Beyond the pandemic, integrating online learning

Since the beginning of the new semester of the 2020-21 academic year in August, the International and Comparative Education (ICE) Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (UBD) has been running weekly ICE seminars and workshops on the theme ‘COVID-19, Society, and Education’.

Topics covered so far include societal infrastructures and technological access in education, pedagogical challenges and innovations, teachers’ and students’ experiences and feedback, support for teaching and learning, and effects on research and internationalisation. Here, we focus on the pedagogical challenges post-COVID.

The context: Brunei Darussalam

As the pandemic continues to develop in unpredictable patterns, higher education institutions around the world have taken appropriate measures to mitigate its effects in their specific contexts. In Brunei, there are five public higher education institutions, with most of them being rather young. This article focuses on all but Brunei Polytechnic (Politeknik Brunei).

After the first reported case of COVID-19 in Brunei on 9 March, the Bruneian government immediately announced temporary closures of schools and higher education institutions and imposed social distancing measures. From about mid-March to the end of the past semester, higher education institutions in Brunei switched completely to online teaching and learning.

In the midst of these sudden actions, higher education institutions in the sultanate had to find ways to implement various distance communication and online teaching and learning initiatives to adapt quickly to the new situation.

After 7 May, Brunei started to record zero cases of infection and claimed to have successfully ‘flattened the curve’. As stated by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, Brunei is regarded as one of the exemplary nations in successfully managing the pandemic through its drastic actions. As a result, on 2 June, schools and higher education institutions were partially reopened; and since 27 July they have been able to operate normally.

Nevertheless, higher education institutions in Brunei are given options to follow what is considered best for them, their specific conditions and their teachers and students when it comes to teaching, learning and pedagogical practices.

Hence, they have come up with different action plans and measures, ranging from fully face-to-face instruction to varied forms of blended learning. Therefore, what happens in each institution can vary greatly, depending on the mode of instruction and delivery being implemented.

Instructors have now had time to reflect on their own teaching and to observe and compare their own pedagogical ideas and practice. They have also been encouraged to attend training workshops run by institutions, organisations and colleagues nationally and internationally. Online teaching and learning as well as blended learning are no longer brand new terms.

Online teaching and social distancing

While reporting on the suspension of face-to-face teaching and learning in higher education institutions in Brunei last semester in an article published on The Head Foundation, Dr Wida Susanty Haji Suhaili, a lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB), highlighted higher education institutions’ determination to integrate technologies and relevant online platforms to fulfil the needs of teachers and students in this challenging period.

At the height of COVID-19 earlier in the year, instructors at public higher education institutions in Brunei faced many challenges relating to technical infrastructure and accessibility, issues of competency in distance teaching and social mobility.

For instance, Dr Masitah Shahrill, a senior assistant professor and a teacher educator at the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education in Universiti Brunei Darussalam, said that it was a challenge for the MTeach (Master of Teaching) students she was supervising during their school placement to hold their own secondary school students’ attention during online learning.

Since her students were apprentice teachers who were required to do school placements, they had to record and video themselves teaching and then send her the videos for assessment. Shahrill expressed a strong sense of sympathy with the students while also questioning the effectiveness of online assessment of their school placement sessions.

Atteyia Salleh, an assistant lecturer at Seri Begawan Religious Teachers University College (KUPU SB), spoke of her experiences in trying to assist students as much as possible to engage and participate online while having to keep pace with the demands of university administration, for instance, taking student attendance at the beginning and end of each online class. She described the experience as exhausting.

Quite often, instructors found themselves struggling to learn about and adapt to online teaching at the same time as they were trying to help their students. Dr Malai Zeiti Sheikh Abdul Hamid, an assistant professor at UTB, said lack of engagement and face-to-face emotional support, which hampered motivation, as well as the lack of practical activities, were challenging.

Dr Muhammad Zaki Haji Zaini, a lecturer teaching business statistics and mathematics at Sultan Sharif Ali Islamic University (UNISSA), stated that it was more challenging for him since the majority of his course contents deal with numbers and he is heavily reliant on using the whiteboard to demonstrate the technical steps of solving problems.

He said: “During a face-to-face lecture, I walk around to ensure students are able to capture what is explained during lessons, and this was not possible in online platforms. Students were also reluctant to admit that they were not able to understand what was taught in the class. I had to closely monitor my students and incorporate relevant coursework that would be able to capture the objectives of my courses.”

