Online Schooling: A Necessity that is Not Yet a Virtue

By Jayanthan s/o Thyagarajan, Godharan s/o Thyagarajan

Published on 2021-06-27 Updated 2021-07-26

COVER STORY
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CAN ONLINE CLASSROOMS reap the equalising benefits of Education that previously eluded traditional learning? Or will it share the same fate?

Whether it was ready or not, Malaysia was thrust to the forefront of online learning when Covid-19 upended traditional schooling last March. The transition, at the beginning at least, was radical and clumsily executed; educators who for decades were inoculated with the established teaching methods of chalk, blackboard and textbook struggled to digitally adapt.

Meanwhile, the impact on students is still being canvassed, with issues previously exclusive to the old school set-up also migrating online, and magnified even more. To illustrate, rote learning a – long-standing tradition in the Malaysian school system – appears to have easily befriended student passivity. Questions posed by teachers, instead of eliciting responses, are met with walled silence from students hidden behind computer and laptop screens. There is no active participation in the virtual classroom, says student Suntharavel Palaniappan.

Suntharavel Palaniappan is a Form 3 student at Penang Free School.

Discussions with students also found more and more of them retreating into introversion. It is rare these days to see classmates interacting among themselves on the learning platforms, says Suntharavel. And if they do at all, it must be done covertly for fear of getting caught by supervising parents. "My friendships have become strained because of this, and I find myself growing anxious at the thought of in-person communication."

This slow dismantling of social skills also abets the deterioration of second and third language usage. Students may possess sound theoretical knowledge of the languages, but what good will this do if it can't be put into practice?

To be fair, the pandemic's undoing of traditional schooling has also led to some improvements. Seating arrangements, for example, have changed; instead of rows of desks and chairs stretching to the back of classrooms, both weak students and quick learners are now seated front and centre in the virtual classroom.

The Implementation and Divide of Digital Pedagogy

Online learning (or distance or remote learning) is not new to Malaysia's tertiary education institutions. In fact, Penang's own Wawasan Open University offers distance learning for working adults to further their studies without disrupting professional commitments, and has done so for years.

Prof Dr. P. Ramasamy.

The implementation of ICT classes at the primary and secondary school levels, however, is on an entirely different footing; because examinations for the subject are not mandatory, children often regard ICT classes as "free periods". They were comparatively disadvantaged from their private and home-schooled peers when lessons and examinations had to be taken online during the MCO phases. "It's been a year now and I'm still trying to familiarise myself with the technical aspects of online learning," laments student Amos Lim.

In looking at the bigger picture, two factors stand out most prominently as reasons for the digital divide in Malaysia; these are the lack of available digital infrastructure and income disparity within the population.

"Equitable access to education becomes lopsided during the pandemic," says Prof Dr. P. Ramasamy, Penang's Deputy Chief Minister II, who also holds the states Education portfolio. Fundamentally, this is a socioeconomic issue; students from B40 families do not have the means to purchase the tools necessary for online learning."

In making sure these students do not get left behind, the Penang state government launched the E-Learning Computer Programme in May 2020, to acquire secondhand computers for students to partake in online lessons. This April, it was announced that an additional 1,500 laptops will be given to deserving students from B40 families, as well as those from single parent-households and who have multiple siblings.1

Teachers Too Are Adapting

Change in the pedagogical landscape has also had obvious repercussions on Malaysias educators, more so the senior cohort who are cumbered by limited tech literacy and therefore, are ill-equipped to smoothen students' transition to online learning.

It also bears reminding that students learn at varying paces; when face-to-face learning was still doable, this functioned as an indicator for teachers to assess the progress of students. When classes migrated online, the tracking of each students developments became difficult to do, as teachers now had to contend with keeping order in the virtual classroom.

By and large, online learning has stripped away the teacher's ability to maintain order and discipline. "There is no such thing as turn-taking online. The students speak simultaneously, making it hard for the teacher to focus on answering individual questions, let alone continue with the lesson. None would want to back down or listen; the whole classroom would descend into chaos," says Khng Sze May, who has years of experience teaching primary and secondary school students.

Kh'ng Sze May is a primary and secondary school English tutor.

The traditional schooling structure adopts a system of rewards and penalties, e.g. merits and demerits to maintain classroom order. But in a virtual setting, disciplinary options are limited. The only alternative is to mute the audio, but this is a temporary fix and has minimal effect on remedying the students' behaviours, says Khng.

