9 September 2020

Charting the path to the new normal

By Ts. Augustus Raymond

The educational disruption brought by the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed learning experiences, routines and perspectives for teachers in the higher education sector. The rapid pivot to remote learning due to Covid-19 not only exposed, but also further exacerbated the inequities across all levels in education institutions globally.

This sudden shift to remote learning has disrupted the education system in unprecedented ways, highlighting a range of issues from the students’ readiness and access for remote learning, to the digital divide in teachers’ digital literacy. In order to maintain educational continuity in a functional and safe online learning environment, teaching and learning required drastic redesigning.

The disruption in learning have exposed deep education inequalities in the country’s education system and the education system’s capacity. As the burden of COVID-19 does not fall equally, there is a disproportionate effect on students who already experience barriers accessing education. Although much focus has turned to online learning platforms, many schools that are desperately under-resourced, are not set up to use them or do not have functioning internet access to support this.

This is particularly true for students who are in remote locations, where technology has not been fully embedded in the system and where internet availability is limited or non-existent. Such disruption calls for technological innovation from educators, to focus on most accessible technologies and methods to suit the very diverse student demographic and education context. In responding to the challenges presented by Covid-19, it is important that educators be present for their learners who are grappling with redesigning teaching and learning activities that meets these challenges.

In troubled times, learners need teachers’ presence online

Students’ experience of well-being and distress is interconnected with their learning and motivation. However, addressing wellbeing within an online environment can seem challenging when the teachers do not have the time to themselves to explore the options, or do not possess the expertise. Recognising students’ other life circumstances and how online study needs to be managed within them.

Therefore, in designing any remote teaching lessons, it is imperative that students feel their teachers’ presence online. Teachers’ online presence can be created by clearly designing cognitive and social processes of meaningful and educationally learning outcomes. This can be done by communicating clearly the weekly expectations, and providing timely feedback. Clear links between lessons to learning outcomes should be explicitly explained in order for students to understand the value of the lesson and the activities that they are involved in.

Social presence has to be projected, so that learners can establish and maintain relationships in online learning environments that would typically be nurtured in the conventional classroom setting. Free apps such as Discord and WhatsApp could easily be utilised to create a community outside the formal learning management system such as Canvas and Blackboard. To illustrate, Discord servers are organised into topic-based channels where you can collaborate and share with students grouped by the different classes. In doing so, you would be able to nurture a sense of belonging and community that would be readily accessible in the conventional classroom.

Cognitive presence can be modelled through interactions with students in discussions, assignment feedback and other communications. Cognitive presence is highly interrelated with student-faculty-peer interactions. In Swinburne Sarawak, the online learning at Swinburne is delivered in two different modes namely Synchronous and Asynchronous modes. Synchronous mode involves streaming live lecture sessions, tutorials or forums, while asynchronous mode includes sharing a recorded lecture or pre-recorded video which is more convenient for students especially international students who have to cope with different time zones.

Bridging the digital divide for educators: Role of higher education

One of the challenges of transitioning to online teaching is the low digital literacy. During the pandemic, understandably, many teachers were ill-equipped for the transition to online learning. Furthermore, due to the low digital literacy, teachers may experience difficulties in operating the applications and platforms used for online learning. Teachers’ preparation in online or blended environment is significantly more due to the complexity of online and remote teaching.

With universities increasing their online learning, it is more important than ever to address barriers to learning for students as we cannot leave student success to chance. University leaders should approach this whole endeavour with an ethic of care and compassion.  Overall, the best online teaching tool is kindness. It can be very easy to forget that not every student has a room, a desk, a quiet space and good internet.

To conclude, Covid-19 has highlighted opportunities to asses and evaluate our education systems. Student engagement is built on trust, mutual respect and a spirit of collaboration. Open dialogue is key in these unprecedented times. As educators, we need to minimise disruptions and support all students to learn. We all need a little kindness.

Ts. Augustus Raymond is the Deputy Head of School of Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at asegar@swinburne.edu.my.