On 18 March 2020 Malaysia went into full lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. At that time we were just about to enter the second half of the academic semester, and classes were suspended initially for two weeks as we made the necessary adjustments to academic policies and guidelines in support of online teaching and learning activities.
Since then we have experienced at least three semesters of online learning, and two semesters of hybrid learning. Learning finally resumed in full physical mode in October 2022. Today, it is such a relief to see our campus buzzing with people and activities after an extended period of calm.
As academics, the period between March 2020 and October 2022 marked an interesting time for us. The first few months were characterised by long days of converting teaching materials into formats that were accessible online, video recording and editing, as well as reviewing and redesigning course assignments and tasks. Our mailboxes were inundated with advisories from the faculty and the university on how to conduct effective online learning for our students, as well as messages from students with queries and requests for clarification relating to our courses. As time progressed we grew accustomed to the ups and downs of online teaching, and were able to adapt to these changes in classroom practices.
Despite all the challenges, we are grateful for the experience. Conversations about technological disruptions in teaching and learning were common pre-pandemic, but they were assumed to be fads which could be dismissed or dealt with when the need arose. However, during the various lockdown iterations our assumptions about teaching and learning were tested in different ways, which required us to be flexible and creative with the resources we had available. We also realised that it was the little changes made in our daily instructional practices that had the most impact on our students.
In this article, we offer three case studies that reflect our attempts to re-think norms and practices. These are tried-and-tested practices that are still implemented in our classrooms to this day.
- Synchronous/Asynchronous learning
- Bring experts to class
- Explore alternative assessment practices
A screen capture of a weekly lesson plan used in class.
#1: SYNCHRONOUS/ ASYNCHRONOUS LEARNING
In the initial months of the first lockdown we found that some students did not have access to digital devices and/or the internet. In the physical learning environment they relied on the university library and computer laboratories on campus to study and complete their assignments. However, during lockdowns they often had to share their devices and broadband connections with their siblings who also had to attend classes online, and in some cases with their parents who were also working online from home.
Our students’ limitations in digital access prompted us to revisit our course delivery to ensure that all learning activities were inclusive for all students. We restructured course syllabi to enable parts of the learning modules to be delivered synchronously, while allowing students follow the remainder of the modules on their own. We encouraged students to be more proactive and self-directed in their learning, driving home the message that learning can happen at any time and anywhere beyond the physical classroom.
In terms of lesson planning, we provided copies of our lesson plans to students on our course learning management system (LMS) as a guide for them to structure their learning. In addition, we also began to utilise messaging applications such as Telegram and WhatsApp in our teaching and learning. Even if they did not have a laptop or computer at home, students could still receive educational materials distributed via Telegram.
#2: BRING EXPERTS TO CLASS
When classes were conducted physically on campus, we organised knowledge-sharing sessions for large groups of students at the faculty level, or requested students to attend intellectual events that were organised by the university.
Even though these events were readily available throughout the year, we had to be selective since the event content had to be aligned with the learning outcomes for our lessons. The lockdowns enabled us to “open” our classes to external tutors by including experts and practitioners as content contributors in our lessons.
They joined lessons virtually from different locations, and shared their thoughts and experiences as part of the session. Such opportunities strengthened the theory-practice interface for the students, as they were able to interact directly with the external contributors through Q&A sessions at the end of each session. For the experts and practitioners the sessions provided avenues for knowledge-sharing at a more focussed level, since their presentations were structured based on the learning outcomes applicable to the sessions concerned.
#3: EXPLORE ALTERNATIVE ASSESSMENT PRACTICES
Course assessments pre-pandemic typically involved quizzes and tests, as well as individual or group assignments assessing students’ comprehension or their ability to apply, evaluate or synthesise meaning from the content delivered in class. During the pandemic we realised that such practices provided only surface-level indications of the students’ mastery of the topics taught in class. We were also unsure whether our students were genuinely engaging with the content and/or the tasks given.
We reviewed our assessment practices for our courses, and rethought the relevance of each assessment to student learning. We gave flexible deadlines on take-home tasks and assignments, and taught students how to work effectively in teams via online applications and platforms.
For example, in a postgraduate-level course on personality psychology, written test questions and project prompts were re-designed to emphasise the students’ reflexive ability. For example, the students were prompted to undertake personal sketches and lexical analysis of traits and reflect on the coping strategies that they used to overcome stress due to the pandemic, based on the underlying psychology theories they had learnt throughout the semester.
Feedback from the students indicated that the test questions and project prompts underlined the importance of personal reflection in learning, and they also felt “heard” during the pandemic, since their assessments enabled them to articulate their anxieties and uncertainties.
COVID-19 provided a much-needed push for us to reimagine teaching for our students, having become accustomed to the physical classroom as the primary learning space for a significant portion of our teaching careers. One consolation throughout the pandemic was that help was all around us; there are many resources related to online teaching and learning that are readily available online. The university also offered help desks and round-the-clock technical assistance for everyone.
In our new learning space that is both physical and digital, learning should be engaging and meaningful for both teachers and students alike. It should also be inclusive, considering the limitations that students might experience in accessing lessons and learning materials online. Since online teaching demands unique skill sets and pedagogical approaches that are different from in-person classroom instruction, we should also identify education and training initiatives that will support us in effective course delivery, and commit to continuous improvement of our teaching practices.
DR DORIA ABDULLAH & DR HADIJAH JAFFRI
Dr Doria Abdullah & Dr Hadijah Jaffri are senior lecturers, School of Education, Faculty of Social Science and Humanities, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.