In a research conducted by Teach For Malaysia-Bain & Company with the support from Pemimpin GSL, Project ID, schools and others, we found that during this pandemic and its effect on distance learning, students are facing challenges in upholding their mental and emotional well-being. Heavily relying on teachers has caused them to easily give up when it comes to taking the ownership of their own growth. While the world is experiencing volatility, how can we prepare them to lead themselves in the new normal?
Here are some insights from the discussion:
What concerns you the most about students adapting to this New Normal?
In general the participants are worried about the learning conditions of students at home and if their environment is conducive enough for them to be able to sit through a full lesson and do work. There was also a concern on how some students may not have internet connection or devices to use for distance learning. The concerns also involved the children’s well being, mental health, and discipline, and motivation.
One participant highlighted their concern of students coping up with the workload given by the teachers, acknowledging that they might have other responsibilities at home. The students might also face other challenges like siblings fighting to use the same laptop, facing parents who might come off as ‘nagging’ as they are also frustrated with being cooped up at work, and uncomfortable learning environment as not all students are privileged enough to have their own room and privacy to focus on their lessons. The teachers are mainly concerned on how students can engage in online lessons without a proper learning environment.
Next, examinations seem to be a popular concern. Although typical exams have been abolished at schools except for SPM, university students still have to take their tests and exams online. With connection, accessibility, and conduciveness being an issue, there is a concern of this affecting their results. They feel that it is unfair for them to be graded similarly as before, even though the condition is drastically different. Teachers were also thinking about other initiatives they can encourage the students to take as waiting for lessons from teachers will not be sufficient in this condition. Subjects like Physical Education will not work with 100% virtual engagements. As mentioned earlier, motivation and discipline are also concerns thus self-initiatives at home are very important.
Lastly, issues like mental health and lack of socialising was also mentioned as students do not only go to school and university to learn, but also to meet friends and learn soft skills. There was a worry on how virtual engagements could possibly halt the progress of this as students might only be confined to their immediate family members. It was also acknowledged that students have more energy and are naturally more curious. Keeping them cooped up at home too long might have negative impacts on the development of their soft skills.
From this prompt, we found that the concerns do not only involve students’ learning, but their wellbeing, mental health, and motivation as well. It was a good and active introductory conversation to the discussion.
What are the current realities / challenges that you know on how students are doing in adapting to distance learning?
Our discussion shows that many educators are turning to Zoom, live Facebook sessions, and Whatsapp to conduct distance learning. Due to the heavy reliance on technology, the gap in quality education is widening.
According to Doria’s survey, a participant who is a lecturer at UTM, every hour, an average of RM17 worth of data is used. 40% of students don’t have headphones which makes it hard to engage in live sessions. Without wifi connection, students will have to spend hundreds to complete all of their lessons and assignments. Besides that. Many students prefer to study at odd hours, as during the day they might be busy with family things, and internet usage is higher in the day which might lead to slower connection.
Melissa, who is a teacher and therapist for special education shares that kids with special needs do not do too well with virtual learning as they need the physical presence of the teachers. Too much online interaction makes them feel frustrated which leads to them abandoning homework and even classes as this affects them mentally, Due to this built-up frustration, they might even have outbursts and throw tantrums at home. Although it is a minority, it is still something that needs to be brought up as special needs children need physical engagement like holding hands, pats on the back, and others.
According to the students who participated, it is difficult for them to concentrate during a virtual lecture. Internet access is a burden even for university students. There are students who chose to stay at the campus during MCO because they do not have internet access at home, especially when they live in rural areas.
Fatah, our host, concluded that there are many things students are dealing with that we don’t realise would be a problem to them. Even though internet access is a major issue, it is not within our locus of control, and we should focus on things we can control.
What is currently being done to help and support students in adapting to distance learning?
According to the students Kauthar and Farah, it was difficult at first as lecturers did not know what was going to happen because everything was very sudden. The lecturers constantly checked up on the students and this made the students felt cared for. The lecturers also ask for a lot of feedback to ensure the lessons conducted are effective. They are also understanding of the students who could not make it to all sessions. The teachers also shared that this is not only new to the students, but to the teachers as well. Amer, a US graduate, shared that the lecturers became more lenient in marking and they had flexible exam times.
Kelly, who is a teacher and a Teach For Malaysia Fellow started Whatsapp class groups and asked simple questions to check up on the students. Every 2-3 weeks, the students were asked to give feedback about the given assignments. She also uses emojis to increase engagement from the students. Realising that not all of the students can access live lessons, she will repost lessons and notes on Whatsapp and Facebook. It is an exhausting process but it is satisfying to see the results.
Priscilla shared that the students’ mental health is an important thing to consider. Students are not lazy, but it’s the building anxiety during this crisis that makes them too nervous and anxious to have the headspace to learn. Students also depend a lot on teachers during this period and she believes that things can be improved with the help from parents, as parental engagement will improve students’ mental wellbeing at home, which helps in increasing motivation to learn.
What should be done to improve this reality and how can we contribute within our capacity to make distance learning more meaningful to students?
Fatah, the moderator, shared a discussion he had with Rachel Lim from Teach For All about changing our approach that currently emphasises Bloom’s Taxonomy, which are thinking skills, and instead to emphasise Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as it has a more humanistic approach.
Farah shared that her university held a seminar on how to access the softwares and materials they need for lab subjects and the university also provides the softwares for free to the students. Conferences are done online as it’s very important for Masters’ students. She suggested that companies should provide free access to these softwares temporarily. Kauthar believes that students have to support each other and peer learning is important. Some students are better than others academically, so they have to be open to help their friends. Online discussions, video calls, and doing homework virtually together will help students with their motivation and discipline. As a student, Lam Tzi Hui felt limited to bring changes to the table. He believes the government can play a role to make distance learning to be successful for students. The free 1GB data initiative is a good example. He also suggested to replace entertainment programmes with academic related programmes on TV for those without internet access.
According to Elizabeth, we need to realign the importance of education to students. They need to realise that now, their only competition is themselves. Her university gave students the choice if they wanted to include their final grades for this semester into their CGPA. Assignments are also adjusted so students are able to achieve the learning outcomes in this crisis. Fatah shared that we should allow students to take ownership and allow flexibility and autonomy for them to conduct their own learning. If they understand the importance of education and get exams out of their head, this can be achievable.
Kelly shared that teachers were briefed to not penalise students for not doing homework. Teachers should include more positive rewards to give students the sense of a more humanistic approach. Gamifying lessons can also be an interesting way to get them on board as it makes the lessons fun. Priscilla believes that it will also help students if parents were to have more engagement with them. It does not have to be specifically academic, but to have conversations with their children as socialising is crucial for children to learn how to communicate and obtain people skills.