As Online Learning Goes Mainstream, We Will Need Less Physical School Spaces

By Wong Teik Aun

October 2021 FEATURE
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THE SIJIL PELAJARAN Malaysia (SPM) results for the 2020 school year turned out to be better than, or at least comparable to those of previous years. This is a noteworthy achievement considering how Covid-19 and the movement control orders forced an immediate adoption of emergency remote teaching, or ERT.

Computers and smartphones replaced physical classrooms and person-to-person lessons, and needless to say, teething issues and technical glitches were encountered. But if the 2020 SPM results are anything to go by, this is suggestive of the agility of students and teachers to adapt to disruptive circumstances with satisfactory learning outcomes.

A new opportunity therefore presents itself: Can we now actually do away with surplus school buildings?

The era of conventional education saw considerable costs funnelled into the maintenance of school buildings, which included administration and staffing where the ratio of teachers to students is capped to the physical school size and where large staff rooms take up the bulk of space. Obviously, the need for physical school buildings will not be totally eliminated, but these can be drastically reduced, down to activities that still require physical premises, e.g. remedial classes and for experiments in laboratories and practical workshops. Wawasan Open University and Open University Malaysia are exemplars; their education programmes are nationally renowned despite the smaller-sized physical campuses.

Even examination halls (assuming that SPM and other school exams are still conducted physically) can be reduced or relocated to other venues, in taking cues from vaccine dispensation centre set-ups. Existing schools could then consolidate in line with their reduced physical requirements.

Family Investments Needed

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But online education still has a gauntlet of issues to figure its way around. Focus on digital skills has been amplified over the years, but with education having migrated online, has this been at the expense of non-academic outcomes? Has not the use of smileys and short-form texts replaced language fluency and eloquence? Can computer screens nurture civic-mindedness and impart moral values to students? And what about co-curricular activities that need physical interactions?

Should online learning continue for the longer term, family investments must be made for a laptop or smartphone, not to mention a reliable broadband or data plan. By no means are these able to “offset” the cutback in expenses on learning materials, uniforms and transportation to school.

Almost two years on, senior educators are still grappling with digital literacy; the discrepant levels of digital infrastructure, e.g. internet connectivity and affordability, and device availability, in urban and rural settings further widen the divide among students. However, even with rushed training to deliver relatively seamless online learning, it appears that students have been able to cope and perform on the aggregate.

A trend of “blended learning” has emerged, combining conventional and online education for a synergistic “best of both worlds” experience. This certainly involves no small amount of time or cost. But the cost savings from reduced reliance on physical school buildings may in the medium to long run outweigh the costs of setting up more digital infrastructure across the country, resulting in net savings which can be optimised and reallocated for other, more crucial sectors such as healthcare.

Wong Teik Aun

Dr Wong Teik Aun is a senior faculty member at a private institution of higher learning. Issues on environment, economy and education are close to his heart.