Private school teacher Asenath Jasananthi adds that it is difficult to hold students attention for long. Educators must now get creative with their lesson plans, by experimenting with a host of multimedia elements, and even coming up with educational games as Asenath did with kahoot! to engage students interest. More importantly, these activities coax students to broaden their focus, not just on getting good grades, but to become worldly citizens as well, who are in the know about global affairs.

Vince Wong is the owner and teacher at Active Language Provider Services.

Still, there is the concern of unintentional tampering of teaching materials. Senior teachers, in vaulting over tech hurdles, rely on assistance from family members to put together the learning components. If left unguided, the selection and inclusion of content in the teaching slides can very easily result in on-the-surface knowledge transfer, since the amount and quality of information is ultimately decided by said family member.

The Proliferation of Helicopter Parenting

There have been increasing instances of parents hovering and peppering their children with comments, while the latter attends to online lessons. This distracts not only the child in question, but their peers too. In such situations, teachers find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place; they are unable to prevent parents from interrupting the lesson, nor are they able to ask their students to pass the message on.

Mother-of-two Cecilia Ann Francis is a nurse at Loh Guan Lye Specialists Centre.

"This form of helicopter parenting puts an enormous amount of pressure on students to strive for perfection; they must not make mistakes or risk getting reprimanded, says Vince Wong, the owner and teacher at Active Language Provider Services. Making mistakes is an integral part of a students learning curve; they must come to understand that failing does not tantamount to actual failure."

But there is validity in other parental concerns. Some, like father-of-three Rafi bin Firdaus do not have the luxury of working from home, and so, remained unaware of his son playing truant until a phone call came one day from the class teacher enquiring about his son's high rate of absenteeism.

In order to skip "school", crafty students have learned their way around the online learning system, says Wong. "The simpler examples of such tricks include refusing to turn on the audio and video functions of their devices; and because online learning is still relatively new, teachers often give students the benefit of the doubt, but this is unfortunately abused by some bad apples."

Another parental woe is finding their children on the wrong side of the internet, e.g. cyberbullying, encountering sexual predators and discovering pornography, in the absence of proper adult supervision.

Educators must now get creative with their lesson plans.

Physical Health Concerns

Students have also been assailed with health issues, after a year or so into online learning. What's more troubling is the fact that before Covid-19, these ailments were seldom a serious cause for concern in their age bracket.

Eye fatigue is one example, says nurse Cecilia Ann Francis. education classes Its symptoms can range from burning eyes, severely dry or watery eyes to blurred vision from prolonged exposure to digital screens. Blue light is believed to be the main culprit here. In small doses, this does not cause much harm, but protracted use of tech devices can prematurely age the eyes.

Weight gain has also risen in tandem. Online learning has made redundant the need for physical education classes; combine this with an "MCO diet", and obesity is one step away. In 2019, Malaysia was already ranked the fattest nation in Asia, with the second highest child obesity rate among children in ASEAN aged 5-19. The consumption of sugary drinks was listed as a contributor to weight gain and obesity.2

Online learning has made redundant the need for physical education classes.

Exploring Further Improvements

Perhaps when Covid-19 is well and truly contained, schools can permanently reopen. But in the interim, there is the need to break away from pen-and-paper learning, for a thorough digital conversion of resources and teaching materials at the kindergarten, primary and secondary school levels.

This is happening at preschools, for example, through the eDaya Multimedia Learning Program. Its design and development is based on the Education Ministry's Preschool Curriculum, and complements textbook teaching with supplementary visual explanations using videos, slideshows and songs to encourage active student participation. eDaya also comes equipped with lesson plans for teachers, with the flexibility for modifications to the syllabi.

In areas with fickle internet connection, Eduseeds is also another good resource to have. A school system solution provider, it offers hard and soft copies of school textbooks for teachers and students, enabling an uninterrupted learning process in the event of Wifi disruptions.

PM
Jayanthan s/o Thyagarajan

is a degree student in the field of English Studies at Wawasan Open University and is a true believer of the saying, “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword”.

PM
Godharan s/o Thyagarajan

recently completed his Master’s in Education at Open University Malaysia. He aims to provide students with high-quality education regardless of their backgrounds.