Learning in times of COVID-19

According to the World Economic Forum, close to 1.6 billion students from kindergarten to tertiary level are not in school because of the Corona Virus pandemic. Like in many of the 190 other countries, the pandemic has also severely affected education in Malaysia. It has dealt an almost knockout blow to our education sector, a matter of great concern to each and every family in this country. According to Malaysiakini (3/12/20), “education this year is all lost. It has mentally affected students, parents and families.” Formal teaching and learning as practised for ages came to a grinding halt in February 2020.

Since then, the formal classroom setting has been supplanted by e- learning, a mode of delivery using computers and the internet. According to the World Economic Forum, about 87% of the world student population from kindergarten to university levels have been affected by this switch to web-based learning because of the degree of reluctance to use the internet for learning purposes. It will be interesting and also pertinent to find out if e-learning has truly passed the test of becoming an effective alternative to face-to-face learning. There are educational administrators, academics, industry players and even parents who are advocating that e-learning be established as a mode of learning of increasing importance in all our educational institutions. However, it is not an alternative which we can or should embrace quickly or blindly in the immediate or near future, and most certainly not with a view to doing away with formal teaching altogether. Learning at the kindergarten, primary and secondary levels must still be face-to-face, because there is no better alternative at the moment. Moreover this tried and tested mode, despite its weaknesses is still the best that is available. The conventional classroom instills confidence in the learners about its efficacy, and at the same time, it is a source of motivation for both the learners and their parents. In other words, the conventional classrooms operating as part of a larger institution such as a school or college are likely to be around for many years to come. Online learning in the interim period can complement face to face learning.

Admittedly over the last almost three decades, computers, the internet and online learning have slowly but surely crept into our classrooms. Indeed the computer has become a very important tool in both formal and informal education. Generally, learning via the internet has been formalised to various degrees in many countries, including Malaysia. This mode of learning has become an important or parallel learning method at college and university levels, especially for those who use the distance learning mode. However, it is not as yet completely ready to replace face-to- face learning which is still the preferred method of teaching and learning throughout the world.

In Malaysia digital learning is still at the stage of trial and error. Though many learning programmes using the digital mode have been implemented in schools, no independent audit or study is known to have been done to enquire into its degree of success. A lot of people are not as yet sufficiently convinced that we have fulfilled all the prerequisites such as the relevant technology, electricity or power supply, phone and internet connections, computers and laptops to start this mode of learning on a nationwide scale. In addition, new learning platforms, design of learning programmes and methods of delivery are not in a state of readiness. Another very important question is, whether our teachers and students have been properly taught and trained to use digital teaching and learning effectively. Do they have the knowledge and skills to ably and confidently select, prepare, troubleshoot and carry out learning via the internet? Above all, will parents, especially those from the B40 group be able to spend so much in terms of money to buy the various devices and provide internet access for their children in these trying times ? The general impression seems to be that students in the primary and even secondary schools are not yet sufficiently ready to undertake or embrace digital learning individually or independently on the scale and level desired. There is a lot more that needs to be done before one can clearly and confidently claim that we are ready to take the plunge into embracing the digital mode as the primary thrust to take learning to dizzying heights. Therefore, replacing the teacher in the formal classroom with online learning nationwide is not a viable alternative yet.

It is vital and urgent that to prevent the potential hazards of re- opening all our schools, the ministry of education needs to introduce, innovate, and incorporate creative measures to meet the learning needs of our students and also keep the coronavirus miles away. Perhaps, reserving formal classroom learning for the core subjects such as mathematics, science, and language and online learning for subjects such as moral and religious studies, history and geography may be an option. In addition, rotating school attendance to conform to the rule about smaller numbers during the pandemic could be another measure. The ministry through the schools should identify and target the weaker learners for face-to-face classroom learning. Even considering giving different weighting for classroom learning and online learning for all subjects or specific subjects is an idea which can also be given serious thought. Implementing these and other measures would mean considerable administrative and organizational problems. Therefore these matters have to be worked out in a smart and judicious manner. The primary focus must be on the teaching and learning process. A “one plan fits all” alternative will probably not work. The going will surely be tough, and this means the tough have to get going. Apparently there is not much choice in this matter. In the final analysis, it is really a case of the ends justifying the means.

BANOO VASUDEVAN
Parti Sosialis Malaysia
Sungai Petani Branch

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