The good and bad – mostly bad – of online learning

The post-Covid-19 era will be troubling. We are in for a massive financial fallout.

A drop in personal and national wealth will be only 50% of the crisis. The other half is the impending chaos confronting our education system.

Discussions will escalate about shifting more of our pedagogy online. For a few years now, education globally has been abuzz with positive information regarding online pedagogy. Yet, the majority of students are still choosing traditional classes.

The Covid-19 pandemic may force decision-makers to prioritise online teaching, establishing it as the new normal. It brings many pros and cons.

Educators teach what they believe students need to learn. We then gauge their ability to assimilate it. Academics and students participate in interactive discussions through tutorial sessions. Students are then assessed through exams. All these steps can be shifted online.

However, online pedagogy must navigate potential cheating during exams. Cheating can be monitored by technology, but technological surveillance will attract more objection than human monitoring.

This is the socio-psychological and human development cost of switching to online learning. Also, what universities save on conducting in-class, pen-and-paper exams will be redirected to invigilation service entities. The shift to online learning and testing will incur financial cost.

It is believed that online delivery of lectures can enhance the quantity and quality of the subject-matter that is assimilated. To the contrary, quality will most likely diminish because academics will minimise using the socratic method. Students will be deprived of the face-to-face analytical banter that the socratic method encourages.

Pedagogical quality is thus compromised. Academics too may willingly avoid the extra preparation needed for intense intellectual interaction, that is otherwise expected in face-to-face classrooms of higher education. Virtual classrooms may result in an intellectually lazier academic.

Alternatively, can the quality of online learning be nurtured by “do-it-yourself” exams?

Online pedagogy has the potential for massaging analytical skills needed for social science and humanities learning. Do-it-yourself exams are one option, which has been suggested in other countries. It applies to situations where students feel nervous about technology.

Students (i) write the questions, (ii) provide justifications for each of the questions, and then (iii) submit their answers. The academic assesses all three steps. The entire process not only assesses knowledge of the subject matter, but the student’s thinking process and analytical skills through each stage.

Academics are equally challenged because they have to be mentally agile in assessing the student’s thought processes from question, to justification, to answer. Overall, it is a win-win situation.

Apparently, the shift online during the Covid-19 crisis has increased class participation. In Hong Kong, attendance at a few universities is 20% higher than in face-to-face classes.

However, as the novelty of online classes in a crisis situation wears off, boredom and apathy could set in. Online learning will be no more attractive than the traditional classroom setting.

Unless technology is constantly tweaked, upgraded and innovative, the chances are that boredom will take over. Upgrading technology regularly is an added drain on national resources.

Eye contact and the dynamics of body language are intrinsic to human behavioural skills and socialisation. They are part of a holistic educational experience for both the academic and student. These skills prepare graduating students for the workforce.

It is difficult to incorporate eye-contact and body language in online classes. This vital “human touch” in pedagogy will be lost. It will possibly be an added reason for an increase in boredom.

Also, once students join the workforce, they may feel intimidated by the dynamics of face-to-face interaction. They will be less prepared for eye-contact or reading their boss’s body language. Their sense of confidence is rendered precarious. These social handicaps could have national economic implications.

A few academic subjects are impossible to be conducted 100% online, such as art (calligraphy), nursing, counselling, and the culinary and performing arts.

Also, not all students have access to computers and the internet, that guarantees stable video and sound streaming. And how will online learning accommodate the physically-challenged?

Online pedagogy requires intense patience and self-discipline.

In pre-Covid-19 times, if students fall sick and cannot sit for an exam, they would have to wait several weeks for the next opportunity. With online classes, theoretically, they can take it in a matter of days. Logistically, this is a time-saver. But there is also a downside.

How will students learn the value of patience and discipline? How will they acquire the skills to psychologically adapt when faced with missed opportunities?

Life is dotted with unplanned setbacks, illness being one of them. The act of patiently waiting to sit for a rescheduled exam is a valuable exercise in character-building. It teaches anticipation and psychological preparation for unexpected setbacks in life.

It is difficult to teach social mores online. Malaysians love to engage in their running commentaries while someone else is conducting a key presentation in the same room. Both academics and students are guilty of this bad habit.

How will students be taught to respect the mentor-student relationship during an online class? The student sits in front of the computer screen. All participants see a grid of facial images: fellow students and the academic in charge. We do not see anything from the neck down. The fidgeting that a student does with her hands may distract her, but it is unseen by the instructor.

A physical classroom setting facilitates discipline, which is self-imposed by peer pressure. Peer pressure subtly forces a person to sit still and decently, dress neatly, and to prioritise personal grooming and hygiene. These are the social values that mould us into responsible citizens. These apply to the academics as well.

One benefit of online assessments is the “open-book” test and assignments. The relaxation of traditional sit-down, closed-book exams could be replaced by the tougher, but more creative open-book assessments.

Online assessment forces us to move away from the rote learning culture and obsession with memorising and testing. Additionally, online assessment can gradually flow into continuous assessment, as is already done in many face-to-face postgraduate lectures.

The post-Covid-19 education milieu should encourage more trust between mentor and student, and among academics themselves.

As online instruction becomes increasingly necessary, academic contributions in their respective fields will also shift online. Assessments should be based more on quality scholarly output, including participation in virtual interaction, within their field of specialisation.

Bureaucratic practices, such as clocking in at university campuses, should be abolished. Academics should be able to work at their own pace, on condition that they are assessed more frequently, and reviewed wisely for their scholarly contributions and intellectual creativity.

The “new normal” era should usher in a more productive and quality-driven academe.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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