Home-based learning is part of the new normal that Covid-19 has thrust on us.

Like it or loathe it, students (and parents!) have had to adapt. For some lower-income groups, it has also exposed some of the challenges of unequal access to resources.

While there is help from both the Government and volunteer organisations to supply needy students with laptops and computers for home-based learning, there has not been much support for students for doing the actual studying.

The quintet of teenagers, comprising Ryan Tan, Ethan Quek, James Lim, Lee Han Wei and Lim Wei Lun, came up with the free online tutor matching service that connects students with volunteers as they are having their HBL in Singapore
(Clockwise from top left) Ethan, Han Wei, Ryan, James and Wei Lun.

But while some see crises as problems to overcome, others see opportunities. Like the group of friends who started Learnpanion. The quintet of teenagers, comprising Ryan Tan, Ethan Quek, James Lim, Lee Han Wei and Lim Wei Lun, came up with the free online tutor matching service that connects students with volunteers.

Ryan, 19, tells the Pride that he was inspired by the closure of schools for HBL before the start of the circuit breaker.

He says: “I know many parents and students were feeling stressed and that spurred me to start the service.”

Surprise at number of volunteer tutors signing up

The group started off with the intent of helping needy students but Ryan says that they do not turn away anyone who asks for help. Not only that, the team was pleasantly surprised by the response from people who wanted to volunteer their time and efforts.

“Our initiative started out with the intent to help students from low-income families. However, due to the overwhelming response from volunteers, we expanded to help all students who are struggling with their studies or just need a companion to facilitate their learning.”

This includes students from overseas as well. A student from the UK asked the team if there were anyone who could help him with his German classes and Ryan, who coincidentally speaks the language, is planning to tutor him once they work out the time zone details.

Ryan shares that most of the tutors have just graduated from junior college or are in university while the students are in secondary school and JC. To date, he tells the Pride, Learnpanion has paired about 100 tutors and students.

And the process is simple.

Soh Wei Jie, a first-year JC student, came across Learnpanion on Instagram and signed up on the website. He was paired with Han Wei, who, like Ethan, James and Ryan (Wei Lun is from Dunman High), graduated from RI last year.

The duo work together once a week on Physics and Chemistry.

Wei Jie tells Pride that the 90-minute Skype session is informal and flexible.

He explains: “I WhatsApp Han Wei my questions and he goes through them with me. He will try to explain the theory and illustrate his thoughts and solution on a piece of paper. He also provides me with a vivid structure on various types of approach for different questions and I believe that with more constant practice, I will be more confident in the exams.”

Free online tutoring sessions for the needy as Singapore students are having HBL
Han Wei (top) and Wei Jie talk about JC life as well as academic subjects. / Image credit: Soh Wei Jie.

And the tutoring process is not a one-way street either. Through the sessions, Han Wei says, he has learned to be a better tutor. He explains: “I learned how to be coherent in my explanations and how to vocalise my thoughts as concisely as possible, as certain concepts in Physics and Chemistry may be harder to illustrate with words.”

Since the relationship is informal, sometimes the sessions come across almost like a study buddy or a mentoring session.

Wei Jie says that the two of them don’t just talk about the subjects.

“As someone who just started my JC life, I’m not always clear of what to expect. It is always cool when Han Wei shares his experience as an alumni.”

That said, each study pairing is up to the discretion of the tutor and tutee. Learnpanion takes a more hands-off approach apart from the initial link-up.

Explains Ryan: “We do not have a strict vetting process, but we encourage parents to attend at least one session with their child to ensure that the tutor does not display unsavoury behaviour. We also have a feedback form for students to share their experiences with us and we have many students who gave an ‘excellent’ rating to their tutors.”

Sessions are conducted over Zoom or Skype as Singapore's students have their HBL
Sessions are conducted over Zoom or Skype. / Image credit: Lee Han Wei

Protecting against misuse

Wary of abuse, the team also has several safeguards to protect the personal information of both tutors and tutees.

Says Ryan: “We have guidelines and protocols for both tutors and students to follow and we will not hesitate to take action if there is any breach of the rules. We filter through the sign up forms to detect any suspicious sign ups. We also do not disclose personal information unless we have explicit consent from the parties involved.”

He recounts how they had to turn away a student from Australia.

“She expected us to do her homework for her! We are trying to facilitate students’ learning but not to encourage students to rely on answers from tutors without any interest to learn.”

Ryan is serving his National Service now and so the daily running of the site has fallen to the rest of the team. While the team does not need much to run the site, Learnpanion has a Give.Asia donation page to help underprivileged families served by social service agencies Beyond Social Services and Children’s Wishing Well as they tide through the tough Covid-19 period.

“Our vision is to build a kinder global community,” says Ryan. “Our priority is still focused on helping Singapore students but we do believe that kindness should be extended beyond our shores. We have reached out to a few organisations in the US and are working out on the details.”

“We hope to reach out to more students, especially since it is clear now that life will not be back to normal so soon. There is a lot of anxiety because situations are so uncertain and we hope to alleviate students’ stress from school work and provide relief to their parents who are also facing pressures of working from home.”

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Top Image: Learnpanion