Dr Masitah Shahrill from UBD commented that the pandemic had disrupted her graduate research students’ attempts to collect data from schools, which means they will be behind in their research.

Although COVID-19 had caused sudden disruption to teaching and learning at higher education institutions in Brunei, instructors in general were able to adapt quickly in order to respond to the specific and additional needs of their students and to also meet the demands of their universities’ administrations.

An unstable and slow internet connection

Since all higher education institutions in Brunei abruptly switched to online teaching and learning in March following the safety and precautionary measures and guidelines from the government, internet access and the quality of internet connection/connectivity became vital issues.

Brunei has consistently been reported to have one of the highest consumption rates of the internet and social media in Southeast Asia and, indeed, the world. On 18 May, The Bruneian News published the Brunei Darussalam’s ICT Household Report 2019. The report shows that more than 95% of individuals in the country use the internet daily, with the highest consumption being for knowledge-seeking purposes (78.6%). Nonetheless, unstable internet connections have been an issue in Brunei and have had a big impact on distance education and online delivery during the pandemic.

For example, some instructors at UNISSA recalled the difficulties they faced in trying to do so many things online all at once: teach, attend online meetings, provide support to students and perform administrative matters, all online. And these activities were taking place with unstable internet connection throughout.

It became obvious that fast internet connection would be needed to maintain the quality and to enhance the attractiveness of online teaching and learning. At the ICE weekly seminar on 15 September, Dr Masitah Shahrill presented the results of three sets of surveys conducted with students and instructors at Universiti Brunei Darussalam on their experiences with online teaching and learning during the previous semester. According to the survey results, slow internet connection was a major barrier to online teaching during the pandemic.

In recognising this problem, The Bruneian News also reported on multisectoral initiatives to help mitigate the issue of unstable internet connection in response to the urgent and increasing demand for online teaching and learning at all levels.

The sectors involved are the Ministry of Transport and Info-communications, the Ministry of Education and the Authority for Info-communication and Technology Industry of Brunei Darussalam. These initiatives are ultimately aimed at long-term issues for the education sector and all those involved, including teachers, students, administration and parents.

Institutional support

Amid all these challenges, instructors reported having received much support from their respective institutions to help ensure the efficacy and functionality of their teaching and learning activities during the pandemic.

In UNISSA, the support from the university’s administration and fellow academics sustained academic activities. Encouragement was received, for instance, through a refresher training session on the Learning Management System and the increase of internet bandwidth to overcome connectivity issues.

This was further bolstered by a quick sharing of virtual teaching and learning ideas on WhatsApp groups created for academics in the university, which contributed positively to building a friendly environment for sustaining virtual learning activities.

Such an environment also serves as a platform for instructors and administrators to provide support and inform one another of educational ideas and solutions as they proceed in this new semester.

Similar encouragement was found at KUPU SB. For the period when educators had to work from home, virtual workshops were conducted to introduce them to various online platforms they could use to conduct classes, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams.

The university also provided solutions for faster internet connection, while offering user-friendly software as well as financial support to students who did not have the necessary means to access online learning platforms. Everyone now enjoys better internet connection on campus as they are back to face-to-face instruction in the new semester.

At UTB, instructors also received continuous infrastructural support to enable them to conduct high-quality online teaching while being regularly updated on initiatives to mitigate pedagogical challenges during the pandemic.

As UTB is now back to 100% on-campus instruction, the experiences learned during the previous semester are important for instructors to draw on as they prepare students for unexpected changes.

Obviously, better internet connection benefits everyone as the campus returns to full operation. Health and safety measures are also in place to keep the campus safe for all.

Mayyer Ling, an assistant lecturer at UBD, also praised the university’s efforts in attending to staff’s and students’ wellbeing through effective and regular communication. She said regular communication, including letters of support from the vice-chancellor, were vital. The extra support for instructors and students is ongoing.

Pedagogy beyond the pandemic

In an article by Marguerite Dennis published in University World News on 28 March 2020, the author predicts a number of changes in teaching and learning approaches and recruitment in higher education as a result of COVID-19. Dennis sees the expansion of the use of technologies and online learning platforms as an obvious direction for higher education. In other words, institutions can no longer afford to stay disconnected with this new reality. Perhaps seeing it as an opportunity would be a realistic approach.

Bruneian lecturers concur. Dr Malai Zeiti Sheikh Abdul Hamid at UTB confirms the importance of ensuring ‘social interaction’, albeit virtually, between herself and her students. She also believes open communication with her students has helped diversify her online pedagogical approaches.

