. The wider the reach of such programmes, the greater would be the chances of HBL becoming an integral part of the educational scene in Singapore after the pandemic.
Of course, the authorities recognise that online learning should not and cannot totally replace the school environment. Schools are socialising institutions first and last. Taken collectively, they bring together children and young adults from every conceivable background and put them through commonly structured regimes of study, play and social interaction. Schools help to transform individuals into citizens. That is why they have survived the transition from the ancient world to the modern one. All societies need young people to become thinking adults who acknowledge a shared stake in an indivisible future.
In multiracial and multi-religious Singapore, mixing in schools is important especially because it underpins and reinforces every day the importance of accepting other students as fellow travellers on the path to a single nationhood. Online learning cannot compare with schools in this regard. The digital universe has many virtues, but engendering togetherness is not one of them. It does not have space for sports, for example, where children compete on the basis of individual talent and team spirit. Schools must remain the primary site of education.