Coexisting with Covid-19 – university students in Malaysia

THE number of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia is at 2,031 as of March 26, with 24 dead. We have the unenviable title of “highest number of cases in Southeast Asia”.

The Covid-19 crisis is now putting Malaysians to the test, including their ability to deal with the crisis emotionally and mentally. On a practical level, it also tests Malaysians’ ability to interact with one another now that face-to-face interaction is practically disallowed.

One of the sectors hurting is that of education. Public and private educational institutions have been closed as part of the movement-control order (MCO), a policy which will now last until April 14.

E-learning as a teaching method has been employed by many countries worldwide as a means to navigate this Covid-19 labyrinth. After all, what other choice is there? E-learning has its pros and cons, a subject on which a whole article could be written.

In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, knowing how to use and access e-learning material is a huge plus. Unfortunately, not all countries have experts highly trained in electronic learning.

Much has been said elsewhere about the digital divide so characteristic of modernity. Crises such as Covid-19 only accentuate this issue.

While e-learning constitutes the main form of learning for students and teachers in Malaysia during this period, this article doesn’t just revolve around their tech-savviness. We’ve read about how Malaysian students overseas are coping with Covid-19.

Back home, we spoke with three students from International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and Monash University Malaysia (MUM) to ask them about their e-learning experience thus far.

The opinions of the students were varied, not all students were well-versed in online learning. 

We first spoke to Baderan, an undergraduate at IIUM. He felt that the e-learning experience thus far was “manageable and passable.” He hasn’t experienced the full process of e-learning as the university has not shifted all classes from the classroom to the computer yet.

A crisis such as Covid-19 shows us how well-equipped we are in the first place if society and the economy cannot function at an optimal level. He did not raise concerns about this though. The issue for him was not about whether students should have been trained in e-learning much earlier; what was important was that students and educators could understand the technology when it mattered.

On the other hand, he acknowledged that e-learning was not so effective “but that is the only way available to continue the semester as usual.”

More worryingly for Baderan was the ability of students to even have access to e-learning material: “Students from the B40 income bracket do not have a laptop and have always relied on the university’s computer lab or library facilities to do their work.”

Hence, the health crisis was a double whammy for B40 students: Not able to access proper healthcare and e-learning facilities. The fact is that within education, e-learning alone is a privilege not all can afford.

Celine from MUM expressed more concern about the efficacy of e-learning. Whether students and teachers could make use of e-learning in the first place depended on the availability of a reliable internet connection.

When asked about the challenges of e-learning, she lamented on the poor internet connections: “I guess on and off wifi connections, even some glitches in the system. For example, my lecturer posted our unit structure via a forum online (in moodle); I did not receive an email about it and I missed out and I thought about what else I could have missed if this continues on… I was lucky I went in to check.”

However, Celine went on to reflect on e-learning from a mental health point of view. When asked if e-learning was effective for her, she said it made her less productive. Relatedly, not being able to leave the house had an impact on her mental wellbeing: “I’m an anxious person and I usually like going outdoors to keep myself busy with activities such as sports and I live in a hostel… thus the need to be active and to be distracted.”

Aida from IIUM had only one experience with online learning-before the MCO began. Her faculty decided to follow the advice from the ministry to not have classes online. Despite her lack of experience with e-learning, she thinks that it should have been “normalised during normal circumstances.”

She said e-learning could be effective, especially for lecturers who choose to deliver their lectures online. It also provided a more efficient manner for students to submit their assignments.

One of her batch mates initiated a training programme on e-learning. The training was important in anticipation of physical classes being suspended. E-learning platforms were under-utilised and lecturers were not very familiar with them.

Subsequently, one of her professors decided that there should be a group of people to train the lecturers on e-learning. What the lecturers struggled with the most was how to navigate the e-learning application itself.

This included creating a group, calling a person and sharing screens. Considering the sudden shift to e-learning, Aida felt that the training was still adequate. At least lecturers were familiarised with giving lecturers through platforms such as Facebook Live and conducting their tutorials on Zoom.

Groups of lecturers were also assigned to one student each so that the student could assist lecturers who may have forgotten the steps required to conduct a lesson online.

Now that Aida is confined to her home, she has ample time to do her assignments. Her wifi connection has served her well. However, she never fails to take into account others who are going through the same situation.

She said others “might not have the best internet connection, and the time to completely focus on their studies because they have to take up familial responsibilities.”

Additionally, she felt that the question of the effectiveness of e-learning should be secondary: “We are literally going through a pandemic; we don’t go through this kind of thing all the time. I think the priority should always be making sure you’re healthy, your mental health is healthy, you’re able to help out your family at home.”

One thing constant about Aida was that she was always worried about how other Malaysians, students or not, were dealing with the MCO. At times, she felt overwhelmed, both because of the bleakness of the situation and because of the fact that not everyone was able to go back home and spend time with their family: “I feel like… we ought to check up on our friends.”

It is always easier to think only about ourselves. We worry that we might not graduate on time due to this pandemic. We think online classes are a dread. But if we just spent a little more time zooming into the unseen, many of our friends don’t even have the opportunity to think beyond surviving each day, with only RM100 left in their bank accounts.

Malaysian university students are not having a breeze during this quarantine, and this is due to the education inequality that still exists so glaringly in our society. Accessing the internet should be given to all without having to spare RM50 for extra data just because video conferences consume a bulk of this data.

Covid-19 in Malaysia also exposes the complacency of some universities. With Malaysia in a race against urbanisation, some faculties are still struggling with the concept of e-learning. It took a pandemic to push these faculties out of their comfort zone.

It is time for our Education Ministry to utilise digital platforms to the fullest to aid our students in times of an emergency like this. We have to be proactive in venturing into new means for education so that they can be materialised, as opposed to frantically reacting to an MCO.

Just to be sure, screaming “stay at home” does not solve any of these problems that our youths are facing. – March 27, 2020.

* Imad Alatas and Firzana Redzuan read The Malaysian Insight.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.

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