A report card on online learning – the higher education perspective

Published on 29 Jan 2021

Just as with most aspects of life, the education sector has been adversely affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic. In a matter of weeks, higher education institutions (HEIs) were forced to rethink their mode of teaching, especially when the government instituted its first phase of lockdowns in the form of movement control orders (MCO) which prevented students and academic staff from returning to their campuses.

As traditional forms of teaching involve face-to-face contact, thus risk hastening the spread of the virus, physical classes were suspended during the MCO. To resolve this, HEIs have taken to online learning. Several months on, this mode of teaching using web meeting softwares have become second nature in the global community. These e-tools typically used for social and corporate meetings have allowed for some form of learning interaction to continue.

But has online learning been effective?

A survey conducted by i-graduate, an education research organisation, sought to determine levels of student satisfaction towards online learning. The survey, the COVID-19 Response Barometer, provides an international perspective from 24,000 students from Thailand, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Globally, 68% of respondents indicated their satisfaction with online learning experiences.

Malaysia leaned more towards the positive with 75% of respondents indicating their satisfaction towards their HEIs in providing these facilities. The issue then is to examine why the remaining 25% were dissatisfied and what measures can be done to improve their learning conditions.

Another study by the KSI Strategic Institute for Asia Pacific sought to examine if Malaysian students based in locally-based HEIs have altered their studying plans due to the pandemic. Its survey found that the virus and MCO had minimal effect on the plans of students, with an overwhelming 90.7% having no plans of differing or dropping out of their programmes. The most cited reason is a reluctance to delay with studies, which in turn would affect their careers. This is made possible due to the fact that their lessons are able to continue remotely through an online medium, something which would have been impossible to do in a time before the internet.

Despite the increased use of online learning solutions in recent times, we must not lose sight of the fact that such modes of learning have existed even prior to COVID-19 as distance learning students who are based off-campus use this option. While the use of online learning has become commonplace and is part and parcel of 21st-century learning, a concept where education can be obtained completely online remains an uncommon phenomenon as most HEIs are more accustomed to physical classes.

The sudden shift towards online learning has exposed several weaknesses. Students, especially those in less developed areas experience poor internet connectivity. This issue can even manifest in major cities and urban centres that are not immune to poor broadband services or have poor mobile coverage. This is further complicated by a lack of finances to sustain mobile data subscriptions. Even if the infrastructure in telecommunications exists, some students may face the issue of hardware, being unable to afford a computer, laptop, or a mobile phone that can support a web meeting software’s requirement. Hence, having the right hardware and infrastructure to support online learning is often beyond a student’s control.

There is also the matter of the new classroom – homes. Many students have commented that their homes are not the ideal learning environment. Lower-income families such as those in the Bottom 40 (B40) live in small and crowded settings. This lacks privacy, a major limitation when online discussions are taking place. Family members, all of whom are stranded at home due to the lockdown, in the same room watching television or engaging in other activities may prove distracting.

Several students commented that the home environment creates a lack of discipline and motivation to self-learn, which is otherwise present in a HEI’s environment. The absence of peers who generate excitement within and beyond the classroom further contributes to the lack of motivation and a sense of competition as students are unable to take notice of each other’s grades and classroom performance.

While much attention is focused on students, it is equally important to evaluate how much online learning has had an effect on the effectiveness of teaching. Unsurprisingly, it has been equally challenging for lecturers and tutors to conduct their lessons online.

The most evident challenge is difficulties in explaining lessons in the same level of detail using digital means, which in turn affects the student’s ability to fully understand the lesson. Such challenges often stem from a lack of digital proficiency. This is further complicated by the fact that lecturers themselves have to work from home, further denying them access to the necessary equipment, materials, and IT support necessary to improve their teaching delivery.

Despite online learning becoming commonplace, not all lectures are recorded. Extra effort should be undertaken to document these lessons and have them posted on the HEIs portals for student reference. While notes and written materials are often available, having recordings of lectures will allow students to gauge the expressions of their lecturers when they explain their lessons. Facial expressions and tone of voice provide additional sensory information which adds to the effectiveness of learning.

While lessons in certain fields of studies such as those in the business and social sciences can be conducted online, areas that require practical classes such as science, engineering, and technical and vocational training have found themselves in more difficult positions as teaching and learning such subjects require a more hands-on form of learning, especially when specialised tools, equipment, and materials are involved.

Feedback from students who have no means of progressing in their studies should they not be allowed to return to their campuses has been more desperate. Restricted movements have limited the ability of final-year students, such as those in the field of science, to access samples, leading to inaccuracies in their analysis and findings. This may then have an effect on a student’s overall average grade which then affects their employability. Students in this predicament have called for leniency from their HEIs.

Internship programmes, a requirement for graduation by Malaysian public HEIs, have been difficult to carry out effectively. Certain industries, especially those involved with tourism, have been fighting for survival, let alone be able to allocate resources to their internship programmes. Students from science and engineering require a hands-on internship programme in order to obtain practical experience which their future employers will prefer – something a remote internship programme is simply unable to provide.

As much as online learning has provided a lifeline for HEIs to carry on their programmes, the fact that the learning experience has become predominantly digital also presents complications to HEIs in terms of overall learning value and experience. A common theme that emerged across institutions in Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia is for a reduction in tuition fees as students are unable to enjoy the same access to facilities they had prior to COVID-19. This presents a dilemma to HEIs needing to find a balance between charging a reasonable fee to students while managing a HEI’s income and expenditure to carry out its necessary functions as an institution of learning. Should a HEI’s income not be sufficient, it could affect the hiring of staff and compromise the quality of teaching which is ultimately disadvantageous to students.

Despite its initial shortcomings, online learning has provided a lifeline for teaching and learning to continue in light of travel restrictions. The pandemic has served as an opportunity to innovate the learning experience and could signal the permanent end to large-scale lectures. Present gaps with online learning methods can and must be expanded and improved upon to incorporate the practical aspects of learning.

This by no means suggests a permanent migration to online learning, especially beyond the pandemic as the higher education learning experience should involve the crucial aspects of kinship and socialising. Students and indeed their lecturers do this best through face-to-face interactions and less so online. Hence, the brick and mortar campus will continue to play a major role, especially given the need for the science, engineering, and TVET courses to have a more hands-on learning experience.

With the elimination of face-to-face lectures due to online learning, there will be greater opportunities for more meaningful face-to-face interactions with smaller tutorial groups. A hybrid solution will allow basic learning materials to be delivered online, presenting cost savings and greater efficiency in accessing learning materials online, not to mention more environmentally friendly.

 


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