A hybrid horizon


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THERE are no two ways about it; educational technology is the future for tertiary education.

The disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has shown just how important it is and while teaching on online platforms isn’t new to most universities, the pandemic has intensified their investment in it.

Taylor’s University deputy vice-chancellor and chief academic officer Prof Dr Pradeep Nair said such spendings will become as important as investments in a physical campus.

Echoing his sentiments, Sunway Education Group chief executive officer Prof Dr Elizabeth Lee said these investments are key for higher learning institutions (HEIs) to stay ahead as education providers and to ensure students are ready for a digitally and technologically driven world when they graduate.

Their insights are timely as a recent survey found that Malaysia is ranked highest among 21 countries for universities that stepped in to provide online learning resources, after in-person teaching was halted because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The poll, titled Global Student Survey, found that among the 21 countries surveyed, a total of 97% of Malaysian undergraduate students said their universities provided these resources, just ahead of China (96%), Indonesia (96%) and South Korea (95%) (see infographic).Published on Feb 26, the survey was carried out by Chegg.org, a nonprofit arm of education provider Chegg.

It polled 500 Malaysian undergraduate students from a total of almost 17,000 undergraduate students aged between 18 and 21.

StarEdu speaks to academics on the importance of investing in online education, their plans moving forward and how Malaysian varsities are faring in supporting online learning (see below):

AFTER the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) disrupted learning in schools and universities, Taylor’s University devised a plan.

It developed an e-Learning masterplan at a cost of almost RM50mil over five years.

“The objective was not only to enrich and complement face-to-face learning, but to prepare for a time like this, where a partial or full lockdown of the university and college might happen.

“We invested in a state-of-the-art Learning Management System, Lecture Capture System, remote communication tools and applications, expanded hardware capabilities and created over 1,000 course microsites, for each course taught in the university, ” Taylor’s University deputy vice-chancellor and chief academic officer Prof Dr Pradeep Nair said.

The varsity also trained its lecturers to use various platforms and software for recording, video editing, resource sharing, online collaborations, polling, assessments and to create virtual labs through its eLearning Academy team.

These learning innovations, he said, have won more than 35 national and international awards since 2012.

Online teaching and learning doesn’t necessarily mean fully online, however, as he believes in the need for human connection.Face-to-face learning, is just as important, he stressed.

It’s been a steep learning curve for Malaysian HEIs, and in a post-pandemic era, hybrid learning is the way forward, he said.

“Classroom learning will remain crucial but for different reasons.

“In a typical classroom, there are four dominant and critical activities; knowledge dissemination, knowledge validation, knowledge synthesis and knowledge assessment.

“Knowledge dissemination is the dominant activity in classrooms, leaving little time for validation, synthesis and formative assessments.

“Hybrid learning calls on instructors to teach less for content coverage and more for developing students holistically.

“With the aid of technology, learners can access lectures containing factual information well before the class, thus allowing class time to be used for activities that support the development of key skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, social competencies as well as one’s lifelong learning ability, ” he said.

There is a common misconception that online learning is inferior to face-to-face learning.

However, massive advancements in communications technology, he said, allows the virtual learning environment to be as effective as learning physically on campus.

Taylor’s University lecturers conduct lectures, tutorials and practical demonstrations synchronously in an engaging virtual classroom and has over 40,000 recorded lectures.

Each of the 1,000 microsite course site available has recorded lectures and features for e-tutoring, e-assessment and e-forums to provide students with the opportunity to access all learning materials, take tests, connect with their lecturers, collaborate with their peers and take charge of their learning, anytime and anywhere, he added.

“When online learning is designed well to include synchronous virtual face-to-face sessions, we find student attendance and class participation to be higher than when on campus.

“The learning is also much more personalised, as lecturers need to attend to the specific needs of each student.

“There is also no compromise on the learning outcomes and quality of learning. It is just a different way to learn, which I believe will become the new normal in higher education, as people begin to get used to it, ” he said.

Sunway University’s foray into the online learning environment began with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platform in 2018.

Prof Dr Elizabeth Lee, Sunway Education Group chief executive officer, said the varsity has since evolved and established other online avenues for their lecturers and students.

“For many years now, we have used Blackboard and Microsoft Teams to conduct live lessons (synchronous) as well as host recorded educational videos (asynchronous) for students to view at their own time, ” she said, adding that the varsity utilises an array of applications and platforms to meet its student outcome.

