Tuesday, March 2

Are we all ready to succeed in our online learning?

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IT is all very well and good and safe as the coronavirus continues to take its toll as we are forced to go online for our learning – as schools and other educational institutions continue to be closed for now and the foreseeable future.

But how ready are we? Is everything in place? Have we reached a stage where we can say that it will be a smooth transition between face to face in the classroom to online communication via devices connected to an efficient and swift internet?

Let’s start with the basics.

As recent as April 2020, a Ministry of Education report found 36.9 per cent of students nationwide do not possess any electronic device.

According to the findings, only 6 per cent of students have their own computers, 5.67 per cent own tablets, 9 per cent own laptops, and 46 per cent have smartphones. The research had involved 1.57 million Malaysians – 670,000 parents and 900,000 students, throughout Malaysia.

Simply put, without the very basic tools it is an uphill battle to transition smoothly from traditional face to face learning to the new normal which has been implemented for more than six months since the middle of last year. Even with an ideal situation as and when we may reach a 100 per cent penetration, whereby every student at every strata of learning has access to a device, we will also be faced with the many other issues involved. Let’s go through them one by one.

It won’t take long for everyone to get used to non-physical, non-face-to-face teaching and learning as the young usually adapt extremely quickly to changes in their habits and everyday routine; and online learning will be acceptable quite readily and speedily. Some old fashioned teachers may need to take a little bit longer as many teaching techniques may not be of any use anymore. Certainly one of the more important ones will be how to physically discipline students if they play truant, do not pay attention, or even misbehave in other ways while online.

Students too will have their own issues – distractions are aplenty when they are online learning from the comfort of their homes, especially if they are from a big family and living with other family members, even more challenging with younger kids and even babies around, and compounding that if their living space is somewhat limited with nowhere else to retreat for peace, quiet, and a classroom-like stillness and silence. Concentration on their studies is a real problem.

For the younger ones, the long stretches of screen time can prove boring and their attention span would most likely sway if short breaks are not given. This would be coupled with the child’s lack of focus when many teachers’ intuitive methods are hindered due to the limited physical interaction that they’d normally get in a physical classroom. Already the total lack of any social interaction with other classmates is something completely foreign to a growing child. There will also be a very steep learning curve when it comes to initially being taught how to operate and utilise the oft-times complicated devices, be it a PC, iPad, or some other.

On the side of the teachers, their biggest disadvantage would be the complete lack of their abilities to observe how the students may react and respond to, or comprehend their teaching. Their inability to discipline them online is another issue. Some teachers would undoubtedly be wishing and hoping that parents are there to pick up the slack and to fill in the gaps where their teaching might fall short in the overall learning process. But how many parents are able to do that?

Working parents, and there are many nowadays where both parents have full-time jobs – simply do not have the time, or even if they do, don’t have the skills or training or knowledge to tutor and supervise their children, no matter how much they’d like to. They are not equipped with the aptitude to teach a diverse range of subjects from say mathematics to science and literature.

In order for many institutions to continue to survive, they will need to charge full fees for the students. Many parents are already faced with either reduced incomes or even depending on their life savings. It is an extremely dire situation overall.

At times like this, large families suffer the most. In an interview with The Borneo Post recently, a working mother of two school-going children aged 14 and 11, Michelle Sim, 38, had this to say, “I still believe in traditional teaching, face-to-face learning, as I can see it doesn’t really work for both my children, especially when they’re on online exams – and did the government ever think of families with many children, and who couldn’t afford internet devices for each of their children as it is impossible to share as normally the classes are conducted at the same time.

“These students will surely lag behind in their studies and there is no assistance from the school or government to provide the device for them to continue their lessons from home.”

Online learning badly divides the urban and rural areas. It may not even be possible for those living in the rural areas where there is no internet, or very poor and erratic connections, for the students to even go online. In theory in those areas, the teachers would have to personally deliver hardcopies of students’ homework, worksheets, and other assignments to the many longhouses, villages and homes unreachable by the internet.

The pillars of education will always remain the same – curriculum, schools, teachers, technology, governance, and students. However, with AI (artificial intelligence), it would be able to track each student’s learning capacity, pace, aptitude, and progress, and be rated accordingly, so that eventually mixed age groups will become the norm, with students moving about as individuals and not as a class.

Learning will then be driven by the students themselves, and need not be on a full-time basis and schools in their current form would be obsolete. Teaching as we know it would disappear since knowledge and information are already freely available or by subscription – teachers will simply become moral guides, acting as moderators and mentors.

The end result of all this would contribute towards students at the higher levels seeking meaning in their study rather than just studying for a piece of paper. However, that is the educational utopia and it will undoubtedly be met with obstruction and opposition by many of the present vested interests, the fear of the new and unknown, and most of all the fear of the loss of control.

The urgent and immediate solution right now is for the government and the CSR-minded corporate giants of industry to swiftly heed the call from the educators, parents, and students themselves to ensure that every student who needs it has a device to connect to the internet and online learning. The other is to ensure that our internet connectivity reaches 100 per cent in the fastest time possible.

Without these tools, the future of online learning in our society today cannot happen successfully. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

 

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