Edu Nation: Ensuring continuity of academic learning in unprecedented times

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 13, 2020 - April 19, 2020.
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We are living in unprecedented times. As Covid-19 wreaks havoc in almost all countries in the world, testing health and medical systems, education systems too are placed under the microscope. Countries are grappling with ways to provide continuity and ensure that their students keep pace with regular learning despite the critical situation.

It may be the easiest to say that online learning is the way to go. Many universities and private schools in Malaysia have already started doing this. Some national schools too have started to use home-based learning by giving assignments and homework through various learning platforms. The initiative depends largely, however, on the school administrators and students who are equipped with appropriate devices.

At this juncture, with the Movement Control Order in its fourth week, e-learning is the quickest, doable learning platform, and a novel idea. These schools and universities are still at the testing phase to ensure effective delivery and learning. Not everyone has the privilege of owning such devices, however, nor the bandwidth to ensure the needed connectivity. The internet is congested during the day, with lags evidently happening because everyone is working online, not just the students.

Experts at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which conducts the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), have made recommendations to support effective education strategies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The concern is that school closures are likely to be extended until a vaccine or cure can be safely prescribed and made available to the public. China has been on lockdown for two months, and districts will open schools only when there are zero new cases, while maintaining certain standard operating procedures, such as social distancing, wearing masks and good hygiene practice to ensure safety.

Among the OECD recommendations for continuing education are:

  1.     Reprioritise curriculum goals;
  2.     Identify and support education delivery — online learning and various mass media, TV, radio, podcasts, with the support of private-public partnerships;
  3.     Support vulnerable students and parents, enhance communication and collaboration to foster learning and well-being, including those dependent on school meals;
  4.     Professional development and collaboration for teachers, and guidance for parents to support learners;
  5.     Schools to develop and maintain a system of communication, in the form of checking daily with each student via text messages, as well as teachers and school staff; and
  6.     Ensure school leaders get financial, logistical, resource and moral support.

These are sound strategies that the Ministry of Education must look into immediately and take steps to ensure that our students are able to continue learning. This is the best time to review the overemphasis on a content-heavy curriculum and ensure that students learn what they need to and are able to apply the knowledge according to the benchmarking of the PISA test. In other words, it is perhaps time to install the “lite” version of the curriculum app.

It is indeed encouraging to see the public-private partnership spring into action to address the situation at hand, with Khazanah’s LeapEd Services supporting educators, YTL foundation’s free phone and data loaded with e-learning apps for B40, Teach For Malaysia’s developing lessons for critical subjects, the MoE’s TV Pendidikan and various free e-learning video libraries aligned to the national curriculum.

As good as these initiatives are, however, the OECD has assessed that, even in an online setting, teachers providing either direct instruction or guidance in self-directed learning is essential in steering students’ learning. Therefore, it is most critical to facilitate teachers’ professional collaboration and learning so that they keep abreast of the rapidly evolving challenges and responses in supporting their students’ learning.

The other pressing issue to address is the critical exams: UPSR, PT3, SPM and STPM. MOE could consider, especially for UPSR and PT3, complete school-based assessment without the need for national exams this year. Should the Standard 6 cohort need the results for boarding schools, there could be other means of admission qualifications such as interviews and entrance exams. Therefore, resources can be concentrated towards the crucial SPM and STPM exams.

Based on current case studies of the UK and European exams of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), A-Levels and International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, no decision has been made for exams scheduled for October/November, but those scheduled for May/June have been cancelled. Even with the cancellations, exams such as the GCSE (equivalent to SPM) and A-Levels (equivalent to STPM) have provided leeway for school-based assessment so candidates can get their results at planned times.

Evaluation and preparations should also be made for SPM and STPM to have such an option if the pandemic continues to be a threat and lingers longer than expected. Bear in mind, the Spanish flu pandemic took two years, from 1918 to 1920, to subside.

As we move forward during this uncertain time, we must ensure that we continue to improve to deliver quality teaching and learning as far as possible. Ideally, all students and teachers should be at the same pace and on the same page so that no one is left behind, which would cause social inequality or, worse, risk a higher dropout rate, especially at the PT3 level. For now, let’s keep everyone safe, connected and e-learning.


Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia

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