NOVEMBER 2 — This is the RM6 million question of late. With the pandemic sort of reaching its end (yes, I know this is controversial but let’s agree that the worst is over?) and with schools and universities reopening, what is the best mode of learning for our students?

Here are the famous three modes being talked about in every school and college board meeting now: 

a) Face-to-face classes (aka back to normal just like it was in pre-lockdown days)

b) Online (or just like it was during the lockdown) or 

c) Hybrid learning (aka both F2F and online classes simultaneously)

As someone who’s done a) for almost 20 years then forced to do b) for about two years and now being asked to consider c), here are some thoughts:

#1 Go back to face-2-face classes

Whatever else I say here, all Malaysians should understand that for thousands of students and teachers in certain areas, physical classes are the only option. 

In a way, this helps answer the question for some institutions (especially the public ones): If online facilities are sub-par or non-existent, and if your teachers are vaccinated then perhaps there is very little reason to NOT invite as many students back as possible (and option #2 and #3 aren’t even on the table).

F2F lessons are also critical for certain types of learners, not least those who psychologically "log off" during online sessions even though they’re still logged on. 

I can also imagine that for many veteran teachers, going back to a physical classroom would be heaven compared to the hell of the dark abyss of Zoom (where they talk to profile names and the only feedback they get is “yes”, “lol”, “thank you sir”, etc.).

Having said that, if being student-centric is our #1 priority, then we need to recognise that the educational landscape has been changing even since before the pandemic. 

Students resume classes at Sekolah Menengah Pin Hwa in Klang as schools reopen under Phase Three of the National Recovery Plan October 4, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Students resume classes at Sekolah Menengah Pin Hwa in Klang as schools reopen under Phase Three of the National Recovery Plan October 4, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Lockdowns simply forced us to confront what we always suspected — that physical classes have run their course, that face-to-face learning for a new generation of students simply isn’t the same as it was for Gen X or Y, that the media students immerse themselves in these days are WAY more stimulating than anything a Form 3 Maths teacher can provide within 45 minutes (see note 1).

Put simply, just like how everything is going “contact-less”, learning is also heading in this direction (in fact, some even say it’s already there). And if educational institutions cannot "let go" of F2F learning, this would be akin to a society which still prioritises taxis, 2G phones and hardcover books.

[On this note, it’s ominous that our Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) still requires new program submission files to be sent to them in CD-ROMs. Go figure.]

So, should schools resume physical classes?

Unfortunately, I think it remains a necessary “evil” until online learning facilities are up to speed. But all teachers and all institutions should ultimately be heading away from it, even as we maintain this option for special occasions. 

This flip is critical i.e. online should be normal, offline should be the exception. Yes, even for primary schools (see Note 2).

#2 Maintain 100 per cent online classes

I’m sure my classes aren’t the exception. Out of a hundred students who are able to return to the campus, barely 20 or so appear enthusiastic — the rest prefer to stay on Teams.

Maybe it’s the past two years of enforced e-schooling. Maybe it’s lethargy or laziness. Or maybe it’s just more efficient this way.

Think about it. Online classes allow students to do what most students love to do in class: Check their phones, converse, multi-task.

Furthermore, lessons are recorded so in a sense nobody ever needs to miss anything. Also, online assessment is more conducive towards "open book" examinations, which take students away from rote memorisation.

Plus, physical lessons are not that engaging anyway. Sure, there are some great teachers out there who change lives every time they change slides, but you can throw 50 rocks and you won’t even hit one of them. C’mon, this is the education system, not Hollywood (where a "cinematic experience" in a theatre still rocks).

Finally, you can eat your lunch while the lecturer talks. You can, in fact, do almost anything as long as your audio and cam are turned off. The fact that many students do this and still pass their subjects only shows you how unnecessary most lessons are.

I suppose some folks are asking: Well, why don’t all educational institutions go fully digital and online like, say, next week?

The brutal truth: Private educational institutions can no longer justify some of their pricey fees if lessons are mainly online.

This is the (unspoken) primary reason why such institutions, if they had a choice, want students back on campus.

Hence the catch-22. Pedagogically, and from an “Industrial Revolution 4.0” perspective, online lessons are the way to go. They are, as we say, the new norm. 

But many institutions (sometimes the very same ones who teach students about technological developments!) have been designed with physical lessons in mind, and their brick-and-mortar investments are substantial.

There’s no clear-cut solution here. Can a third option help?

#3 Introduce hybrid learning

This mode seems to be the new popular kid on the block. Students are given the option of going back to campus, but kids who are unwilling or unable can still learn from home.

Isn’t this perfect? Not quite.

Ask 10 teachers and at least seven of them will tell you they’re not looking forward to it. I, for one, find it distracting to have to teach students sitting a few feet away from me while also "speaking" to the screen. 

This is why most teachers either speak to Zoom and ignore the students in class, or speak to the students in class and practically ignore their online learners. Someone somewhere loses out unnecessarily.

Pedagogy-wise, therefore, I’m not convinced Man was meant to learn in a hybrid manner; it sounds at best like a temporary accommodation, and at worst like a terrible compromise. It’s hard enough for a teacher to deliver a solid lesson, now she needs to split her attention between two student locations.

Ditto every school email which pre-warns parents that students who do NOT return to campus may, despite the hybrid mode, “have their learning experience affected.” 

As per the priorities of institutions discussed in #2 above, students who return to campus will be given priority (over the online students) simply because institutions prefer the campus to be fully functional.

Yet, remember that both sets of students are paying the same fees — now you see the problem.

I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect that hybrid learning will NOT be the long-term solution we’re looking for. It truly does sound like the worst of both worlds: Lecturers are stressed, the online students will be neglected and parents won’t be happy paying similar fees for "second-class" learning.

(In the public school sector, the issue of fees is moot but then so is the availability of hybrid learning technology in the first place.)

The problems discussed above will likely be papered over by the eventual return of a majority of students back to campus. At least for a while, it will look as if campus life will be back to pre-pandemic days. If so, you can expect that online learning and hybrid learning will gradually cease… until they become, for whatever reason, necessary again. 

And, like a disease, when it relapses it will hit harder than the first time. 

Maybe then, and only then, our educational institutions will finally look at stopping physical classrooms more or less entirely.

Note 1: Clearly, I’m painting with broad strokes. For now, I find it hard to imagine Early Childhood Education (including the early primary years) being completely digitised. Also, it doesn’t look like Special Education and (as already mentioned) much of schooling in rural areas will “go online” substantially anytime soon.

Note 2: A huge exception here would be subjects or programs which require students to work in labs and studios (eg, engineering, applied sciences, medicine, fashion design, etc.).

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.