She says: “During COVID-19 restrictions, I turned on my video conferencing platforms and allowed my students to ‘see’ me online to give them emotional support and to give them the best possible ‘real’ experiences. I communicated regularly offline and online with my students all the time and I placed more emphasis to ensure they got emotional support during the pandemic. I have an open-door policy and if my students needed more time online to meet me, even after my non-teaching schedule, including after the usual office hours or weekends, I was prepared to make the time to meet them online.”

Meanwhile, Dr Norashikin Yusof, an assistant professor at UNISSA, who had more than 140 students, adapted her approaches and used virtual classrooms so as to create more sessions to ensure every student had an equal opportunity for learning.

She says: “During the pandemic, I used Zoom quite a lot. However, Zoom does not allow more than 100 participants in a session, so I decided to conduct three separate lecture sessions to accommodate all my students. Good planning is the key here as there were scheduling issues in managing all these students. Some students could not make it on certain days or at certain times as other lectures were run at the same times, too. Despite all the challenges, everything worked out well.”

What is encouraging is that the pandemic and what has come with it have made many instructors become proactive in diversifying teaching approaches in their online and face-to-face deliveries.

Some have observed that students appear to be more active in participation as they’ve learned to appreciate face-to-face learning after months under social distancing.

At the same time, even though their university allows 100% physical lectures and tutorials, these educators still find ways to use online platforms to help with teaching and learning alongside their physical classrooms.

Kharhan Haji Jait from KUPU SB also notices a positive response from his students as he is now implementing blended learning in class. He sees more opportunities to conduct online learning as it is gradually embraced by the students.

He says: “The students now prefer face-to-face learning for practical activities and a mixed-approach in mass lecture, while continuing with the ‘new norm’ pedagogy for everything else after COVID-19. In fact, 90% of my students who are taking the multimedia module prefer to do it online.”

Others have noted that faculties are more open to online options, including online conferences.

While the other higher education institutions in Brunei have resumed face-to-face delivery as seen above, Universiti Brunei Darussalam has decided to go with blended learning this semester. Many instructors have continued to diversify their teaching methods and experiment with various approaches and platforms, not just to ensure the efficacy of their pedagogical approaches, but also to maximise any potential for improving how they deliver learning.

Dr Chester Keasberry, a lecturer in the design and creative industries at UBD, offered a highly engaging seminar on how the pandemic has forced instructors like him who have years of experience in using teaching and learning technologies to transfer their interests and knowledge into effective educational aims.

He has identified several strengths of using Zoom to teach, based on his own experience. He said: “I try to bridge the gap between the physical classroom and online learning. The platform can create a ‘conducive’ learning environment where the more outgoing students who actively use the microphone and chat function are able to entice the quieter students to join [in]. I’ve also found that a large class of 70 students is now easier to manage online (using Zoom) rather than finding a room to fit all of them in physically.”

The importance of reflection

For higher education institutions in Brunei, the integration of technologies and online learning platforms in the education system is much needed, as proven by what has happened with the pandemic. Not only is the integration part of a safety measure during COVID-19, but it also fulfils the country’s aspiration to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution as part of Brunei’s nation-building endeavours.

On 7 August, Brunei reported one new COVID-19 case after 91 days of no new cases. At the time of writing this article, Brunei still has one active case currently under treatment at the National Isolation Centre. While this does not disrupt the de-escalation plans by the Brunei government, there are still concerns on the possibilities of a second wave of COVID-19 in the country. This concern has also become a cause for caution as well as for proactive actions in society, including higher education institutions and those involved.

In response to this, ICE continues to engage the public and the education sector in ongoing and fruitful conversations regarding the impacts of COVID-19 on educational policy, higher education institutions, schools, teachers, students, parents and society at large.

Its ICE Seminar Series in general and the August-September special theme, “COVID-19, Society and Education”, can be seen as proactive efforts to inform the public and policy, while supporting the university and the government in disseminating research findings for the improvement of education locally and globally – today and tomorrow.

Dr Najib Noorashid is a research fellow at the International and Comparative Education Research Group, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Senior Professor Phan Le Ha is head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is also affiliated with the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Dr Yabit Alas is director of the Language Centre and deputy head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Varissa Mae Yabit is a research assistant at the International and Comparative Education Research Group, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. This is the second article that has covered the higher education sector in Brunei against the backdrop of COVID-19, following one by Muhammad Adil Iqbal and Phan Le Ha published on 18 April 2020 in University World News.