Home-based learning: Odds stacked against teachers in Malaysia’s public primary schools, while private counterparts are more prepared

KUALA LUMPUR: The odds are stacked against public primary schools in Malaysia, with teachers having to grapple with connectivity issues and drawing up online classes overnight for home-based learning during the movement control order (MCO). 

Private schools, on the other hand, have a head start over their peers as they have some prior experience in e-learning that they can draw on. 

Students in public primary schools who are used to face-to-face interactions with teachers and using textbooks as their main study materials are struggling to adapt to home-based learning, said K Tamilarasi, who teachers at a national school in Klang, Selangor. 

“You see all these students are so accustomed to using textbooks and having teachers guide them through homework, then now suddenly you’re expecting them to manoeuvre through online learning like experts, it’s unfair,” she said.

The mathematics teacher, 34, added that most of her students could not seek guidance from their parents as the adults also do not have any prior experience in using electronic devices to study. 

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Some students in Malaysia have no prior experience in online learning. (File photo: Bernama)

Schools nationwide have been closed for two months since MCO kicked in on Mar 18 to control the spread of COVID-19, with two national level examinations for Year 6 students in the primary schools and Form 3 students in secondary schools called off this year. 

The other public examinations for the Malaysian equivalent of O-Level and A-Level qualifications have been postponed. 

While there has been no announcement so far on when schools will reopen, Education Minister Mohd Radzi Md Jidin had said that the government would inform parents two week prior to the reopening. Form 5 and Upper 6 students, who are set to complete their secondary school and pre-university education, would be allowed to return to schools first. 

Goh Sui Hui, a 40-year old science teacher in a Chinese primary school in Johor, told CNA that most of her students “feel abandoned” with distance learning, something that they have no prior experience of. 

“With my students devices isn’t a problem. Internet connectivity is spotty sometimes. But even all that we can manage. The issue here is being able to guide them to learn on an e-platform. It’s like starting them back from kindergarten all over again,” she said. 

VARIOUS HURDLES IN DISTANCE LEARNING 

The first hurdle encountered by many public school teachers is that not every children own electronic devices, especially those from families that are less well-to-do. Dr Mohd Radzi had earlier noted that 36.9 per cent of about 900,000 students surveyed do not own electronic devices to study at home. 

Tamilarasi said some of her students in elite classes also have the same problem. 

“I teach two different primary levels and have three classes in each level. Of the six classes two classes are students who need a lot of hands-on coaching and constant monitoring. Now with the MCO, I have completely lost them,” she said. 

Admitting that this is one of the hardest things she has experienced after eight years of teaching, Tamilarasi said MCO had led to her losing her momentum of teaching. 

READ: Home-based learning is strange, new ground but we can conquer that too, a commentary

The lack of training and experience in handling online lessons have left the teachers overwhelmed and frustrated. They have to individually figure out a method that works for each class if not each student.

Goh said that with her students she was used to giving each of them lessons differently. Their science syllabus is in English, she added. 

“Mine being a Chinese school, some of the students are not fluent in Malay or English, so when they come to me, I explain in Mandarin. But I cannot write homework separately in Mandarin for these children and neither can I have two separate lessons in different languages.

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There has been no announcement so far on when schools in Malaysia will reopen. (File photo: Bernama) 

“It’s extremely frustrating. Not to mention that we have to formulate all this classwork on our own because the education department doesn’t have anything for us to use,” she said adding that it would have been helpful if teachers were given training before on conducting classes online.

Marlina Azhar, a 29-year-old Malay language teacher at a national primary school in Kuala Lumpur also said some training would have been useful. 

“You see as much as it is challenging for the students, we as teachers are also struggling. We need to put together our own homework and figure out how best to convey it to students. 

“Then we have to worry about whether the students get it, if they understand it, if they submit it on time, all this without any prior experience of doing this,” she said. 

HARD TO MAINTAIN CLASSROOM DISCIPLINE VIA ZOOM

With the distance, it appears that many students are using the newfound freedom to evade teachers and homework, the teachers shared.

Goh said it was extremely difficult to maintain classroom discipline during her Zoom classes. 

“I use Google classroom for homework and Zoom for tutoring. I found out that some of my students actually just mute their audio and mute me and play games with each other,” she said. 

Similarly, Marlina also shared that a lot of her students despite having devices, make up excuses to sit out of classes. 

“Everything from Internet connection to unclear audio to not knowing how to charge their devices and all of that. If we keep going like this, it will undo all the work I’ve put in so far,” she said.  

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Students in Malaysia have to resort to online learning when schools are closed to control the spread of COVID-19. (File photo: Bernama) 

READ: E-learning sees no smooth sailing in Malaysia and Indonesia, a commentary

With many teachers and students complaining about lack of devices and a steady Internet connection, the Ministry of Education had introduced television-based learning in the second phase of the MCO. 

Asked on whether any of the resources given by the government was helpful in conducting her classes, Marlina said: “The lessons on television, I asked my students to watch them and they all said okay, but only a handful tuned in.”

“All this is too new for them,” she said. 

PRIOR EXPERIENCE AN ADDED ADVANTAGE FOR INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL TEACHERS

The situation appears to be different for international school teachers and students, as many of them have had experience teaching and learning online.

Shri Thivya Kanagendran, 27, who teaches science to upper primary students said that though fully teaching online has been challenging, her students have been exposed to online learning before this. 

She explained that her school in Selangor has online homework modules for students to work on during school holidays or weekends.  

“In fact, a few other teachers and I used to even schedule Zoom sessions with students for them to clarify doubts.

“So when the government announced the MCO, we knew what we had to do,” she said. 

Similarly, Zoe Ng, a mathematics teacher in an international school in Negeri Sembilan told CNA that she was able to get by this MCO period without much challenges.

“Maybe because my students are all in upper primary, so they are not too hard to control. I have spoken to many of my student’s parents and they also shared that the children are doing pretty well,” she said.

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Schools in Malaysia have been closed since Mar 18, 2020 as part of the movement control order measures. (File photo: Bernama)

Nonetheless, the teachers said that children still need direct guidance in order to learn effectively. 

Even though the kids may not find online learning a challenge, Shri Thivya said “they are accustomed to asking questions in person and teachers are also used to giving them guidance in person.” 

Similarly, Ng said setting up online separate tutor sessions for the kids whenever they need guidance gets tiring after awhile. 

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“In addition to that, these children miss interacting with their friends. They get very excited when we have Zoom classes, especially when I do not require them to mute their audio. They get to talk to one another instead of just hearing me talk. On some days, I just allow the chatter,” she said.

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