LAST week, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) announced a number of measures which grant conditional return of students to public universities for the new academic term, commencing 15 October 2021.

Prior to the announcement, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) has also issued an advisory note to higher education providers on 17 August, in order to address concerns on curriculum delivery, assessment, as well as student and staff welfare throughout phases of the National Recovery Plan (NRP).

After more than 18 months of online learning, students and academics can expect a gradual return to campus. Although they have somewhat adjusted to classes, assessments and supervision sessions that are conducted online, such experience paled in comparison to classes, assessments and supervision sessions done physically on campus. 

During a lecture, students learn by listening to the academic and their peers, reflect on what they have learnt, and articulate their learning through assignments and tasks. They interact with one another directly or otherwise, through social cues, body languages, and serendipitous moments of interpersonal communication with one another. Mini breaks in between classes enable students to recharge before continuing another lecture.

In an online setting, the personal and social elements of learning were taken away from the students. Learning behind a computer screen or a mobile device for extended periods of time takes a toll on their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Additionally, the cumulative workload across different subjects requires them to spend more time online, which further exaggerates the physical, mental, and emotional strain experienced.

A physical presence on campus contributes to the formation of student identity as learned members of the society. This experience is the ‘hidden curriculum’ that is less discussed within the context of graduate employability. It is within the campus compound that students build their network and social capital before entering a highly competitive job market. 

Before the start of the new academic term, it is timely that policymakers and academics take stock of the students’ experience, and identify interventions to facilitate their learning.

Our students must be seen and heard in these trying times.

Subsidies for digital device and broadband connection, as well as amendments to academic calendar, academic regulations, and assessment methods are only temporary solutions to address learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.  

Our students and staff need sustainable and inclusive interventions so as to maintain continuity of learning, research, and service to the community in the long run.

Even though high tech and high touch solutions are readily available, we should also look at low tech and low touch solutions such as mailed printed modules and phone calls or voice notes for assessments, as these might just be what the students need.

These interventions should also be evidence-based, and count towards long-term capital expenditure for higher education providers, as well as professional development of academics and administrators for at least three to five years.

We must harness what worked well for the past 18 months, and use those experiences to formulate a recovery plan for the Malaysian higher education system.

The Malaysian Society for Higher Education Research and Development (PenDaPaT) is organising an intellectual discourse entitled “Emergency, Remote, and Online: Student Learning Amidst Lockdown” on 24 September 2021. This discourse will be held online, involving both student panels and practitioner responses.

* Doria Abdullah is a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia & Rozilini Mary Fernandez Chung is an associate professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia. Both are members of the Malaysian Society for Higher Education Policy & Research Development or PenDaPaT.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.