By 2028, all secondary school students will have their own digital device, such as an iPad, as part of a national digital literacy programme the Ministry of Education (MOE) is rolling out.
Schools will progressively come on board from June this year, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Wednesday (March 4) during the debate on his ministry's budget.
Four MPs, including Ms Denise Phua (Jalan Besar GRC) and Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar (Ang Mo Kio GRC), had asked about MOE's plans to equip students with digital literacy skills.
"One popular response around the world is, 'Let's make coding compulsory in schools!', but that is too simplistic. Not everyone will grow up to be a coder. Many of us only need to learn to use technology and software," said Mr Ong.
"Another popular response is: 'Give every child a digital device!' It is not a bad idea, but it could do more harm than good if the device becomes another gadget that distracts students.
"If we want to do this, we must do it in the right sequence - make sure the curriculum is rightly designed and teachers are equipped with suitable pedagogical skills first, then use the device to enhance teaching and learning."
Orchid Park Secondary School has been piloting the use of personal learning devices with its Secondary 1 students from last year. All 280 students in that cohort have a Chromebook each, on loan from the MOE.
Schools can choose a device from a given list, and students will have to purchase them on their own. But there will be an Edusave top-up of $200 for all students this year to support the purchase, Mr Ong said.
The minister said: "Device sharing makes learning sub-optimal. A device is as essential for e-learning as paper and pen are for a traditional lesson."
He added: "We will make sure that the device is affordable. Given that it is primarily used for learning and education, we do not intend for it to be a high-end device."
Bulk tenders will be used to lower the price further, to "probably a few hundred dollars".
Students can pay for the device through their Edusave accounts, which the minister said should be enough given the latest $200 Edusave top-up - which will cost a total of $75 million - as well as last year's $150 top-up. Some who have used more of their Edusave funds might have to fork out a bit of cash, he noted.
But students from lower-income households will get further subsidies to ensure that their out-of-pocket cost is $0, said Mr Ong.
Orchid Park Secondary School said the devices have boosted teaching and learning as students are able to access the Singapore Student Learning Space - an online learning platform with educational tools and resources - in class and at home.
Teachers can assign work through the platform, and are also able to see students' progress on such assignments in real-time. They can also see which questions students are struggling with, and quickly address any misconceptions.
Digital literacy entails four components - find, think, apply and create. This is similar to the components of language literacy - listen, speak, read and write, said Mr Ong.
"Find" involves gathering information from digital resources, while "think" is the ability to manage, analyse and interpret such data. "Apply" would be to use software and devices productively to learn and work, while "create" refers to the ability to code a programme or develop an app, and collaborate with others in the process.
The biggest component is "apply", said Mr Ong, adding that the Student Learning Space is a major initiative in this area.
Orchid Park Secondary School principal Shawal Hussin said during a media visit to the school on Wednesday (Feb 26): "(With the personal devices,) students understand some of the topics better through visual and audio aids. At any time - during recess, at home or on the bus - they can revise their work and are not restricted by the old ways of learning."
There are also ways to control students' usage and screen time. For one, students are blocked from downloading certain gaming apps or accessing similar websites. The devices can also be programmed to be turned off after 12am to prevent late-night usage, for example.
Mr Shawal said the school has not stopped students from accessing social media platforms, but cyber wellness programmes are in place to teach them how to navigate such spaces responsibly.
"Anything can be misused. There's no point bubble-wrapping them. What we can do is teach them how to use (social media) properly and inculcate good values in them."
Secondary 2 student Vincent Tse said he frequently uses his Chromebook to take notes in class as it is quicker than writing.
Said the 13-year-old: "It's a privilege to have such resources. My class definitely enjoys using our Chromebooks, and it makes class more interesting so we can stay focused."
Other ways in which the ministry plans to strengthen digital literacy include exposing more primary school children to computational thinking and coding.
From this year, all primary schools will offer the Code for Fun programme, a 10-hour enrichment programme for upper primary pupils.
More secondary schools and junior colleges will also offer O- and A-Level computing respectively to boost the computing talent pipeline.
About 30 secondary schools and 10 junior colleges, up from 22 and eight respectively, will offer the subject. This expansion will be rolled out progressively from next year.
Last year (2019), about 500 candidates (2 per cent of the cohort) had taken O-Level Computing, while about 200 candidates (also 2 per cent of the cohort) took A-Level Computing, MOE told ST.
Mr Ong said: "More students will benefit from early exposure and the opportunity to pursue their interest in computing."
The lower secondary science syllabus will be revised and rolled out next year as well, to help students develop a better understanding of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and other advancements.
The institutes of higher learning, too, will aim to build a foundation in basic digital competencies for its students. The polytechnics, Institute of Technical Education and universities will expose students to skills such as computational thinking and quantitative reasoning through new or enhanced modules. Efforts will also be made to strengthen the cyber wellness curriculum.
Students in fields that require more advanced digital skills, such as the finance, manufacturing, logistics and cyber security sectors, will get to pursue such competencies at higher levels.
Mr Ong said that in the past three years, the six autonomous universities have trained around 1,000 information and communications technology (ICT) graduates annually, in response to a question from Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC).
They have been working hard to expand the capacity of such courses, and to-date, they are taking in 2,800 ICT graduates a year, Mr Ong said.
"We will find ways to ramp up the capacity further if need be."
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.