Charting a new education pathway

I WAS asked by Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) to look at higher education in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. I am not an educator. Perhaps they wanted a perspective of an “outsider” who is as passionate as anyone about education.

UTHM started as Institut Teknologi Tun Hussein Onn and later Kolej Universiti Tun Hussein Onn. It became a full-fledged university in 2007. UTHM is a new kid on the higher education block, but nevertheless it aspires to be the best. Like all other universities, the pandemic was a wake-up call for UTHM.

Not all universities are equal. There are 20 public universities in the country and they are not on the same footing. The pandemic impacted new universities like UTHM more than the more established public universities. I am sure UTHM is fully aware of its vulnerabilities and putting in place various plans to manage the crisis.

Most private universities however have the financial might to mitigate the impact. Many have the infrastructure and eco-system to weather any situation. Of course, some are badly hit in terms of

student admission, especially those dependent on foreign students. Borders are closed and adherence to strict standard operating procedure (SOP) is suffocating enough from the business point of view.

The truth is all universities are grappling with the consequences of the pandemic. All universities are scurrying to make adjustments. The bad news is some are less fortunate than others. The pandemic has shown the best and the worse in university management. So too the responses from the ministry.

There must be a sea-change of attitude in troubling times like these. Higher education needs total rethinking from now on. Educators must chart a new pathway for the future. Covid-19 is a new marker of infamy for institutions of higher learning. Education will never be the same again.

The immediate reaction understandably for the ministry when the pandemic hit it is to close the universities and send the students home. Ideally, despite the lockdowns, students should be able to have access to education wherever they are. No time should be wasted. The four-month lockdown should not deprive students of their classes – virtual and online.

But it is easier said than done. Many public university students do not even own a laptop. Even if they do, Internet access in many rural areas is still poor. Sadly, the digital divide is still a reality. In short, education is interrupted. Borderless learning experience is still a dream for many. Digital literary for all is still many years to come.

Fortunately for mankind, the Covid-19 pandemic happened during the Information Era. Technological advancement has catapulted humankind to a new sphere of achievements. We are part of the digital revolution when this happened. Despite that the pandemic has brought humanity to its knees.

Educators have to understand the new digital transformational trends at their disposal now. The first principle is to migrate from the aged-old concept of teaching culture to learning culture. The dynamics of learning are fast changing. The pedagogical imperatives need reinventing. Technology is not cheap but it will also help to reign in the escalating cost of education in future.

The “classroom” scenario is no more the kind that my fellow students and I encountered when we joined the University of Malaya in 1974. Technology is already taking over the classes. There are opportunities for personalised learning.

Customised technological platforms must be developed. Learning spaces are being redesigned. More importantly, artificial intelligence (AI) is playing a significant part of education. The whole process of redrawing the curriculum to be relevant with the current and future demands must be done.

There is opportunity in adversity. The pandemic has redefined the idea of “flexibility” and “adjustments”. University administrators must be able to learn from the crisis to better prepare for the future. We are not sure when the dust will settle. It looks like a protracted war ahead.

The road ahead is littered with dangers. But plan they must to survive. This is the time for creativity and innovation. On that score it is an opportunity for a young university like UTHM to be on a level playing field with the more established ones.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist,

editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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