Bringing chaos to order – keys to online education

Note: This article first appeared on my LinkedIn site here on 3 April 2020.

The past couple of weeks witnessed scores of schools, colleges and universities around the world racing to put their learning and teaching activities online. Malaysian institutions are doing the same since the introduction of the movement restricti\on order on 18 March 2020 to combat the outbreak of COVID-19. Learning experiences, however, vary from one learner or another and from one institution to another. Some institutions were better prepared than others. These are the ones that have put in place contingency plans and identified the risks and assessed the impact of COVID-19 to their operations. Others are simply caught by surprise and had to catch up with the new way of delivering education. 

As a higher education leader and a parent of a 13 and 11 year olds going through online learning without their father to support them (I am stuck in Putrajaya while my children are in Kuching), I have observed and reflected on what my own institution and others are doing to respond to this unprecedented challenge. I wish to organise my reflections below and hope this would be useful to some. 

An institutional approach – Online learning is new to many learners, be it at primary, secondary or tertiary level. A best practice is for the Learning and Teaching leaders in the institution to agree on a common approach and unified platform for delivery. While this may limit the creativity and ability of more experienced teachers, a common approach will help learners settle down quickly. In my own institution, we used a common digital classroom accessible from our virtual learning environment where students are familiar with. If you do not have access to a digital classroom, many providers have made their platforms available for free during this difficult time, including Zoom Meeting, Tencent Meeting, Lark Suite, etc. Allowing the use of multiple digital platforms will bring more chaos to what is already a chaotic situation and confuse the learners. 

Setting the right expectation – A clear communication to all learners and teaching staff is necessary to manage the expectations from and of all parties. The learners need to understand that a shift in the mode of learning has taken place. A reading assignment is now in place for a face to face teaching session. In my institution, we created a portal, “Supporting Students Learning Online”, as the one place to go to for all learners and staff to refer to when they require resources to facilitate their online learning. Two guides, one for staff and the other for students, are provided and communicated through multiple internal communication channels.

 Be pragmatic – In the preamble of our guide for staff, we stated:

At a time of rapid change, be pragmatic about what you and your students will be able to engage with. The key priority is to ensure students feel supported. Knowing how to contact the course team and access course materials are key to this.

We need to be clear that this is not the time to showcase our ability to create MOOC-like quality videos. In the past couple of days, I have been coaching my 13 years old with Algebra. We didn’t resort to any video conferencing app. Instead, we use a social messaging app. He would snap a picture of the exercise and send it to me. I would then guide him by quizzing him and slowly help him organise his thought to get to the right answer. This may take a longer time, but the beauty is he can take his time and not feel the pressure of face to face tutoring. 

Synchronous video sessions are not necessary the gold standards – Many teachers and learners are struggling to reproduce the classroom experience they used to have in a face to face delivery mode. This is unrealistic as the world is now tapping into a finite pool of internet resources and some learners and teachers have bandwidth limitations. This is real challenge and there is no quick solution. However, as in the example with my son, we do not need to have synchronous delivery. Contact time and student learning time work differently when happening online. Breaking the one or two hours lectures into several digestible chunks of 5 to 10 video recording or podcast work far better. A follow-up formative assessment for each chunk would also help learners to gauge their own understanding. Teachers and learners can then meet at an agreed time to clarify pertinent questions. Again, video is not required – given the right technique, an online discussion board or social messaging app will work better, and both are bandwidth friendly. 

Passion and patience – This is an unprecedented situation. Teachers around the world are trying their best. They too are on a different frontline in combating the effect of COVID-19. Without passion for teaching, any teacher could easily give up. However, as the experience is new to everyone, patience is needed from the teachers and the learners alike. The teachers themselves are learning new skillsets. Personally, I had to deliver academic course briefing sessions to education agents and prospective students internationally for the first time through video conferencing last week. While it is exciting to get to experience of what feels to be a radio station host, it has also exposed many of my shortcomings in hosting such events. Nonetheless, with passion and patience, I will improve overtime. 

We are living in a rapidly changing world and it is a difficult experience for many. Turning chaos into order requires institutional leadership but more importantly we require empathy and better emotional intelligence. As our Provost Professor Mushtak Al-Atabi has said in his daily video messages to our community – Together we can learn online.

For tips and tricks on supporting student learning online, you may visit our Learning and Teaching Academy Portal. All the resources we developed are released in Creative Common license. While some are platform dependent guides, there still many pedagogical practices and ideas that are transferable for supporting learners to learn effectively online. 

Acknowledgement: I wish to thank Mushtak Al-Atabi for his invaluable help in improving the readability of this article.