A reckoning for online learning in times of crisis


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  • Tuesday, 24 Mar 2020

Despite online learning being part of Malaysia’s education system, the Covid-19 crisis has shown that educators need to step up

THE worsening Covid-19 situation has led to the closure of schools and universities around the world, impacting millions of students.

In Malaysia, this equates to 4.9 million school students and 1.2 million in higher education institutions (across public and private universities, polytechnics, and community colleges), including about 130,000 international students (some who returned home before the movement control order).

Naturally, focus has turned to online learning as more than just a substitute to ensure that education continues.

“Online learning and online education are no longer an option – it’s a must, ” says Professor Dr Abdul Karim Alias (pic), director of the Centre for Development of Academic Excellence (CDAE), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

A professor of food technology, he is one of Malaysia’s foremost online learning experts, having embarked on digital education over 17 years ago.

In a March 23 Facebook post, USM announced that it would be extending its online learning approach for 14 weeks – until Sept 6,2020 – as part of its continued efforts to combat the Covid-19 spread.

Part of this move also involves limited campus access for its 14,000+ students.

For Prof Karim, there is a huge responsibility on his shoulders to ensure that USM can deliver – and beyond that, make good of the promise and potential of online learning.

Challenges remain

Online learning itself is not new and has been around for a long time. In Malaysia, early iterations of online learning can be traced back to the 1990s as part of online distance learning movements.

In the 2000s, there was 1Bestari.net for schools while in 2014, the Malaysia MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) initiative was launched through a collaboration between Meipta (the Malaysian Council for e-Learning Heads) and OpenLearning (a public-listed Australia based edtech company which I was attached to between 2018 and 2020).

I’ve even written about the topic back in 2016 – yep, this column has been around since 2014!

Despite these initiatives, there are still dire necessities for an overall efficient system that still need to be fulfilled.

According to Prof Karim, the top three challenges are (i) experience and skill of educators in using online system and online applications; (ii) the state of readiness of the infrastructure, for example, Internet connectivity, bandwidth and devices; and (iii) the evolving mindset (both of educators and students).

“Changing mindset is perhaps the most difficult challenge – especially among educators who have been resistant towards adopting technology and online learning, ” he says.

An online awakening for Malaysia

Nevertheless, Prof Karim also views this current scenario as a moment of reckoning of sorts for three reasons:

First, it is an awakening. Online learning is no longer viewed as an option for only a realm of technological-savvy educators. It’s for everyone, from primary school teachers to anyone involved in teaching, and is probably the only option during this confinement.

It underlines the fact that we are living in the 21st-century and educating 21st-century learners.

Second, we are facing the hard truth of the state of our readiness. According to Prof Karim, only one-third of USM lecturers were fully prepared to conduct online teaching. Some have not even done the basic of logging into the learning management system, “so how could they even integrate online or attempt e-learning as part of a blended learning approach?” he notes.

This is despite the fact that Malaysia MOOCs programme was initiated in 2014 and other learning management systems such as Moodle (2002) and Blackboard (1997) have been around for a while.

Another setback is the lack of a comprehensive digital blueprint that integrates services, systems, databases, academics, and related research – making it hard to mobilise resources and plan for emergency situations like Covid-19.

Third, there is a need for better-designed learning modules and experiences for the students.

Prof Karim says: “From this experience, hopefully the academics will begin to see the importance and significance of online learning design in providing and enhancing the learning experience of the students.

“They will be better prepared with the skills they have acquired to integrate online learning seamlessly to complement the face-to-face class using a blended learning approach.”

An arising concern is the digital divide. About 10% of students (and even lecturers) do not have an Internet connection at home – due to cost, infrastructure, etc.

Although we have come a long way in terms of Internet penetration and smartphone ownership, Prof Karim believes that universities must be proactive and provide special support to students and staff who need it.

Industry can play a role too. In some countries, Internet service providers are giving free data to students for educational purposes.

Resources and opportunities abound

It goes without saying that you can learn almost anything online today.

Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has launched an online course to support country preparedness and response to Covid-19.

Imagine an online class that educates students about addressing Covid-19, its worldwide implications, and how to plan moving forward – certainly a good use of time during the movement control order (MCO).

In fact, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine already has such a course.

Companies and organisations like Scribd, Audible Stories, Cambridge University Press, and Jstor have announced that their services, including e-books, textbooks, audiobooks, research journals, and more, will be available for free for a certain period.

LinkedIn Learning allows employees to learn new skills from home while OpenLearning is providing six months’ free access to educators embarking on their online journey.

With all these international offerings, Malaysia has to reflect on what online learning means within our education system.

An opportunity for Malaysia

For Malaysian students and educators, this is an opportunity to “enculture” a new love for learning. Online learning is more than just videos, quizzes and PDF files being uploaded. It’s about lifelong learning.

In fact, Prof Karim crafted Malaysia’s micro-credential guidelines and runs its first micro-credential site aptly name learning4life.usm.my.

The art of online learning design is growing around the world. Pedagogical approaches such as social constructivism recognise the most important elements of Bloom’s taxonomy (i.e. students learn best by doing and retain the least if the learning is passive).

In short, if we empower our students to take ownership of their own learning, they’ll be better learners – and the current Covid-19 situation necessitates us thinking long and hard about this.

A well-known saying is that educators need a mindset shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

And if we truly get serious and dedicate paramount importance that online learning deserves, we should be able to future-proof our education system – during the good times and the especially bad.

(On a closing note, I wish all our frontliners, doctors, nurses, emergency response teams the best. Thank you for all your efforts. Stay strong.)

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Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman

Danial Rahman has education close to his heart. He tweets at @danial_ari and welcomes feedback at danialrahman0330@gmail.com.

   

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