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Responding to the challenges of online education

Online teaching and learning is here to stay and academics need to review processes and adopt some simple tips to make online learning more effective.

Anthony Vaz and Geoffrey Williams
4 minute read

Online classes have become a necessity during the Covid-19 lockdowns as teachers, lecturers and students are required to study at home. It also appears that even after the lockdowns end, online classes will remain a major feature of teaching and learning in the future.

There have been many teething problems to cope with including issues of access to hardware and connectivity as well as new processes in schools and universities. In Malaysia, from the beginning of MCO 1.0, lecturers and teachers have had to conduct online classes from home typically using free communication platforms with which they are often unfamiliar and many have faced a huge learning curve.

Educators have had to quickly learn how to build and deliver engaging content, share screens, files and videos, record classes and share recorded video links with students that miss classes and while many continue to grope with technology, others have overcome the initial learning curve and begun to gain students attention in classes.

But not all students actively engage during classes. Many still face access and connectivity issues. Sabahan student Veveonah Mosibin gained popularity after a video of her climbing a tree to sit for her online exams went viral. Additionally, eight students of secondary national school (SMK) narrowly escaped death after falling 18m when a bridge collapsed in Ulu Sugut in Sandakan, Sabah. They had congregated on the bridge to follow online classes.

Far too often students log in to online classes using their mobile phones and many get disconnected several times during an online class even with proper equipment. The efficiency and quality of online classes is therefore questionable.

From our engagement with students and parents, we have identified a number of challenges with online classes. Some say that they actively take part during classes while others revealed that they spend time during an online class reading and replying WhatsApp messages.

Since attendance is a requisite, many log in, take attendance and then engage in other activities such as completing assignments for other classes or even simply not attending at all. Some have been known to sleep through an entire morning online class. In Singapore, a lecturer accidentally left the online lecture on mute and did not realise it until two hours later. Apparently none of his students realised this either or at least had no effective way of communicating with him that they could not hear his class.

In our personal experience students do not answer questions from the lecturer because although they are logged in, they are not in attendance. Only when a message pings through their phones do they realise that the lecturer is trying to attract their attention. In other cases students remain logged in to a session for 20-30 minutes after it has ended, a sure indicator that they did not attend. Students increasingly rely on the recorded video of a lecture as a substitute for class attendance and engagement in their studies.

With the introduction of MCO 2.0, universities and schools have prolonged the online mode of delivery for classes as the uncertainty of a full recovery threatens to make online learning a new norm. So it is useful to note a few tips for teachers and lecturers to gain student engagement during online learning and improve the learning experience for everyone concerned. These tips are useful for whatever level of learning whether at school, in universities or in professional development classes.

First in order to maintain engagement it is essential to incorporate short activities into learning strategies perhaps around short videos or other material. Calling out student names to encourage them to reflect on what they learned after an activity helps keep them involved. If they don’t answer after three calls, tell them their attendance will be null and void for the class.

Encouraging pre-reading before classes helps to create an environment of informed discussion rather than one-way lecturing. To discourage reliance on recordings simply tell the students that the class will not be recorded or that because the class will be based on discussion of pre-requisite material they will have to pre-read because the recording may not be useful out of context.

Malaysian students tend to be passive during class, so it is important to allow and encourage questions by inviting students to stop the flow at any time if they have anything to ask or contribute. The stand-and-deliver, teacher-knows-best approaches of hierarchical pedagogies fail catastrophically in online contexts. Questions encourage class participation but if this is still slow, teaching students how to use the 5W-1H rule (what, why, when, where, who and how) helps them to prepare questions and structure their contributions.

By far the most effective way to encourage participation is to prepare questions from the material for students to attempt to answer during the class. Linking the class questions to mid-term tests and final exams helps to focus their attention but the key to success is to understand that time together online is different to time together face-to-face and that active participation of class members makes the whole experience more valuable for them, for others and for the learning leader.

Despite receiving assurances that the vaccination for Covid-19 may revert the current work and study from home practice back to traditional classrooms, the view in academic circles is that online teaching is here to stay. Mixed mode or blended-learning which combines face-to-face classes with online learning is already a feature of effective learning at schools. It has become the norm and academics need to review processes to make online learning more effective.

Anthony Vaz and Geoffrey Williams are academics at the Malaysia University of Science and Technology in Kuala Lumpur.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.