Online Delivery in Higher Education: Our experience and challenges to-date
By Associate Professor Tang Fu Ee
The fight against the coronavirus rages on in most countries of the world, including our own, and many universities and institutions of higher learning have made a quick move to online delivery of their courses. While this is timely, online delivery of teaching and learning is certainly not without its challenges.
Experienced academics and educators are working hard to acquire new skills to convey their teaching, ensure constant engagement with their students in order to continue their learning, and design appropriate and safe forms of assessment, among others.
Hence, as with other institutions of higher learning, our online delivery is monitored by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), and the Engineering Accreditation Council (EAC) of the Board of Engineers, Malaysia (BEM) has also sent their recommendations for implementation of online delivery and assessment of our engineering courses.
It was the technology that many of us had to grapple with at first when the Movement Control Order (MCO) was implemented. Although we were reasonably well-versed with our Learning Management Systems (LMS), Blackboard and Moodle, academics in the Faculty of Engineering and Science who were used to delivering lectures and tutorials face-to-face in lecture theatres and classrooms suddenly found themselves having to record lectures, conduct live online workshops and tutorials, and interact with students and address their queries and concerns on various online platforms.
Although our LMSes are quite powerful and can accomplish many tasks such as disseminating information and teaching materials, and to a smaller extent, running assessments, we needed to find a remote substitute for our normal face-to-face lectures and interactions with students.
We got used to recording lectures on Microsoft PowerPoint, and although it was simple, it was effective. Even students with poor or limited Internet connectivity could access the recorded lectures. Furthermore, student feedback indicated that they preferred recorded lectures as they could work at their own pace, balancing their time for lectures as well as assignments.
For live online interactions, we started with various well-known apps. Then came the news of some apps being security risks, so we excluded them and stuck to apps that were considered ‘safe’ or had no news or reputation for being security risks.
We also utilised the built-in live online platforms on Blackboard and Moodle – Collaborate Ultra and WizIQ respectively. Forums, although out of fashion, provided an easily-accessible and stable place for students to post their queries and receive help, and did not require high-speed Internet. Neither did plain old e-mails, which the students used the most.
Although our reach to students was wide and students had multiple platforms to contact academics, the challenge was managing and synchronising these platforms well to avoid confusion and information overload.
Then came the matter of laboratories – computer laboratories and science laboratories. Computer laboratories could still be run at home as students could download and install the needed software. Some computer laboratories, however, required remote access to software housed in the university’s terminals.
Science laboratories, meanwhile, which often involve work in specialised laboratories, are not easily replaced. Some academics are replacing their laboratories with virtual (video) laboratories. This is in line with the recommendations made by the EAC.
As for assessments, our academics soon realised that the format and form of the pre-MCO assessments were no longer applicable in the new normal. We changed our assessments immediately as invigilated exams would no longer be practicable. We needed to find alternatives that would achieve the same learning outcomes, as our teaching and learning is founded on Outcomes Based Education (OBE).
Open-book assignments and take-home tests became the order of the day. This change in format was also meant to minimise academic integrity issues, which has emerged to become a talking point at the current time, as well as an opportunity for further development (Ross 2020).
For sure, there are areas that require written examinations, and for these, it is foreseen that remote proctoring and other monitoring practices will be commonplace in the near future. For now, we uphold academic integrity by getting students to submit their work through Turnitin, which is an Internet-based plagiarism detection software.
Meanwhile, with open book assessments, consistent with our students’ feedback, and feedback from other international sources (Hunt 2020), we implemented sufficient flexibility and duration for students to ensure completion of their assessments.
While they may not have access to our brick-and-mortar library with physical books, they have the entire Internet, as well as their learning materials to refer to. To fit the open-book format, we employed a range of strategies: using assignments that required online research, individual variation in the parameters of the questions, and thinking outside the box, all the while ensuring that plenty of opportunities for consultation are provided.
A happy development our academics found is that with the online communication, students’ trepidation of face-to-face meetings with lecturers have been removed. Students are more inclined to seek consultation electronically, and our student consultations have increased overall.
From our observations, some students flourish and make good use of the enforced time at home by working constantly on their studies. Some struggle with their work and feel demotivated, but we encourage them to push on and try to help them where we can. The challenge remains to keep students engaged and on track with their learning. After all, they will have to get through their courses, and the academic’s job is to steer them through the journey.
Our academics have done a wonderful job learning and practicing hard skills such as mastering online communication platforms and maximising use of LMSes, and have found that soft skills such as motivating students and keeping them engaged are still very relevant in online delivery, perhaps even more so as the face-to-face connection has been removed.
Although these efforts have involved a steep learning curve for us, these are essential skills for teaching and learning both in the current situation and in the foreseeable future, so the effort involved is well worth it. Almost certainly, the landscape of teaching and learning at the tertiary level has been altered forever.
Associate Professor Tang Fu Ee is the Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching of the Faculty of Engineering and Science, Curtin University Malaysia. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.