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With some of our siblings forced into Home-Based Learning (HBL) over the past few weeks due to COVID-19, we recognise that it is a difficult period for them as they learn to cope with the rigours of the education system without the traditional systemic support offered when attending school and physical classes.
Further inquiry led us to realise that in spite of its necessity during this time of crisis, HBL has been less than sufficient for many students, especially those in lower socioeconomic groups. The added burden on teachers during this period to ensure that HBL does not impair the quality of education provided to students, along with their standard obligations of marking homework and preparing for lessons, effectively reduces their ability to deal with additional student queries and clarifications.
In a recent Straits Times article, Dr. Stephanie Chok, a director of research at a local charity, highlighted the effects of COVID-19 in widening inequality in Singapore. With many volunteer-run tuition services halting programmes due to the imposed lockdown measures, many students from needy families find themselves without alternative sources of academic expertise (i.e., private tutoring, etc.).
Research In view of the effect of COVID-19 on education in SIngapore, we searched for sources of help that were currently available for students and found two main categories of applications with a similar educational function.
The first category included for-profit programmes like Snapask that offer academic aid to students in exchange for monetary compensation, typically a subscription or single fee. They are safer than open platforms, and provide personalised responses to students. However, no data is published on past questions and answers publicly for students to access and learn. It is also difficult for financially needy students, highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of COVID-19, to access the service.
The second app category consisted of forums such as Quora and Reddit, which offer unmitigated access to any user to provide responses. Questions asked by anyone can be answered by anybody. Community voting drives agreed-upon answers to visibility while sending conflicted answers into obscurity.
In essence, there is no vetting process to maintain a quality in responses as anyone can provide an answer. There are also risks from interaction with strangers. This reduces the appeal of such platforms for young students, who may fear harassment or hostility, or be unsure of them. Since forums typically contain diverse topics of discussion, it may be difficult for students to navigate and find the specific communities or pages that address their academic queries within the context of the Singaporean education system. Lastly, there is no obligation for forum users to answer questions, and many queries are left insufficiently and even totally unanswered.
While they can be of legitimate help at times, we realised that both weren’t effective in supplementing the current HBL system for students to clarify their doubts. This prompted us to consider whether we could come up with a platform better suited for helping out local students.
How we built it
We made use of the Flutter SDK and developed two versions of the frontend mobile application, one for the student and one for the tutor. Using the flutter SDk, while currently we have only created an android app, exporting to web and IOS in the future would require few if any code changes.
We also incorporated the Firebase database, cloud storage and authentication to have an easy way for the app to store and call the data.
What it does
We wanted to create a “best of both worlds” and remove their respective disadvantages. Our proposed application seeks to be accessible and personalised while maintaining quality in response.
Tutelage is free of charge. Regardless of financial background, students can ask questions, search for past answers and chat with tutors without limitation, ensuring students have as much opportunity as possible to seek clarification. A local pool of vetted tutor volunteers ensure a quality of response regardless of question posed in a manner tailored to the needs of the local syllabus and importantly, the student. Notably, it mitigates the risk of inappropriate behaviour, which, if present, can be reported through a report feature that blocks the user and alerts administrators.
To incentivise the system for volunteer tutors, Tutelage bears elements of gamification, coming with a scoreboard that tracks the overall ratings of tutors to provide a sense of competition. Tutelage also allows professional tutors to advertise their tuition businesses on their profiles to attract them.
Our main challenge was finding ways for Tutelage was finding means of attracting and maintaining a consistent base of tutors. Ultimately we decided on two new features: gamification and creating a community.
For gamification, we gamified the process of answering questions, helping to incorporate an element of fun, competitiveness and excitement amongst the tutors. We decided to integrate a point system whereby tutors would gain points for answering questions, depending on the rating the student gives the tutor. Each tutor can then see how they rank among other tutors on a leaderboard system
We also created a featured questions tab, where students have the option to share the questions they asked and the answer that the tutor provided. We tried to invoke this sense of community, as tutors now also have the chance to have the answers featured, and thereby also incentivize them to make use of the platform more.
Accomplishment we are proud of
We are extremely proud of brainstorming together to come up with a problem that has affected all of us in one way or another. Coming out fresh from the Singaporean Education system, we all understand how stressful it would be for the current students who are going through the Home base Learning during the crisis. Because of this personal attachment to the issue, we were able to critically analyse the constraints the students have and how to formulate a solution that would best allow the students to reap the maximum benefits. Hence, Tutelage was born.
We are also proud of being able to work together as a team during such a time constrained challenge. Recognising the fact that each of us have different strengths, we believed in the principles of division of labour by Adam Smith and allocated our roles in accordance to our respective talents. This proved to be extremely beneficial, allowing us to expedite the process of accomplishing our respective roles.
What we learned
This experience taught us a great deal about working under timed pressure to plan and develop a coherent platform. In order to get a working prototype out in time, we had to split the workload effectively, which meant accounting for standardization issues and potential conflicts at the very beginning. We might have done this in internships and other projects before, but the time constraint of the hackathon was something unique to us, and required us to communicate constantly with each other throughout the development phase.
We also found it a meaningful experience as we learned to work alongside one another, navigate interpersonal issues and collaborate in a structured manner to effectively develop the project simultaneously.
This hackathon gave us an insight into the nature of innovation, as we realised that even a common style of application could be repurposed and redesigned to serve a common activity. We noticed how small changes to existing ideas impacted the feasibility of the overall project, specifically in how the demand for the service was specific.
What's next for Tutelage
With professional tuition teachers at risk of losing business, we may look at expanding into a social enterprise to provide relief for these professional tutors by creating an answer-questions-for-rewards scheme. As these rewards will be of monetary value, we may look into procuring grants from governmental sources. This will further help incentivise tutors to use the platform, reducing the response time experienced by students and hence drawing more users.
Lastly, this application can easily be tailored for other regions where educational access is limited by COVID-19, or simply local infrastructure. We will source for local tutors proficient in the local educational syllabus to personalise our services with the local student demographic.