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A matter of time before tuition goes online for good

As an education centre owner, I was among those affected by the Government’s announcement on March 24 that centre-based tuition will be suspended from March 27 till April 30 as part of measures to curb the Covid-19 outbreak.

Online classes could help students and tutors alike save time, note the author.

Online classes could help students and tutors alike save time, note the author.

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As an education centre owner, I was among those affected by the Government’s announcement on March 24 that centre-based tuition will be suspended from March 27 till April 30 as part of measures to curb the Covid-19 outbreak.

While the move should not have been a complete shock, it was still unsettling.

Hours before that, my business partner and I had met up to discuss how to move lessons online.

We have been making changes to the way we operate since Chinese New Year when the Covid-19 situation appeared to be escalating.

These include daily disinfections of the premises, full refunds to those on Leave of Absences, constant updates to parents on what we are doing, taking temperatures of students and making sure they have not come into contact with those infected.  

While the Government’s announcement meant a mad scramble for tuition operators such as myself to make adjustments, I believe this is a silver lining of many sorts.

First, this may perhaps be the push we need to move towards online tuition or e-tuition.

Personally, I love physical classes because I like the interaction with students and the relationship built but I have to reluctantly admit online classes are the way to go in future.

Just like how brick-and-mortar malls are giving way to online shops and traditional taxis are losing market share to private hire vehicles, the tuition industry needs to prepare itself for the future before it gets caught out by technological disruption.

In extreme times, measures that normally require deliberation are implemented quickly, and in this case immediately. Forced to break out of our comfort zone, we are experimenting with Zoom, Google classrooms and the likes.

We may lose some students who prefer face-to-face (which really isn’t an option now) but we may also find a new niche, and new opportunities.

Even universities like Harvard are offering online courses. Byju’s, an Indian online education company, is raising about US$300 million in a funding round, according to a Bloomberg News story.

Not only that, tuition operators who embrace online classes successfully will not be limited by space, rental costs and could open themselves to new markets from beyond Singapore.

For online classes, so much time could be saved for both the student and the teacher. There is no time to rush from place to place and fewer reasons to miss a class.

For operators like myself, it also means I could get talent from anywhere, even from overseas. As it stands, one big challenge I face is recruiting good teachers. It typically takes half a year to hire one.

For older students who just need tips from a tutor, an online system is ideal. Self-motivated, you listen for advice and can skip the parts you do not need if it is a recorded version.

With flipped learning where students already have the class materials before lessons, e-tuition is also practical, as any face time would be used mainly to clarify doubts.

In the long haul, going fully online bodes well cost-wise for tuition centres. Rental, like all other businesses, take up the bulk of overhead costs.

I was once quoted S$20,000 a month for rent at a 600 square-foot unit in an old mall with little traffic.

In contrast, a Zoom account ranges from being free to just US$14.99 a month to host 100 people.

There will be significantly fewer bills — such as electricity, printing and cleaning — to pay. In fact, with less commuting required and paper used, e-tuition is more environmentally friendly.

That said, as with all uses of technology, there are downsides to e-tuition.

First, the online experience may not match the face-to-face experience. Through my years of teaching, I have built rapport with many students, and kept in touch with some even after graduation.

The kind of connection would be more difficult to establish in an online setting. It is harder for me to give personal attention to students with problems too.

Face-to-face, we can see physical cues to notice one’s discomfort, or a student’s look of confusion before we seek to clarify their doubts. Online, it is harder for us to do so.

More importantly, I worry about the rich-poor gap growing.

As the online learning experience becomes more ubiquitous, especially if government schools were to close, what would happen to the poor who cannot afford a laptop or proper internet access at home?

Still, online classes are a must and disadvantages of an online learning environment are challenges we have to overcome.

Some parents may also have their misgivings about online tutoring and that mindset will also need some time to change.

I reckon tutors can set aside some electronic face time, similar to a university professor’s office-hours allotment, to help students who need more attention.

We can still be very interactive online, treating each class like a “performance”, which a class really should be.

Games can still be played in an online setting. We just need more imagination and creativity.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of holding classes online, tuition and education centres need to deal with this situation with care and compassion.

An education business is a business like no other. Besides the need to be profitable, it needs to be one that is ethical, especially in a crisis like this.

Provide options for refunds if parents or students are uncomfortable with e-tuition. Offer trials to be fair to them. Provide rebates if you can afford to, because we need to be in solidarity in this time of need. The goodwill will go a long way.

My centre is only starting e-lessons this weekend as the preparations — creating Zoom invitations, ensuring everyone gets the memo — have kept us busy. But I am hopeful all’s well will end well.

In Chinese, a crisis is written with two words — danger and opportunity. I think there is an opportunity for educators to be more creative. For students, this is also an opportunity to show their resilience and adapt.



Lim Wei Yi is the co-founder of Study Room, an education centre. He also teaches at tertiary institutions and was previously a financial reporter.

Related topics

tuition education class Covid-19 coronavirus e-learning

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