Online education in a time of crisis


THE recent directive by the Higher Education Ministry to suspend all face-to-face exams and classes as well as online lessons has been met with questions and even defiance from private universities. Those who question the directive have some legitimate issues, but I am afraid those defying it are also trapped in a “traditional classroom construct” in understanding what online education in a time of “emergency” may mean.

It is a fact that most public and private universities are ill prepared for online learning because of their “comfort zone” of doing things in the same way. Now that the Covid-19 emergency situation has come up, many think that online learning is easy and you just need an Internet connection. Well, that is completely not so on the ground.

I have some solutions and suggestions to the Covid-19 issue on university education.

Firstly, classes with two-thirds of their syllabus delivered should call it a day and end at that point. The final assignments must be redesigned to fit the new scope, thus no more online learning is required. However, lecturers must start thinking and preparing their lectures in video format for next semester as I foresee this emergency will not be over in a few weeks.

Secondly, the remainder of the syllabus of a subject can be made up next semester in some way. This action can be explained to the accreditation bodies as a one-off situation. I am sure the relevant accreditation bodies will understand.

Thirdly, I think all final exams should be cancelled except the ones that are really critical for graduating students. These may be postponed and the students will have to accept their slightly late graduation dates. Final exams must be turned into final assignments that have individual characteristics unique to each submission. For instance, in Architectural Theory, students must choose to write a critical essay on one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 600 buildings and its lessons for Malaysia. No two submission can be on the same building. The lecturers can produce a clear outline on how to write the paper.

Fourthly, all issues of attendance of students must be suspended. I found that lecturers are struggling with management, insisting that students must show attendance. I would consider that students who have attended nine weeks of my 14-week classes as having a serious intention to study, and thus have an acceptable completion of attendance.

Next, online learning must be understood as an independent learning experience. If the lecturers can post enough material online, let the students read or listen or watch these materials at their own leisure. The key is the assignment must possess individual answers and not a common one to prevent students from copying their friends’ work. Questions must be creative enough to seek the student’s opinion, preferably based on their own upbringing and common reading of the material.

Warn the students that if you find any duplication of answers with other students, both parties can be failed. My Architectural Theory exams in the past have always been “open book”. No one can answer the essay questions if they have not read the articles and chapters in the book or have not been following my philosophy lectures live or on audio power point. Similarly, if a student never attended my structure classes, they won’t know how to use the exercise books that I created for the subject.

Fifthly, we must recognise that this is an emergency-ad hoc response of teaching within an emergency outbreak. Everyone, students and lecturers alike, has to deal with 100 things that are now different in their lives and they need time to cope and adjust. University management must not demand peace-time situations of attendance, lectures and exams. Our world has been turned upside down and we must deal with it the best way we can.

Sixth, universities must now start on a real plan or unorthodox teaching and campus-less presence if the outbreak and emergency last another six months. Our ingenuity, experimentation and tolerance can overcome this issue and place us on a better plateau of learning – one we were too lazy or too narrow-minded to contemplate before.

Different times call for different solutions and different expectations. Do not force traditional expectations just because the Internet and technology seem to present us with easy tools. There are many ways of learning, teaching and evaluating students. We just have to think outside the box.

PROF DR MOHD TAJUDDIN MOHD RASDI

Kuala Lumpur


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