Thanbeer Kaur, Senior Educator, Malaysian Ministry of Education

Thanbeer is an ESL educator in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She is the International Relations Coordinator and Student Affairs Coordinator at the institution she serves. She beliefs in learning by doing and heads the Interact Club that organises an array of campaigns throughout the year including raising funds for selected benefactors. These activities are held to create awareness on global issues and to bridge the gap between school and the real-world as well as improve their English language proficiency. She was a teacher-mentor to trainee teachers and Master Trainer for CEFR selected by Ministry of Education (MOE) in collaboration with Cambridge English (Language Assessment), where she trained teachers to adopt CEFR in the teaching of English Language in Malaysia. She has also served as an Assistant Director in the Language Assessment Unit at the Examinations Syndicate, MOE, Malaysia. Recently, she appeared on television for an English Language learning programme in Malaysia and a virtual talk show on leadership as a global need.

Who knew that it would take a pandemic like Covid-19 that would force us to rethink our daily practices and press the reset button in almost every aspect of lives? The world of education has shaken where some are thriving with the use of online learning while some in the remote areas of Asia are suffering, as they are not connected to the online world. It has widened the gap between the have and have nots. Many would argue that access to the internet is no longer a luxury but a fundamental human right and that integrating hybrid learning would likely be the way forward in education.

Therefore, these inequalities in connectivity should be resolved urgently. While some steps are taken to narrow this gap where a few private companies are trying to help provide kids with internet access, it is uncertain if this is effective as some of these kids may not own a computer or mobile device. Schools need to report cases of students who have been having trouble with connectivity or access to mobile devices not only to their local education departments but seek help from the local community so that anyone who can help will come forward to accelerate the process of narrowing these gaps.

Credit always need to be given where credit is due. Thus, efforts from teachers and school administrators deserve to be applauded as they have all undergone a steep learning curve in order to make online learning available and ensuring students are engaged in continuous learning at home. However, the quality of online learning amongst schools vary. There is a gap in knowledge amongst schools and teachers who can use technology effectively and those who are still struggling or merely getting by.

Therefore, it is crucial to identify these schools and groups of teachers to narrow this gap by offering continuous professional development and support in this area to help them teach online more effectively. Pressuring them to take up mandatory courses that are irrelevant to their current quest is demoralising and adds to their burden especially those who are still grappling with teaching virtually.

Gaps between students’ adaption to virtual learning need attention too. Some students have adapted to online learning remarkably well while some are overwhelmed as learning online predominantly requires a different set of skills. Online learning requires more discipline, greater self-motivation, the ability to focus without being distracted or without being reprimanded by the teacher, or in other words self-learning skills which some students have not been exposed to or did not have the opportunity to develop or practice. Some of my students constantly complain that they are having difficulty to adapt to this new way of learning.

Therefore, this gap in adapting to virtual learning has to be addressed by for example selecting and sharing appropriate videos on self-learning and discussing them online with students and such support should continue when schools reopen.

We have to reopen soon; for all or in phases

Some schools around the world such as Taiwan, China, Denmark, and Germany have reopened schools as closing down schools for too long may lead to adverse effects. Malaysia is looking at reopening schools for its 17- and 18-year olds first as they will be sitting for their SPM (Malaysian Certificate of Education) and STPM (Malaysian Higher School Certificate) examinations.

SPM and STPM are high-stake examinations as they offer pathways to tertiary education. Singapore is also giving priority to students sitting for major public examinations. In the UK however, schools for the younger children will be reopened first while in Japan students of all ages will go back to school sometime in June.

Governments around the world seem to be tackling the reopening of schools in ways it deems acceptable within their own beliefs, priorities, and progress in reducing COVID-19 cases. But can we conclude that some countries are not helping the economy get back on track by giving more importance to examinations?

If younger kids remain at home, parents may not be able to go to work if they cannot afford daycare for their kids. This will lead to consequences on the already lagging economy. Younger kids are also in need of a sense of normalcy by attending school. We must also bear in mind that they cannot use technology independently at home and if there is no help from an adult, it will negatively impact their learning and development.

What we do first when we reopen is crucial!

The next pertinent question would be what do we do first when students go back to schools? In addition to taking the precaution of preventing the spread of this virus by educating and reminding them about social distancing, checking body temperatures and practising good hygiene at all times, what should our utmost concern be?

Education is not all about making up for lost instructional time as we have to have our hearts and minds in the right place. We need to support both students’ and teachers’ mental well-being first. Getting children to play games by adapting them so that social distancing rules are still practised, drawing and talking about their time during lockdown is fundamental to ensure that those who experienced distressing time during the lockdown are identified and the necessary support is provided.

It is imperative to implement this so that both students and teachers are in the right frame of mind for effective teaching and learning to take place later on.

Get students involved in the reopening

Some parents and students are worried about going back to school amidst covid-19 while some are anxious to go back to school.  One way to address these mixed reactions is by getting them involved in a project to create excitement and to assure sceptical parents and students that the necessary precautions have been put in place to ensure safety.

My Interact Club members at the school where I teach for example are preparing a video to remind students to practice physical distancing, hand washing and sanitising frequently. As the teacher advisor, I know they are very excited about making this video as it would require a collaborative effort. The fact that all their friends will watch it and knowing that they are championing a good cause as they will promote physical distancing to keep their friends safe adds on to the excitement.

In addition, providing students with a voice would also increase their motivation to learn. By acquiring their input on ways they would like to learn, now that they have experienced both traditional classroom and virtual learning, would encourage them further to take on an active role in their own learning and continue to enhance self-learning skills.

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