The higher education system must understand that technology moves at a fast pace, Prof Lee explained.

“As such, there is the need to constantly stay up-to-date with the latest teaching and learning platforms available.

“For this, we have to look into various aspects such as providing additional training for our lecturers to enhance their online teaching skills, ensuring adequate technical support is available and further investing in online support facilities and e-resources.”Online learning, she explained, provides students with the flexibility to learn at their own time, in their own space and at their own pace to a certain extent.

Students have the space to develop relevant technology and online social networking skills.

“As online learning opens the opportunity for students to work closely with peers from other different locations and cultures, students have greater opportunity to build their understanding of different cultures and what it takes to successfully work with people from different backgrounds.

“Well-structured online learning which anticipates students’ needs, and are inclusive in its design and delivery, can help prepare them for the job environment.

“The great thing about it is that it makes education accessible to more people, especially those who work and wish to improve themselves, ” she added.

The emergence of online learning platforms over the years has allowed varsities to spread their wings like never before, she said, as new innovative education pathways are a revolutionary model of learning and different from the conventional methods.

“We believe that the future of education is multi-dimensional, and one that fully utilises the resources and technologies available in the fourth industrial revolution.

“Face-to-face is still important, however, as it creates a different environment of the learning process.

“For young people, interaction is essential in helping them with communication skills.

“A wholesome tertiary education should encompass new experiences, opportunities to engage with other people who may or may not share the same views and perspectives, learning to work as a team and much much more.

“At the end of the day, human interaction is still an essential part of education.”Sunway University, she said, will be using hybrid learning this year to accommodate their students’ needs and to allow them to continue their learning, either online or face-to-face.

The question that lingers, however, is how to refine the balance between online and face-to-face in a post-pandemic environment.

“It also depends on students, as different students have different preferences and different types of learning approaches.

“Some might prefer to sit in for lectures at night, which only works for online learning, while some prefer to sit in for face-to-face classes.

“We also have to be mindful of the digital divide. Not all students have laptops or access to good Internet connection.

“As such, the hybrid approach ensures that we are certain the gap doesn’t widen, ” she added.

While many foresee online learning to be the norm, Prof Lee said the learning experience gained from face-to-face as well as experiential learning through human interaction will still be the preferred option.

Overall, Malaysian varsities have been performing well in providing online learning support, she said, adding that Sunway University’s Academic Enhancement Division team has conducted training workshops and come up with online delivery and alternative assessments guidelines for their lecturers.

“A recent Covid-19 Response Barometer survey by i-Graduate shows that Sunway University students’ online learning experience satisfaction was above the global satisfaction rate.

“While the global overall satisfaction rate was 66%, Sunway University had a higher than average satisfaction rate at 76%.

“A number of tools and platforms were acquired by the university in 2020 to support online teaching and learning.

“The university management’s proactive response to the pandemic and recommendations to enhance students’ online learning experience has resulted in five new recording rooms to further support the production of high-quality educational videos, ” she said.

The way forward, as Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) deputy vice-chancellor (academic and international) Prof Dr M. Iqbal Saripan sees it, is straightforward.

The varsity has a three-fold plan ready in its pipeline.

It plans to increase the adoption of technology in their courses to its full capacity, to increase the quality of online delivery of course content and to incorporate more efficient online assessment.

“UPM has invested significantly in upgrading our network as well as developing our system as we have a comprehensive learning management system called Putrablast and PutraMOOC as our Massive Open Online Courses system.

“Online learning, either on its own or through hybrid learning which incorporates face-to-face lessons, is the way forward and so, it is important that every institution invests in online learning tools.

“It is also equally important that every institution invests in training, ” he added.

Putrablast was developed internally and launched in 2015. It delivers learning content, teaching and learning evaluation, and progress tracking and monitoring of the learning process in UPM.

By conducting lectures and tutorials virtually, students will have access to many interactive activities and unlimited lecture resources from the Internet, he said.

This further allows the teaching process to be more interesting as well, and up to date.

“Lab and field sessions in universities can be continued via the face-to-face approach as we want our graduates to have practical experience before entering the job market.

“While some programmes are designed to be delivered fully online, such as distance learning, others especially the social sciences, can be delivered either fully online, hybrid or fully face-to-face, depending on the design of the programmes, ” he said, adding that UPM introduced blended learning in 2019.

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