The outbreak of the coronavirus (Covid-19) on 18th March 2020 in Malaysia caused an unprecedented series of events, one of them being the implementation of the movement control order MCO. The lockdowns have forced universities to fully adopt online teaching and learning (T&L) for the safety of faculty members and students alike. This new normal or norm of teaching, which is on a completely different spectrum compared to the traditional T&L or face-to-face mode, has put remarkable pressure on university lecturers, IPTAs, and IPTs in general for various reasons. Rapid changes were suddenly demanded from university educators as an immediate response to the globally threatening pandemic. These abrupt changes have had a direct and lasting impact on tertiary education in Malaysia.
Apprehension and scepticism: these were amongst the many emotions that haunted lecturers when the new normal was first introduced. Even though many e-tools and platforms were readily available to “replace” the traditional face-to-face T&L, the transition to online teaching appeared to be more challenging than expected due to several reasons: (i) internet stability or reliability issues amongst students; (ii) abnormally large consumption of mobile data, which was too costly for disadvantaged students; (iii) no internet connection in rural areas, leading to a gap between students in these locations and urban-dwelling students; (iv) lack or unavailability of suitable electronic devices such as computers or laptops; (v) students’ total dependency on mobile phones for learning; and (vi) lack of knowledge, skills or confidence amongst lecturers to shift to online teaching. Some of the inherent issues still persist, especially the absence of or unreliable internet connection and lack of online devices among underprivileged students, despite various efforts and aid provided by the government and university management. Nonetheless, academics have been remarkably innovative and proactive, consistently on the search for alternatives to overcome these limitations to ensure no learners are left out in the madness of online learning.
Approaches to tackle the rapid change - Online trainings and webinars
Interactive webinars and sharing sessions of online resources, which are an integral part of online learning, have been organized by universities to impart confidence amongst lecturers to conduct online T&L. The usage of a wide spectrum of online T&L tools was introduced to give variations to academics in designing T&L. These webinars allowed lecturers to choose appropriate T&L activities for implementation according to the background and level of students. The Centre for Applied Learning and Multimedia (CALM) compiled a compendium of online teaching resources for academics in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas). One major highlight of these webinars was that it allowed lecturers to attend virtual courses organized by other universities without involving travelling, which was not even possible prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. This was a positive development in what has been mainly the “negative” impact of the corona virus. This provided a platform for lecturers to learn from the experts and exchange ideas without having the need to travel from one location to another.
Blended learning which has been practiced over these years came in handy for the online teaching due to the familiarity of T&L tools amongst lecturers. Lecturers were able to quickly adapt to the changes that were taking place, and the skills acquired from virtually attending courses benefitted them in many ways. In blended learning, face-to-face activities are balanced with online activities to create meaningful students’ experiences. Typically, in face-to-face meetings or settings, active real time engagement would be the focus. In Unimas, the learning management system (LMS) known as eLEAP (e-Learning Enrichment and Advancement Platform) is used as an official interface for updating T&L materials which varies with IPTA/IPTS, although all of them play the same role. External tools used as a part of online resources and activities can be embedded into eLEAP or any other LMS. In addition, well-packaged and readily available MOOC and OCW courses can be also applied for online T&L. In the case of online teaching, platforms such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Webex are used. These platforms act as tools or mediums for conducting T&L. In order to ensure effective communication between learners and lecturers, WhatsApp, Telegram, and other chat tools are utilized.
Challenges and struggle: innovative ways to deliver online T&L
The struggle and pressure of online T&L are real. It’s not only about giving lectures for hours using PowerPoint or other tools such as Keynote, Prezi, and Canva; it’s also about planning and investing time in preparing materials, activities, and assessments in line with the course learning outcomes (CLOs). Lecturers are also required to prepare pre-recorded videos, particularly in the event of students having poor internet connection to allow them to have access to the lecture anytime and anywhere. Preparing a recorded video based on a PowerPoint presentation or materials can be a daunting task. Another major challenge to be dealt with is transforming hands on practical or experimental sessions to a virtual laboratory with augmented reality applications, or producing relevant and high-quality videos to provide and assess the psychomotor domain amongst learners. Many lecturers have been extremely proactive in producing quality materials to maximize students’ psychomotor or practical learning experience. Live lab sessions are also performed; however, this may be a drawback for students having poor or unreliable internet access. For sciences, another approach referred to as “home-based experiments or projects” were also implemented by academics as an alternative way to provide a hands-on approach to students by using tools, home or surrounding environment or chemicals available at home. Although this might not be an ideal approach, innovative approaches have been somewhat able to at least mimic the real experiment in the lab, and a field approach such as sampling with the guidance of educators.
