Blended learning seen as key to improving HE access

Malaysia, a country that has made huge steps in the development of its tertiary education system since independence from Britain in 1957, continues to strive to further entrench higher education participation. Enhancing access and equity are key objectives of the government’s Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education).

With the advent of the digital age and the knowledge society, online learning and particularly blended learning have been identified in the blueprint as a way of widening higher education participation.

Malaysia’s achievements in increasing higher education participation are impressive. The figures in 1957 compared with the current figures underscore that achievement. In 1957, 50% of the population had no formal education, 6% of children had secondary level education and 1% of the population participated at the post-secondary level at one national university. Now, the gross higher education enrolment rate is 48% and in 2012 the tertiary education enrolment rate was 36% in a country with a population of approximately 30 million.

Provision now includes 20 public higher education institutions, 70 private institutions, 410 colleges and 91 community colleges, with 1.2 million students in private and public higher education institutions. The aim is to increase higher education enrolment to 70% of the relevant population by 2025.

With the ever-increasing pervasiveness of digital knowledge, Malaysian government objectives as outlined in the blueprint recognise the need for an educated populace to promote social, economic and cultural development. To develop the higher education system, to increase participation and to promote education for the 21st century, the blueprint identifies access and equity as two of five drivers (the others are governance, quality and efficiency).

In the blueprint, equity is promoted alongside access in recognition that social mobility is supported by education. The aim is an increase in higher education enrolment and completion rates for those from disadvantaged social backgrounds so that, by 2025, students from disadvantaged social backgrounds will not be under-represented in the system. Another aim is to foster in all students an acceptance and understanding of diversity.

Democratising access

The blueprint outlines 10 strategies or ‘shifts’ for the system to achieve the five aspirations outlined above. One of these concerns globalised online learning and is advanced with the intention to widen access.

More specifically and along with the development and use of resources such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), the blended learning model is posited as a core pedagogical approach to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning. By integrating online learning with face-to-face teaching, the plan is that 70% of programmes will use blended learning over the period of the blueprint.

The promotion of online learning through technology-driven innovations and personalised learning experiences for all students is put forward as a means of democratising higher education access and is in line with global movements.

For instance, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal Four of good-quality education states that blended learning is a valuable approach to promoting inclusive education and reaching marginalised students. The blueprint’s focus on online learning is a feasible aspiration given that currently internet penetration in the country is 67%, which is the third highest among ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – countries.

But can blended learning assist with widening higher education access and equity in Malaysia? Using online and blended learning is an approach tried by other countries as well as Malaysia, with some governments perceiving that it will extend outreach and improve educational outcomes. While 2025 is still several years away, it seems relevant to try to look at the outcomes of some blended learning initiatives in Malaysia.

Some higher education institutions in Malaysia note that their blended learning activities enable the active collaboration of students in their learning, which engages and motivates them. This is a valid outcome: it is generally acknowledged that students from under-represented, diverse and marginalised groups are more likely to drop out from their higher education studies before completion.

Some institutions note that their use of a virtual learning environment wherein subject or course information and resources are available for all students at the ‘click of a button’ leads to greater equality. It provides flexibility for students from non-traditional backgrounds who may have commitments on top of their studies to access the information they require when and where they wish.

A recent study on the use of blended learning at Sunway University, a private higher education institution in Malaysia, indicates that blended learning in a range of forms is used quite widely across university degrees and that academic staff perceive that it helps students access subject information and resources, enhances understanding and impacts positively on students’ engagement, retention and academic achievements.

Challenges of blended learning

But there are challenges, as noted in the study: staff point out that implementing blended learning is time-consuming and some see it as less satisfying than face-to-face teaching. There may be challenges that require more training and orientation in the implementation of blended learning.

At the same time, the study found that a change is required in the attitudes and study preferences of some students to encourage them to engage with blended learning and appreciate its benefits.

It seems that online and blended learning provide important ways forward for enhancing access, and particularly equity, in higher education for potential and current students in Malaysia.

In the quest to improve access, equity and academic outcomes for all students, it would be useful, however, to monitor the impact on students’ retention, progress and achievement vis a vis the use of blended learning in their subjects, especially for students from under-represented and diverse backgrounds.

Professor Glenda Crosling is head of the Centre for Higher Education Research at Sunway University, Malaysia. She spoke about how universities in the ASEAN region can tackle inequality and exclusion at the British Council’s Going Global conference in Kuala Lumpur last week. Angela Lee Siew Hoong is a senior lecturer and programme chair for BSc (Hons) Information Systems (Business Analytics) in the School of Science and Technology at Sunway University.