Online classes - to continue or not? — Geoffrey Williams and Khairir Khalil

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APRIL 6 — More than a year after the Movement Control Order (MCO) was declared, people are getting used to working from home.  For lecturers and students, this simply means online classes, where lecturers deliver their lectures and interact with students through their electronic devices. 

Most enjoy the convenience of not having to travel for the face-to-face classes.  For students, some take the advantage of ‘playing truant’ by just logging in and then doing their own things.  They like the open-book online exams where they can not only google their answers through the internet but also through their colleagues taking the same exam.

Since the lockdowns are coming to an end we conducted a survey of our students and faculty to gauge their views and evaluate the appetite for continuing with online classes. The results came as quite a surprise.

When asked if they prefer online or face-to-face classes, or both, only 17.5 per cent said that they prefer online classes, compared to 35 per cent who prefer face-to-face classes.  A majority of 47.5 per cent prefer to have both methods. From their comments, students feel they can learn better through direct interaction with their lecturers and fellow students. 

As for lecturers, it is probably less of a surprise that the majority, or 66.7 per cent of them, prefer face-to-face classes, while 11.1 per cent prefer online classes and 22.2 per cent prefer both.  They feel that students are better disciplined in face-to-face classes. The lecturers are even willing to forgo the convenience of working from home in order to feel more involved in the class.

In addition, 77.5 per cent of the students and 77.8 per cent of the lecturers say they can focus more during face-to-face classes and, perhaps this is another surprise, 52.5 per cent of students and 75 per cent of lecturers feel less stressful with face-to-face classes.  The two issues may be linked because as they find it hard to focus during online classes, they become more stressful.

Another insight from the results of the survey is that all of the lecturers feel that their students can focus more with face-to-face classes. — Picture by Miera Zulyana
Another insight from the results of the survey is that all of the lecturers feel that their students can focus more with face-to-face classes. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Another insight from the results of the survey is that all of the lecturers feel that their students can focus more with face-to-face classes.  This may be the result of their frustration in getting students to pay attention during online classes, as has been indicated by other reports which reveal that very often students go missing when their names are called by their lecturers to respond to questions.  Added to this disciplinary problem is the frustration of unstable internet connections and access to quiet working spaces to study or take part in classes.

In a separate research study we conducted at a Malaysian private university we looked at online Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses to examine the appetite and preferences of actual and potential MBA students for online learning.

Using responses from local and international students we found that the key factors identified by the largest number students were good quality facilities, value-for-money prices, the authenticity of the certificate and shorter, more flexible course times. This suggests that the most popular programmes will offer credible certificates at value for money prices which can be obtained either quickly or within flexible schedules that suit their timescale.

In many cases students do not see these key factors in online courses which are often seen as a cheaper option and in many respects not a “real” programme. Although enrolments may be high, completion rates are often low. Interaction between students and faculty and between students and their peers is often very limited and so student experiences are sometimes stunted and unsatisfactory.

Programmes like this quickly develop a reputation for poor quality which is passed from current to potential students. So academics designing courses in the future must pay creative attention to developing virtual versions of the value-drivers of traditional programmes. These would include a clear statement of what students get during the programme and how this will benefit their careers in the end.

Value innovation factors also include a credible accredited degree, networking and team-building opportunities, career development options and advice, real opportunities for interaction with faculty and other students, in short all of the things that add value from the student perspective but are low-cost from a business school perspective.

As the MCO is slowly but surely going into the recovery mode, more universities are now starting to evaluate the role of face-to-face classes.  The question now is, should face-to-face classes be stopped altogether?  Is there still a necessity to conduct face-to-face classes now that students are familiar with online learning?  What are the advantages of having both face-to-face and online options now that the travelling and gathering restrictions have been eased?

Looking at the survey results again, both students and lecturers feel that while online classes have some advantages, face-to-face classes should not be stopped altogether. They are less stressful and provide more focus and if for nothing else they provide more variety and break the monotony of online classes. 

From the insights gained through online classes, face-to-face classes can now be made more interesting.  For example, sessions where individual students do presentations would be more suitable to be carried out online. Activities they are unable to do online effectively such as group discussions which are done through virtual channels or breakout rooms, can now be done physically which is livelier and more fun.

So, the question is no longer to continue or not to continue with online classes. It is how we can make use of both online and face-to-face classes to make the learning delivery more effective and enjoyable.

*Professor Geoffrey Williams and Khairir Khalil are academics at the Malaysia University of Science and Technology based in Kuala Lumpur.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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