Open learning


Youths are powering a free online learning site to help ‘A’ level students gain a footing in their education.


JC student Ong Ze Xuan, 17, gives free tuition at an ad-hoc basis and has been doing so for about two years. He recently helped a few students with Chemistry and Math at his school’s lift lobby after his own lessons. Another JC student Belinda Ding, 18, has also been tutoring her sister occasionally and teaching some of her peers while in secondary school. However soon, both may be working themselves out of this livelihood.

The two are part of an organisation called openlectures, which provides free online lectures based on the Singapore syllabus. Currently, most of the open-concept learning sites like Coursera are mainly featuring university-level content and targeted towards the Western syllabus, which is where openlectures comes in filling the gaps by providing content specifically for Singaporean students. It was officially founded in July 2011 by Qiu Linan, a student who had one belief – “making quality education available for anyone who wants to learn”.

openlectures is made possible by more than a 100 volunteers, most of whom are recent JC graduates or current JC students. In their free time, usually weekends, they contribute in their own ways – writing, filming or background work like slide design. Some of them have since gone abroad for their studies, and active members now number in the 30s.

The site has over 400 videos for ‘A’ level students and currently has videos covering the whole syllabus of Economics, and part of Chemistry, Math and Physics. Whether students are trying to understand the principles behind resource allocation in competitive markets in Economics or deciphering angles, triangles and polygons, the site serves as a refresher and a resource. Over the past year, openlectures has attracted some 70,000 unique views, all thanks to social media, and they are also viewed beyond the shores of Singapore including the US, UK and China.

Explained Ze Xuan, chief administrator at openlectures, “When we listen in class, we may not get the concepts our teachers are saying at once.

“Furthermore, not all students do well in school. They may be academically weak and need one-to-one help. Teachers may not have enough time to devote to so many students, and the students themselves may not be able to afford extra-curricular tuition. What we do at openlectures is we try to bridge this gap by making education free and accessible. It is a meant as a supplement so that when the students can go home and they want to revise, catch up or even to stay ahead, we can provide that.”

A unique aspect of openlectures is its own perspectives on the various subjects. Said Belinda, Academics head, “We try our best to provide a peer-to-peer learning experience. We give our own take on the subject and how we remember those facts. We are all either going through or have gone through this phase of our life and we would like to help others with our experience as much as possible.” She added that sometimes they include personal shortcuts on remembering the subject such as using a 5W1H (who, what, when, where, why, how) approach to remember what goes on during DNA replication.

Continuous work in progress

The videos, which last from one to two minutes, are narrated by around 30 volunteer lecturers who are recent JC graduates and they film on the weekends at a studio downtown. The process is straightforward – the lecturers write the script and the script is then checked by two other lecturers with expertise in the same subject matter to ensure the content is correct. Then comes the filming, which is done in front of a green screen. Only during post-production are the slides added.

A small number of videos even have subtitles in Chinese, provided by some viewers who felt that these could help a wider audience, and volunteered their help.

Ze Xuan added that the technology that they use today, which has been kindly sponsored by the North East Community Development Centre (CDC), did not exist in the early days of openlectures. In 2009, “when it wasn’t called openlectures, we used to do it in a living room against a white wall and we would put mahjong paper in the background and wrote on it”, he said. “The light stand was someone holding a torch light and the mic was someone laying on the ground holding it. That was not sustainable but we had to do it.”

And openlectures slowly was born and became more professional as crucial lessons were learned along the way. He added: “We got a whiteboard and started doing lectures on it and did 10- to 20-minute lectures but people came back to us and said they were just too long. There were also different lecturers who had different writing styles which some couldn’t be read so we slowly standardised them into nice, fancy slides.”

Ze Xuan, who has been with the initiative since its earlier days, has taken on the running of the organisation, while founder Linan continues his undergraduate studies in the US and contributes at a distance, spearheading a project to expand openlectures to cover some of the US syllabus.

Positive feedback

“We have received very positive feedback of our site as well as constructive feedback on how we can explain certain things better. We have requests for certain videos which we try our best to accommodate. Right now Chemistry and Geography is our priority,” said Ze Xuan.

With all the feedback, the team keeps on improving the site. They have added a new section called ‘openquestions’, where students can pose questions and the team will get lecturers to answer them. Originally, they had a feedback channel on the site but responses were slow as sometimes a lecturer may be hard to contact and there were too many of the same questions. But with this open platform concept, hopefully more can view the questions and benefit from the answers.

As to whether the team will continue to be a part of it after they head off to their respective universities? Ze Xuan said that for now, their goal is to finish the ‘A’ level syllabus, and the rest can wait for the future. They recognise the good the site does and their passion continues to drive them.

Shared one of the volunteer lecturers, Daniel Mark, 18 who also assists in post-production: “I am passionate about Physics as I read a lot and really like to spread my love for the subject matter. There are things in the ‘A’ level syllabus that I find my perspective could help the students, hence me joining openlectures last year and later getting more involved in the operations of openlectures.”

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