Service Learning Malaysia – University for Society (SULAM) courses offer experiential education, which is conducted for students to provide service to the community by offering a solution to community-identified problems or concerns. It allows students to apply knowledge gained in the classroom to real world applications and to develop social responsibility. Before Covid-19 hit the world, the implementation of SULAM was rather straightforward as students were able to hold face-to-face meetings with the concerned community and come out with potential solutions. However, since the new normal, an electronic form of SULAM (e-SULAM) has been conducted to engage with community partners by online means or platforms. For example, students were assigned to create awareness videos on mental health for university students in facing online T&L, develop educational materials for webinars on food waste management by households, podcasts about the importance of mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, online coaching for teachers on STEM education, and others. So far, the switch to e-SULAM to realize the High Impact Educational Practices (HIEPs) outlined in the Malaysia Educational Blueprint 2015-2025 has been successful, but lack of emotional interaction or connection remains a major setback as “human connections” only partially exist in online platforms.
As far as examinations are concerned, paper and pencil-based exams have been transformed into online examinations. For example, the management of Unimas made a proactive move by providing access to eLEAP Exam, a platform specifically for conducting examinations. Exams must be meticulously designed to assess students’ understanding based on the course CLOs and domains associated to the CLOs, be it cognitive, affective, or psychomotor. Open book exams, quizzes or multiple-choice questions, and take-home examinations are examples of commonly performed final assessments. Besides this, alternative assessments are also gradually emerging to replace the traditional examination process. Examples of alternative assessments are portfolio, project-based assignment, problem-based assignment, and concept maps, just to name a few. Designing alternative assessments requires thoughtful (thorough) planning and meaningful rubrics which should complement the assessment to ensure fairness, particularly in the current situation.
Impact of online T&L on academics and students
It is not an exaggeration to claim that new norm teaching has taken a physical and emotional toll among academics as well as the learners. Stress, poor mental health, computer-induced health issues such as back pain, muscle pain, and eye fatigue due to long hours spent in front of computers and gadgets are all common effects of full-time online T&L. From the students’ point of view, complaints or concerns that have been shared include loneliness as they are forced to stay at home, difficulty in balancing between household matters or chores with learning-related activities such as completing assignments and preparing for examinations, inability to experience campus life, lack of emotional support or understanding from parents due to overwhelming household chores, lack of financial support for T&L purposes, lack of facility for online learning, poor mental health, absence of face-to-face interactions with peers, no balance between academics and extra co-curricular activities, and many more.
Lessons learned and the way forward – is online T&L here to stay?
It was emotionally and physically overwhelming to digest the sea of information at the initial shifting phase from traditional teaching to online T&L. Although it has been a year since most institutions of higher learning embarked on online teaching (from MCO 1.0 to MCO 3.0), many academics are making progressive improvement by continuously learning new tools by testing the suitability of available tools, given that there is no one-size-fits-all approach or pedagogy due to diversity and the background of students, which changes over the years and with each semester. University students have also been adapting well to the changes that have taken place in the Malaysian tertiary education system. The unexpected paradigm shift that has taken place in the education system is quite remarkable, although things can be improved during the National Recovery Plan. The outcomes attained thus far have revealed that online T&L has been successful in universities despite some hiccups and limitations. The way how we perceive teaching has also changed, and we have wholeheartedly accepted the changes. The T&L process can be conducted in online settings by maintaining students’ attention and motivation, where learning can indeed be efficient, effective, and fun at the same time. By leveraging technology, the efficiency of online learning can be heightened; however, resources and facilities need to be available to everyone, especially those from a disadvantaged background so that everyone can benefit from the progress.
Looking at the current situation, online T&L appears to be here to stay for some time. Ideally, blending both online and face-to-face meetings and lectures would be the best approach as it was prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, to strike a balance in the absence of face-to-face communication, educators should preserve emotional connections and empathy with students while embracing online T&L. We need to believe that this condition shall pass soon, and that we are in it together to build a “technologically and humanly” balanced society and nation.
Illustration on the effect of Covid-19 on the university T&L
by AP Dr Devagi Kanakaraju