Students Make Do in the School of Covid-19

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MALAYSIA’S EDUCATION SECTOR is embracing e-learning, but this adoption also brings to the fore the nation’s entrenched socioeconomic divide. Online learning in government schools has always been vague in nature; and with necessities like water and electricity supply still not available in certain parts of the country, how can one expect a stable internet connection as a given?

Stepping Up the Teaching

Norazrina Osman, an English teacher from SK Kebun Sireh, Bukit Mertajam, who has been an educator for almost two decades, admits that the switch from face-to-face to home-based teaching took some getting used to.

In-class learning has been temporarily put on hold.

For this reason, Norazrina sticks firmly by her motto “accessible, understandable, doable” when conducting online lessons with her Year 6 pupils. “The formula is to always encourage your students, to keep them on their toes. I usually give out tasks through WhatsApp group chats, going by the basis of ‘homework this week, discussion next week’ as a constant follow-up with my students,” she says.

Norazrina also makes use of Quizizz, Google Forms and YouTube on which she uploads educational videos via her own channel. She is also a participant of the Penang Digital Movers – Jom Belajaq portal, an initiative from the Penang State Education Department which selects educators for live teaching sessions.

Still, digital constraints are inevitable, e.g. several children relying on one technological device per household has resulted in some of them receiving and responding to their lessons later than usual. “Keeping that in mind, I try to make myself available at any time during the day. We still follow the textbooks’ syllabi religiously as students without internet access depend solely on them.”

Another major concern among parents is the cancellation of the Ujian Pencapaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) examination for Year 6 pupils to transition to secondary schooling. Despite the examination being called off this year, Norazrina advises parents not to worry since there will be other assessments of the students.

During the Movement Control Order (MCO), computers were provided to underprivileged students through funds from the Parent-Teacher Association of SMJK(C) Phor Tay. “By offering access to technology, parents only need to worry about providing internet connection for their children and I believe most Penangites do have the means to do so. Telcos have also been giving away 1GB free daily to help us stay connected,” says Maggie Low, who teaches Business at the school.

“The world is evolving – technology is advancing, ideas are changing, and so should education."

Like Norazrina, Low and her fellow teachers use Google Classroom to monitor students’ assessments. “Our students definitely need more time to adjust and adapt to the new ‘schooling system’. I have noticed a few students who would ‘skip’ classes; they either don’t join at all or are only physically, and not mentally, present,” says Low, adding that she regularly invites fellow Business teachers to join her virtual classes to prepare Low’s Form 5 students for their upcoming Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination scheduled for the first quarter of 2021.

But some parents are displeased, Low notes, with teachers holding extra or replacement classes during the weekends. Pre-pandemic, these classes were usually conducted after school; all the same, Low hopes for parents to be more understanding and cooperative of the situation.

Coping and Adapting to the New “Schooling System”

As we enter the second half of 2020, Muhamad Aqilhamdi Muhamad Zaizulakmar, a Form 5 student from SMKA Syeikh Abdullah Fahim, Nibong Tebal, is hard at work revising and catching up on his studies in preparation for SPM. But he finds it difficult to transition to e-learning; he explains that though most teachers and students rely on WhatsApp, Telegram and Google Classroom to have discussions, these platforms function as one-way communication at best.

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Norazrina Osman's first (top) and second (bottom) YouTube channels.

“What’s more, there are teachers who would avoid hosting live classes altogether because they’re not technologically inclined.” Aqilhamdi admits to feeling relieved when he first heard the news of the postponement. “I think there are two ways of looking at this. On one hand, there will be more time to improve and revise, but on the other, some students may feel added stress as this indirectly prolongs the schooling day.”

Muhammad Adrian Azriel, a Form 3 student from SMJK(C) Heng Ee, feels the same way. “I’m glad that PT3 is cancelled this year, because to sit for a major exam, I definitely need more face-to-face guidance so that more spontaneous questions can be asked. Only my sister, who has graduated and is now working, owns a computer in our household, so I am fully reliant on my smartphone to access the internet. The telco network gets disrupted sometimes and slows down my homework.”

Although he faces difficulties in understanding his lessons, Adrian says he’d rather work hard at self-learning than return to school just yet.

E-Learning in Tertiary Educational Institutions

“Now that everything is online, I needn’t bother with the time it takes to board the bus or to walk to class. I study at my own pace and comfort,” says Rathimalaa Poobathy, a final year student from the School of Industrial Technology at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

“The only concern I have is regarding laboratory-based subjects where students are required to carry out experiments,” she says, adding that students were provided with an alternative solution – to view these experiments on video instead. Lecturers and lab assistants get together to record themselves performing the experiment, and students are later given data to guide them in completing their lab reports.

Infographic on PPSR. Photo: Bernama.

From writing her thesis to compiling literature review, Rathimalaa says she has had to completely change the direction of her final-year project. “It’s frustrating; I had already started with the experiments but once MCO began, my project came to a standstill.” She adds that as a student, Rathimalaa feels “robbed” of a proper education, e.g. not being able to fully experience her course this semester since the liberty to make use of campus facilities has been discouraged.

Associate Professor Dr. Cecilia Devi Wilfred, an Applied Chemical lecturer from Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS, has had a few online lecture classes during the MCO. “Online teaching isn’t as cumbersome as it sounds. I can incorporate more online materials to enhance my teaching but even so, I dislike the interaction limitations that come with it.

“Final examinations have been replaced with extended assignments which will need to be completed within 24 hours. Higher order questions have also been prepared by lecturers to prevent students from copying and plagiarising. Currently, and where possible, we have postponed all experimentations. We have also switched to using chemistry software and modelling to replace certain experiments.”

Cecilia praises her students for their receptiveness of this new learning environment, given the circumstances, and with zero preparation to boot. “But in the long run, I strongly believe that virtual learning cannot fully cater to the needs of hands-on practice for chemistry subjects.”

There are three elements that should be looked into when tackling digital learning, says Dr. Nurzali Ismail, the Dean of the School of Communication at USM. These are access, knowledge and attitude. Knowledge and attitude can be instilled, but without internet access, both of these remain unattainable. Nurzali adds that in line with USM’s mantra of “no student is left out”, those without internet access have learning materials mailed to their homes.

Digital learning inspires different educational concepts that have indirectly contributed to the reshaping of Malaysia’s education system. “The world is evolving – technology is advancing, ideas are changing, and so should education. All institutions strive to produce Industry 4.0-ready students, hence technological training is mandatory.”

From June 24 onwards, Malaysia is set to reopen its schools. At the moment, only Forms 5 and 6 students will be allowed to return, while the rest must still follow home-based learning, pending further notice from the Education Ministry.1

Aliya Abd Rahim is (racially) a fusion of "sambal belacan" and "tandoori". She enjoys photography and is a Star Wars enthusiast. Like any other final year student, she hopes to attend the (hopefully not called off) 58th USM convocation this year.
Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.



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