COMMENT | Covid-19 – catalyst for driving transformation of schools

Published 14 May 2020, 4:12 pm on Malaysiakini

COMMENT | Our response to the Covid-19 pandemic in pushing the adoption of e-learning online at home is both innovative and exciting. This is particularly so especially from the perspective of digital transformation. To see the Ministry of Education jump in and push e-learning to the fore is long-awaited. While Covid-19 is not the most ideal motivation, It has spurred the opening of an opportunity towards a digital transformation of schools in a big way.

However, the adoption of e-learning has its challenges. For countries like Malaysia and other developing economies, there have already been long-existing problems within the education system that are in dire need of fixing. Then all of a sudden, with this pandemic going on, schools have had to be shut and the entire learning process was forced into homes.

While adopting e-learning technologies and schooling at home is out of necessity, we must take a few steps back to find the best ways forward to adapt and adopt these digital technologies to our benefit. We need to do this also to be better prepared for possible future pandemics and other potential emergencies.

Malaysian education has gone through a series of digitisation initiatives and is now ready to fully jump on board with digital transformation to pave the way to rethink, reimagine and reinvent schools.

To move towards this transformation, three things need to work:

1. Enable access to technologies;

2. Ensure that technology works for us; and

3. Reimagine how schools will work in a digital environment.

For the learning process to continue seamlessly at home through e-learning, we first need to address the access to such technologies. This would be the availability of infrastructure access. Malaysia’s National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan (NFCP) is an excellent initiative to drive connectivity. This must continue without hindrance. Individual states – such as the Penang’s Connectivity Master Plan (PCMP) initiative – are helping provide better access. The government must be focused and committed to connectivity. They cannot let the masterplan slip as this is critical for both education and the economy.

Another barrier to the access of technologies is the social-economic digital divide. This challenge requires solutions beyond just the technical expertise – the economists and strategic planners need to be involved. Needless to say, the issues with access to technologies need a long-term solution.

Any technical and IT solution must include tiered as well as alternative implementations to address those affected, yet does not impede their learning processes. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Attention and resources must be given to developing solutions suitable for the lower-income and vulnerable communities. The playing field must be levelled to ensure that the outcomes do not differ from those who can have much better access to technologies.

 The government must give strong attention and work with partners and stakeholders, not just leave it to the NGOs and social organisations. If not done, set up a unit in the Ministry of Education focused on developing solutions to provide access to technologies.

Making technology work

This is about having determined, strong and positive outcomes from the start. This is the part that needs careful thinking through the current and future states of learning and how schools play a role, then have the technology to enable and drive outcomes.

The key principles here is that technologies need to be able to adapt to achieve the desired outcomes. In the digital implementation space, any successful technology-based implementation must consider a holistic approach to putting together “people – process – technology”.

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Here are some principles that the Ministry of Education could consider to adopt in making technology work:

a. Adaptation of roles

The role of the teacher in a classroom setting would be very different in an online environment. In an online classroom scenario, the body language of students is not as evident as compared to a physical classroom scenario. Hence it is more difficult to ascertain whether a student truly understands the lesson in the online class. The social interaction element is also missing. We need to rethink the skills and roles of the teacher.

Schooling at home would need supervision remotely that a teacher could not do. Collaboration is between parents and teachers is a must. Parents’ (or guardians’) roles need to be adapted too.

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Successful e-learning solutions must have strong collaboration tools to ensure good communication and coordination between teachers. The student, too, will have to adopt different ways of learning.

b. Adaptation to the online-based curriculum

Curriculum and delivery methods currently used in schools may not be suitable for e-learning. The medium is different, the delivery needs to also be different.

In Malaysia, there are a host of e-learning platforms and applications, mostly geared towards enrichment or supplementary learning. These are excellent starting points. The delivery of the content needs to be adjusted to be engaging for both the students and educators incorporating new ideas like more interactive, collaborative features and news such as gamification.

To make technology work, we will be to relook at the roles of education stakeholders, think through the processes, and review the delivery of material processes. This is to be done holistically.

Reimagine schools

Technology cannot just be placed in schools. Schools must change and adapt to fully benefit from the technology. Hence the need to rethink, reimagine and reinvent schools.

We need to think out of the box. Schools today are built modelled along the “factory” process of the First Industrial Revolution. They are built to be big, with multiple classrooms serving student by age and grades. The current learning from home through e-learning is forcing a rethink of the role of schools. Here are some thoughts on how I would imagine schools post-Covid-19.

a. Small is beautiful

Schools have become large buildings or cluster schools. A large number of students in a school makes schools themselves a high-risk environment for the spread of diseases.

I imagine schools of the future to be smaller, local and community-centred. Schools can be a centre for learning in the community where students are more participative and engaging. In the event of a pandemic, the transition to home-based online education will be more seamless – if they need to be shut in the first place.

b. Big is also beautiful, virtually

While schools can be physically small, they can be digitally or virtually large. Using online e-learning platforms, collaboration and communications tools, a network of smaller community-based schools can connect with one other for larger collaborative learning. One teacher could also reach a larger audience supported by local teachers (and even parents) on the community level. The digital platform could also be configured to share resources, and exchange ideas among the different schools. Think scalability.

Programmes such as sports, concerts, debate competitions, etc would be opportunities to get together where students and teachers from the many schools get together, interact and socialise.

c. Self-directed learning

Having carefully designed online programmes would encourage students to be self-directed in their learning experience. The technology could be utilised to give spaces and opportunities to explore information and available data to learn on their own to a certain extent. Teachers will then be facilitators for learning.

This concept was first mooted when Malaysia embarked on the Smart Schools Project so perhaps it is time to bring this idea back. Being self-directed and independent learners is a very important skill that will help students as they advance in life.

Above all, we like students to be excited about learning.

d. Parents can be involved (a little more)

With the current MCO, parents have little choice but to be involved, at least in facilitating (some aspects) of the learning process. With technology, resources can be shared through group e-learning and they can play a much more meaningful role within the time or resources available. Within a closer community environment, parents (our relatives/guardians) can be better motivated and trained and be prepared to play more significant roles.

d. Bridging communities

I imagine the smaller community-centric schools to cater for the vulnerable in the country. They will be configured differently to allow younger people to have access to technology and online learning. Schools will serve as the local technology centre. They could even be hotspots for the community using technologies such as the relatively lower cost “white space Internet” to provide Internet access and a host of other learning and collaboration platforms.

No one should be left behind in education. Education must be inclusive.

What next?

One thing for sure, schooling will not be the same as before and we need to acknowledge this. We must adopt the “new normal” and be prepared and be able to manage possibilities’ risks.

I sincerely hope the Ministry of Education will be single-minded and committed to improving our education learning from this whole experience. It’s a huge task and it helps if we adopt the Mayo Clinic’s famous innovation mantra: “Think big, start small, grow fast”.

KV SOON describes himself as an entrepreneur and strategist for digital transformations.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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