by | NADIA SULLIVAN, firstname.lastname@example.org’
Currently, Malaysia’s education industry is populated by 20 public universities and 467 private higher learning institutions (HLIs). Unfortunately, when COVID19 cases spiralled, the industry has had to deal with a host of immediate negative repercussions. To illustrate the situation, almost every university and HLI is either facing a revenue disruption or stalling operations. Although digital has fundamentally changed the way students learn, not everyone has access to the same tools. After several months of inactivity, e-learning or digital education has emerged as an alternative solution to cope with teaching and learning downtime. But its execution however, remains difficult. But why are we facing this difficulty? This owes to Malaysia’s inadequate digital infrastructure and a gaping digital divide that’s largely hampering student learning. For lower income students, especially the B40-group students (A household group identified by the Malaysian government as the urban poor community), loss of access to school and university buildings also means they’re losing studying space and tools such as computers. As universities and colleges shift to temporary, yet prevalent online teaching and learning models, experts believe that in the future, the solution to bridging the digital gap lies in collaboration. Decidedly, collaborations between governments, universities and the industry will reshape the education sector for the ‘new normal’. If the education sector is to fulfil its role as a social ladder, this combination needs to optimise technology in teaching and learning to foster sustainable growth.The future comes earlyOnline classes are common place even before the global crisis. For instance, some colleges or universities have long offered weekend online classes to accommodate working adults and students from remote locations. Before this, haze was an issue that pushed the education sector begin its migration online. Although not all of us were ready at that time, it was the only viable choice then.However, implementing online teaching and learning out of emergency has been a challenge. We are still lacking behind as far as transitioning from in-person to remote learning is concerned, especially when technology is required. Although most faculty members have managed to establish online-skewed teaching frameworks, others are still fazed by the task. Teaching courses designed for a physical classroom thus presents a steep challenge for educators when they are required to teach via online platforms.
Amid rapid coronavirus spread across Asia, Europe, Middle East, and the United States, the world is now cautious. Many have been moved to take swift and decisive actions to mitigate the worst-case scenario of a full-blown pandemic. Schools, colleges, and universities are now forced to enter a new education territory. These risk-control decisions have led millions of students into temporary ‘home-schooling’ situations, especially in some of the most heavily impacted countries, like China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran.
Students, too, are adjusting to this new reality. Now, students are expected to learn just as much despite the absence of social connection and the energy of a residential and in-person learning environment. Also, it didn’t help that before COVID19, online learning was only a small share of higher education. Nonetheless, it is too early to judge how reactions to COVID19 will affect education systems around the world. But, there are signs suggesting that it could have a lasting impact on the trajectory of learning innovation and digitisation. Below, we break down three trends hinting at future transformations:
1.Pushing education to change could lead to surprising innovations
COVID19 has become a catalyst for education institutions worldwide in the search for innovative solutions. In a relatively short period of time, universities and colleges have shifted to digital and their students are now learning at home via mobile and desktop apps. Although not all students have the privilege to study online or access these apps at home, governments in most countries are proactively creating learning materials through live television broadcasts. This ensures that no students are left behind.
At the other end, students have begun to leverage online learning. This even applies to subjects such as physical education. Students shoot and send videos of their athletic training and sports to their teachers as “homework”. On the plus side, this is pushing young students to pick up digital skills. Although the work out only takes a few minutes, students would typically spend more time shooting and editing their videos.
As 5G technology is becoming more prevalent in countries such as China, US and Japan, surely, we will see more technology and service providers embracing the digital education’s ‘learning anywhere, anytime’ concept. Traditional in-person classroom learning will be complemented by new learning modalities—from live broadcasts to ‘educational influencers’ and virtual reality experiences. As a result, learning will become a habit integrated into daily routines and lifestyles.
2. Public-private partnerships must change static educational structures
During the pandemic’s case surges, public and private stakeholders joined hands and utilised digital platforms as a social distancing measure. Publishers, educators, technology providers, and telecom network operators have found that digital is the way of the future. Across emerging countries however, where education is predominantly provided by the government, digital could become a consequential prevalent trend to future education.
In China, its Ministry of Education assembled a group of diverse constituents to develop a new cloud-based system. The system involves online learning and a broadcasting platform—an upgrade for a suite of education infrastructure. To achieve this, the effort was mobilised by a three-pronged collaboration, involving the country’s Ministry of Education, Ministry of Industry and Ministry of Information Technology.
Whereas in Malaysia, its Ministry of Education (MOE) called for a refresh of its digital learning platform. As a result, a programme called DELIMa or ‘Digital Educational Learning Initiative Malaysia’ was born out of the initiative. Essentially, this platform is the culmination of efforts that go back several years between the ministry, Google, Microsoft and Apple.
Going forward, DELIMa will offer all the applications and services required by teachers and students within Malaysia’s schooling systems. This includes digital learning, technology and resource enablers such as Google Classroom, Microsoft O365 and Apple Teacher Learning Center.
3. Plugging the digital divide
While most schools in affected areas are looking for stop-gap solutions to continue teaching, the quality of learning is heavily dependent on the level and quality of digital access. After all, only 60% of the globe’s population is online. While virtual classes on personal tablets may be the norm in most emerging country, many students in less developed economies rely on lessons and assignments sent via WhatsApp or emails.
However, for the less affluent families who are less savvy in terms of digital, for instance chances of them being left out are far superior. Case in point, students from B40 families might struggle when classes transition online for two reasons. One, these students might lose out as a consequence of being deprived of expensive digital devices and two, they can’t afford the data plans that will enable them to participate in online learning.
Thus, unless the costs of owning digital devices and subscribing to data plans decrease considerably throughout the world, the gap in education quality and socioeconomic equality will be further exacerbated. Compounding this situation is the quality of internet access in some parts of the world. Given all these challenges, the digital divide could become even more pronounced as access to education is firmly dictated by the access to technology.
