20 May 2020

Impact on tertiary education delivery structure

By Professor Dr Lee Miin Huui   

The advent of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our way of life and affected everyone and every market sector worldwide. The education sector is no exception to this disruption.

The Malaysian government’s introduction of the Movement Control Order (MCO) has put academics and students in a dilemma, and they have to react rapidly to the changes. Colleges and universities were faced with decisions on how to continue the learning and teaching activities while keeping their students, academics and professional staff members safe from the public health emergency.

The process of decision-making to implementation progressed at a very rapid pace. Some higher learning institutions delayed their semester whilst many have opted to cancel their face to face classes and moved their courses online to ensure continuity. This, in a way, is the most sensible move and probably the only option during this challenging time.

Institutions who engage in this online mode of delivery are doing so to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus whilst ensuring continuity for the students. Online delivery enables the flexibility in teaching while students can learn anywhere, anytime. However, it can become daunting and overwhelming for both academics and students.

Academics have to grapple with unfamiliar terms such as Asynchronous, Synchronous and blended with Asynchronous and Synchronous online delivery while navigating Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Canvas, Blackboard, Moodle Cloud, Google Classroom, Edmodo LMS and other learning management systems to prepare for lessons.

Conferencing and collaboration tools like Zoom Remote Conferencing, Microsoft Team and OneDrive for Business had to be mastered and conquered within a very short span of time, despite similar efforts being initiated decades ago. Nonetheless, these technological tools have evolved so rapidly over these few years making the online learning and teaching significantly different than before.

There are scepticisms regarding the academics’ readiness in delivering the course online, student’s readiness to learn online and the readiness of professional staff members to support the new delivery structure for the education institutions with common perception that online learning is inferior to face to face learning.

In education, the shift to online, made at very short notice has accelerated new forms of pedagogy and tremendous initiatives from individual academics and institutions have emerged. In particular, Campus and Faculty support teams play the same critical role in students’ online experience.

Academics who seek support typically have varying levels of digital fluency and are often accustomed with personalised support. However, due to limited technical resources, academics have to adapt to the steep learning curve for the teaching tools. The shift to an online delivery structure require academics to take more control of the course design, development and implementation process.

The entire assessment structure has to be constructively aligned as it has to cater for online submission whilst meeting the intended requirements of quality assurance. Since the engagement of MCO, support personnel have been working overtime to assist large numbers of academics in getting to grips with the technology. Therefore, institutions have to be agile in order to meet the challenges ahead of these troubled times.

Whilst academics have done a remarkable job in putting together materials and assessments in preparation for online delivery of courses, the university has to ensure students’ readiness for online learning. Students will need to come to terms with the fact that with online delivery, time management, self-discipline and proactive learning is even more critical now.

In addition, the students will also need to navigate challenges such as internet connectivity, lack of digital devices, cost of broader/higher internet bandwidth, adaptability, technical issues, computer or digital literacy, which we have all taken for granted.

Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus is well prepared with the advanced Learning Management System (Canvas) to support the academics and students in online teaching and learning. Canvas, serves as a powerful hub, providing access to a number of tools for communicating, teaching, and assessing online.

Furthermore, the continuity plan for teaching and learning has been planned and implemented with four key elements from The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) in Australia. The key elements are:

(1) Support for students in the new learning environment: In orientation and progression, wellbeing and safety, and learning resources and educational support;

(2) Support services and training for academic, to ensure academics are equipped for their role;

(3) Maintaining quality of education and learning outcomes; and

(4) Governance arrangements to support online delivery.

Although this COVID19 pandemic event has resulted in a stressful situation, institutions of higher learning will emerge stronger as they have gained knowledge in reacting to global catastrophes. In fact, this new normal for the higher education sector has seen a dramatic transformation in which the online learning landscape be revolutionised, application processes reshaped and crisis management strategies reshaped. 

During these challenging times, institutions will have the opportunity to evaluate how well they have fared in the face of a major catastrophe and become stronger as they weather future calamities. Congratulations to all academics around the world who have helped their faculty in supporting their students through this difficult time, with a focus on engagement, compassion and flexibility.

Professor Dr Lee Miin Huui is the Dean of Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She can be reached via email at hlee@swinburne.edu.my.