Slow Internet connections: While Singapore has one of the fastest broadband speeds, we also live in high-density housings where thick concrete walls and close proximity to neighbours’ routers interfere with Wi-Fi signals. Work-from-home parents, multiple home-based learning children, and unyielding Netflix bingers in the family tussle over limited network bandwidth – a problem exacerbated by global surge in Internet use.
To enjoy uninterrupted connections, the bitter pill to swallow is wired ethernet, even if they are unsightly and laborious to implement. Alternatively for an optimal wireless setup, upgrade to mesh Wi-Fi and position the main router, satellites and your devices to minimise Wi-Fi obstacles.
Insufficient devices: Each family member will need their own camera-equipped laptop or tablet, and headphones with mic, to attend live work meetings or school lessons. Well-aware of the temporary nature of Covid-19 measures, many families who are accustomed to sharing devices are reluctant to invest in more gadgets. All the more so because basic devices purchased at the primary and secondary levels are not future-proof, and will certainly be outdated at post-secondary and university levels.
The burden of printing hardcopy notes, previously outsourced to commercial printers in schools, is now borne by students. Parents with a habit of ‘borrowing’ their workplace printers for the occasional printout, now have to decide between a budget inkjet printer and a pricier laser printer. While it is tempting to make do with a cheaper inkjet machine, proprietary ink cartridges are exorbitant, dries out annoyingly when unused, and results in inferior text quality. Laser printers are better suited for printed words, at a lower cost per page.
Tiny screen sizes: Math symbols are small, and their superscripts and subscripts are even smaller. Most lectures are designed on a screen size of at least 12-inches and naturally best viewed on a similar-sized device. Compared to a 12-inch laptop in terms of viewing area, 8-inch tablets are 56% smaller, and 6-inch phones are 75% smaller. It would be myopic to believe that 100% teaching can be delivered through half or even a quarter of the recommended screen size.
Camera-shy: Growing up with highly-edited images on social media, the current generation of students are inevitably image-conscious. Even with the relaxing of mask rules in school, a debated move but essential for social skills, some students curiously insist on wearing their secretive veils. Back in their virus-free homes, where mask-wearing in an online lesson would be comical, these weekend Instagram or TikTok celebrities almost always have their cameras in an unexplainable state of disrepair.
Noisy environments: Singapore is a noisy country. For construction sites near hospitals and schools, NEA restricts noise to 60 dBA, equivalent to a normal conversation. But near residential buildings, noise levels are permitted up to 75 dBA, equivalent to a vacuum cleaner. The drilling from a neighbour’s excruciating renovations can spike past 100 dBA.
Apart from outdoor noise, indoor disturbances are also unavoidable. A newborn crying like a kettle boiling over, or a grade-3 piano prodigy hammering away for a Juilliard audition. Even while isolated in a study room, an ancient computer will whine grudgingly about its retirement age, or a desk fan pointed at the mic will resemble a news reporter in the eye of a literal storm.
Although Zoom implements background noise suppression, when its AI is overwhelmed by rackety environments, the audio quality is akin to the world’s first telephone call. Regrettably, having students mute their mics became the online etiquette, propagating an unspoken rule of ‘do not speak until spoken to’. The cumbersome 3-step ‘unmute, speak, mute again’ walkie-talkie routine cripples candid conversations, and many students simply choose to remain silent.
Summary: A combination of the above-mentioned challenges – sluggish Wi-Fi, substandard study devices, discomfort with an always-on camera, and indoor distractions – plague the online learning space. Some have straightforward remedies such as investing in improved hardware, but some hint at deeper underlying issues such as low self-esteem and socio-economic inequalities.