The game changer
COVID19’s global outbreak has seen many shocks and surprises. Numerous unprecedented measures were taken to save lives and keep economies afloat. At the same time,governments have had to ensure that their education systems are able to function, albeit in a socially distanced learning environment. As a result, education has changed dramatically. The distinctive rise of e-learning allows teaching to take place remotely on digital platforms.
While many sectors have been disrupted by technology over the last decade, higher education has remained largely in its traditional format through bricks and mortar set-ups and face-to-face delivery. Interestingly, despite all the talk of disruptive technologies in recent years—AI, big data, machine learning, blockchain, VR and AR, the reality is far from assuring. Universities are still using low tech applications or ones that they already own to deliver remote learning. As faculties around the world frantically work to transfer learning materials online, perhaps this is the time to pause and take a longer-term view of how higher education could innovate and transform itself.
Foreseeably, this will also create opportunities. Imagine if you are taught by the best subject matter faculty regardless of where they or you are in the world? Or the fact that learning is no longer bound by traditional semesters, credit hours, or having to spend hours traveling to a class that equates to less time wasted. Never before, we are now in an era where all this is technologically possible.
Redefining the role of the educator
The stereotypical image of educators is one of imparting knowledge and wisdom. But this however, no longer fits 21st century’s shared education goals. With a wider access to knowledge, students are now able to learn and pick up new skills at their fingertips.Therefore, there is a need to redefine educators’ roles in the lecture theatre. This may also mean that the roles will move towards facilitating young people’s development as contributing members of the society.
Drafting the right strategy
Learning and collaborating in an online environment might not come naturally to teachers and students. Since it is usually done on an ad-hoc basis, teachers and student are left with no option but to adhere to the new norms. Irrespective of the current COVID19 situation, digital must be central to any institution’s learning strategy given its potential for enabling reach and its increasing popularity with today’s students.
In general, the right digital strategy must address both; course design and delivery. Setting the rules for digital course design or ensuring a smooth transition from instructor-led (classroom or face-to-face) components to learner-led (digital or self-paced) ones is critical. Here are some considerations laid out by the OECD for policymakers:
- Balance digital with screen-free activities. By simply replacing school hours with online lectures and discussions is likely to have a toll on students’ health. Lectures can be shortened and combined with non-digital learning activities.
- Keep an eye on students’ emotional health. The context of the virus and school closures have the potential to be unsettling and disorientating for students. Technological solutions need to find ways to provide connection, interaction, and support when learning happens, particularly in times of uncertainty.
- Access to devices. Students are more likely to have access to smartphones than laptops at home, where there might be more students than devices. Governments could lend laptops or provide alternative resources (printed work booklets).
- Manage access to IT infrastructure. Having all students connected at the same time may be a problem in some places, and access to IT infrastructure should also be monitored to provide good access to all, perhaps within certain time frames.
Post-COVID19 era: Can learning institutions go back to ‘normal’?
This year is the first time we will be witnessing graduation ceremonies conducted online. Despite our ability to adapt to the new reality, governments all over the world are struggling to balance public health and social recovery. One thing for sure, COVID19 is unlikely to be the only shock. There could be others in the future; another pandemic, a financial crisis, political instability, industry disruption or the worst-case scenario—technology failure itself. Taking the current pandemic as a heads-up is a good measure to anticipate how prepared we are to weather the next storm, especially in respect of the education industry.
In the context of school closures, various forms of online education and resources should be mobilised. Affected countries should repurpose their existing online distance courses. And whenever possible, encourage education technology companies to make their resources available for free.
In addition, to encourage broader collaborations, governments, universities and schools need to diversify their teaching delivery modes to cater to students of all ages and capacities. Although tertiary education institutions are largely used to delivering online courses and have a rich bank of online materials, this is less systematically true in primary and secondary education.
- Use existing online distance learning platforms. Distance online platforms may already have curriculum courses and resources in various digital formats (text, video lectures, etc.), usually with a catalogue of accompanying exercises. Typically, teachers select lectures and exercises they want their students to watch and do, and then tutor them through text messaging and synchronous classes. In places where such platforms do not exist, open educational resources can be used.
- Develop virtual classrooms. Virtual classroom platforms allow students and teachers to use the online space to participate in teaching and learning from anywhere. Teachers will then be afforded the flexibility and freedom to teach remotely via these online user-interface platforms. A number of “virtual classroom” services are now available in some countries. To date, these services have already been deployed in China and Singapore at scale in the wake of the Covid19 crisis.
- Partner with private educational platforms. One difficulty with existing resources is that their massive use is not always possible simultaneously. Some private sector platforms have already made their resources and services freely available to some schools to expand response capacity.
- Collaborate internationally to mutualise existing online educational resources. While countries and sometimes regions have different curricula, they tend to teach similar subjects. Alternatively, schools, colleges and universities can also consider translating foreign digital resources that are parallel to their curriculum as supplementary learning materials.
- Use all electronic means as appropriate. Older electronic means such as streaming lessons on TV is more appropriate for young students or in poor countries where modern digital infrastructure is scarce.
- Provide teachers with digital learning opportunities. Countries may provide or facilitate teachers with online teacher training resources (e.g. ITA) on online platforms. This allows teachers to share their resources as well as give and receive peer feedback.
Regardless of background, Malaysian students run the risk of lagging behind academically due to the massive disruption of classes upended and a digital divide. As classrooms are high-risk environments, the industry needs to accelerate adaptive learning opportunities and resources. Ultimately, as basic education functions consolidate on the road to recovery, what was once niche educational media, digital and agile tools are going mainstream as the face of the education industry.