Covid-19 Exclusives: Schools May Be Shut, but the Learning Continues

loading “We must continue teaching our special needs students during this MCO because if we stop, their learning is disrupted and when they do return to school, we would have to start all over again,” says Merinna Berlis.

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“BEEN HOME-SCHOOLING the kids, they aren’t listening and I’m having my 10th meltdown! Hats off to all teachers for teaching our children with such patience and passion.”

This is one of the many posts that has popped up on my social media account, ever since schools, colleges and universities closed their doors following the outbreak of Covid-19. In an effort to contain the pandemic, Unesco reveals that over 130 countries have implemented nationwide closures, impacting over 80% of the world’s student population, i.e. 1.3 billion children and youth. This has caused education disruption, particularly to those sitting for examinations, and the economically vulnerable.

Closer to home, the implementation of the MCO since March 18 has similarly led to the closure of kindergartens, public and private schools, institutions of higher learning and other educational establishments. In fact, the education ministry announced on April 15 that the major examinations UPSR and PT3 have been cancelled, while SPM and STPM are to be postponed until further notice.1

Following this, students are kept at home. Parents who home-school, have resorted to sharing their daily mantras online, reminding each other that “we are the boss” and “we make the rules at home”. This may sound funny, but it does not hide the reality that parents are concerned over their children’s academic progress.

Every family, child and educator is affected. In spite of living in the digital age, many of Malaysia’s schools and universities are not prepared to go fully virtual. It is simply unprecedented to teach everything online. But, here we are. Reality moves faster than we wish it to.

Ready or not, teachers are now tasked to experiment with new teaching methods. Fortunately, Instagram hashtags like #teachersofinstagram allow educators to connect with one another. One teacher even posted a quirky idea of her teaching using the shower glass door, in the absence of a whiteboard. The post garnered 50,000 views.

The past weeks have shown that we are resilient, and that we have the capabilities to produce creative solutions, when the community decides to come together. So if there is so much resources out there, why are teachers still feeling overwhelmed?

It Takes A Global Community to Teach A Child

The director of Digital Pedagogy Lab in University of Colorado, Sean Michael Morris coined the tongue-in-cheek “panic-gogy” (panic + pedagogy), which simply means understanding students’ practicalities. Many students do not have the luxury of reliable internet connection or smartphones and laptops for remote learning.

Alla Mansour dancing with her daughter, Aryana, during one of their virtual classes. Aryana, who is trained for professional competitions, joins in with the other students to stay healthy during the lockdown.

With classes moving online, there is bound to be an obvious digital divide between the rich and the poor. When the Singaporean government announced its intentions to conduct home-based learning, many NGOs stepped in to help low-income families who cannot afford laptops. Volunteer groups like Engineering Good and SG Bono are fixing old laptops to be given to students who cannot afford one.

In Malaysia Microsoft is working closely with the Ministry of Higher Education to collaborate and sustain education in virtual classrooms. Microsoft Malaysia has developed articles and blogs to guide educators on making the switch to remote learning, including free webinars on conducting online classes, and communication tools like Microsoft Teams’ online learning hub.

One teacher who has embraced this change is dance instructor Alla Mansour, who starts her day with a virtual dance session with her students. Since the MCO, she has been teaching her four- to 17-year-olds virtually, from her converted bedroom. The professional Russian ballroom dancer finds online teaching different and challenging. She is, for example, unable to correct the students’ techniques as much as she would have liked. “Of course, teaching online brings a different kind of energy. I cannot correct the students’ movements as much. I’m unable to control them or snap them into attention, but it is about making the best of the situation and making the experience better,” says the energetic mother-of-one.

In a way, this lockdown has conjured forth a global classroom.

Although there is less structure and discipline, Alla, like many other teachers, is trying to maintain some normalcy during these trying times. Teachers at this point are hoping to continue educating, while building a thriving community of educators and learners.

In Brookesfield Education’s special needs department, the teachers have also adopted online learning with its 37 special needs children, many of whom are autistic learners. From sending classwork to parents through emails and getting daily WhatsApp updates on assignments completed by students, parents are finding this new method of learning beneficial, not just to their children, but to themselves as well.

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A student following Alla's dance moves, as he watches her on his home TV.

The department head for special education, Merinna Berlis says many working parents who used to drop off their children at school to be taught, are now learning for the first time, to teach their autistic children. This helps build a strong bond between parent and child. “We are rolling out online psychology workshops to help parents understand their children’s emotions and observe their behaviours. We help them understand why a child throws tantrums or acts up. We teach them to observe non-verbal cues,” says Berlis.

Berlis also explains that children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or are autistic, generally avoid eye contact and have problems focusing on school work. But with special needs children, laptops help them develop better eye contact as they love anything with movements or colours. While skills-based activities like these have been proven to provide an immersive experience for children in the autistic spectrum, there is a host of other learning resources available.

Just last week, I embarked on a World War II bunker tour in Liverpool. I was led into abandoned tunnels, heard dark stories from the past, and discussed rationing and air raids. Later, I took part in a feeding session with Sumatran tigers at Chester Zoo, just outside of London. All these were virtual tours.

Feeling even more inspired by the vast possibilities for learning, I reached out to Harry Stevens, a Washington Post journalist to discuss the interactive elements used for his data visualisation story. In normal circumstances, people with a 9-to-5 job do not respond to non-work related emails, but with so much time on our hands, I realise that more and more people are willing to reach out, connect and share, from specific skills and talents, to words of encouragement.

During my chat with Stevens, I learned of a new digital tool, and was convinced that I should enrol myself in a coding course. After all, if we have made excuses before about not having time to do something new, when would be an even better time for this, if not now?

The MCO has caused a global panic in teaching, but it has also opened up doors for authors, engineers, chefs, singers, historians and athletes to contribute to learners the world over. On Instagram, we can now take lessons in developing personal charisma from Ellen DeGeneres, for example. Or talk openly about mental health with cancer survivor Deborah James, and learn Latin dancing from famed Strictly Come Dancing professional, Gorka Marquez.

In a way, this lockdown has conjured forth a global classroom.

We Are in This Together

Necessity is the mother of creation. And with this in mind, we can approach online learning with curiosity. Through collaborations, teachers can produce homework packs, parents can learn to engage with children, and students can explore new ways of learning. Social media, digital tools and alternative learning will be our new classrooms and teaching equipment. As our world changes immensely, the Covid-19 disruption might just be the catalyst that we need, to lead to new ideas and opportunities in education.

Kristina Khoo-Rhodes is a former journalist with an interest in new media and social justice. A university lecturer by profession, she is happily married to her English husband, and is always planning for their next spine-chilling adventure. She does not take life too seriously, and occasionally daydreams about living the van life.



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