(File pix) One can also gain a degree through the open and distance learning (ODL) mode.

USUALLY when one is thinking of pursuing tertiary education, the following comes to mind — enrolling in a programme at university; attending face-to-face lectures and tutorials; doing assignments and coursework, and presenting the work either individually or in groups; and sitting exams at exam halls.

Or one can also gain a degree through the open and distance learning (ODL) mode.

The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) refers to ODL as the provision of flexible educational opportunities in terms of access and multiple modes of acquisition.

Its Code of Practice for ODL published in 2014, which serve as the guidelines for Malaysian higher education providers, stated that “flexible” means the availability of choices for educational endeavours anywhere, anytime and anyhow.

“Access” means opportunity made available to all, free from constraints of time and space. And “multiple modes” mean the use of various delivery systems and learning resources.

MQA chief executive officer Datuk Dr Rahmah Mohamed said the government is cognisant of the potential of ODL in fulfilling fundamental rights of all people to learn and the need to incorporate it within the framework of human capital development.

“ODL can involve more than 60 per cent online learning which include face-to-face virtual learning such as videoconferencing,” she said.

“Our current policy allows 100 per cent online ODL delivery. Institutions can leverage on upgrading their ODL programmes through Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR 4.0) technology.”

Innovations such as mobile computing, cloud technology, social network and big data have created an opportunity to build a learning ecosystem that allows personalised learning independent of time and place.

“Learners design their own educational pathways based on their personal goals. Being able to pursue a degree online 100 per cent will enable the small-town housewife who has commitments at home to get a bachelor’s degree and acquire the knowledge and skills which were unattainable previously.

“The young millennial entrepreneur is able to gain the qualifications including running an online business, despite his busy schedule.”

The trend of pursuing a wholly online degree course is on the rise in countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, and it is indeed compelling for Malaysia to follow suit.

But it is not without disadvantages and can only be successful if certain aspects are in place Online-only learning is increasingly being offered by many universities abroad for bachelor’s and postgraduate degree programmes where contact with lecturers and teaching staff, and the process of learning take place 100 per cent through the Internet.

Associate Professor Dr Rozinah Jamaludin at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Centre for Instructional Technology and Multimedia said this is a natural extension of living in a digital world.

“We have digital economies, digital universities, digital devices and more. The rise of digital computing and Internet is a game changer to the whole system of education,” she added.

The influence of disruptive technology in 4IR is also the main drive towards this wholly online learning offering.

The evolution of Education 1.0 to Education 4.0 is a continuum of the evolution of World Wide Web from transmissive (1.0) to social (2.0) and semantic (3.0).

Innovation guru Peter Fisk, who delivered the keynote address Changing the Game of Education at Dansk Industri in Copenhagen Denmark, said Education 4.0 comprises learning anywhere anytime; personal, flexible delivery; peers and mentors; why/where, not what/how; practical application; modularity; student ownership; and evaluation, not examination.

This trend, Rozinah observed, is also apparent among private universities in Malaysia such as Open University Malaysia, Asia e-University, Wawasan Open University, Madinah International University and Unitar International University, though most use blended learning comprising face-to face and e-learning, where students meet lecturers and sit examinations offline.

University of Nottingham Malaysia School of Education’s head of undergraduate studies, Associate Professor Dr Lee Kean Wah, said the reasons why online-only degree courses are gaining traction can be attributed to their affordability, flexibility and learning-on-the-job opportunities, which a lot of conventional degrees cannot offer.

“One can certainly understand why such an option is appealing, particularly with people who want to learn certain subjects to develop specific skills without having to give up their jobs. Such an option will be particularly attractive to those who want to balance study and work, without the need to attend class physically,” he added.

Professor Datuk Dr Mohamed Amin Embi, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Centre for Teaching and Learning Technologies director, said firstly, it is cheaper to run online courses as there is no need to invest in brick-and-mortar facilities.

“Secondly, cheaper and faster technology means online programmes can be offered anywhere, anytime, anyhow and across any platform and gadget.

“Thirdly, it is convenient especially for work ing adults who do not need to leave the office.

“Finally, there is a change in learning style — most things can be learnt onaself-directed basis, especially on YouTube.

“Hence, why not pursue a degree course online?”

KEY ELEMENTS

So what constitutes a good online degree programme?

Mohamed Amin said: “Fundamentally, it’s how the programmes are designed.

“The key is to design the course in such a way that students go through a meaningful learning experience. In other words, the programme should be learning-based instead of merely content-based.

“Each course should be designed in such a way that it provides many tasks/activities instead of merely lectures. The tasks can be done individually, in pairs or groups.”

The other challenge is to keep students motivated to learn — putting them in the driver’s seat by providing different learning experience based on tasks, challenges, problems and case studies.

“Encourage heutagogy (self-instruction) through self-exploration activities and tasks.

Promote peeragogy (peer instruction) through collaborative group work and activities.

“Gamify the learning process to maintain motivation by injecting elements of competition in the learning process.

“Encourage user-generated content by getting students to create or co-create content instead of merely watching videos. If lecture videos are necessary, make sure they are ‘bitesized’ — not more than seven minutes in length.

Students need to do a lot of self-reflection.”

To address concerns on aspects such as testing and assessment, and plagiarism and security, Mohamed Amin encouraged the use of portfolio-based assessment. Formal assessments have to be conducted in a proctored environment where the identity of the student is verified.

“Security and management should not be much of a concern if a robust learning management system is in place.”

Rozinah added that good online degree programmes have relevant and current content that meets the needs of the industry.

“There needs to be proper learning support services. The curriculum has to encourage independent, self-taught, self-motivated and self-determined learning covering the 4Cs in the 21st century learning skills—Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity.”

PROS AND CONS

Studying alone in a 100 per cent online programme is not without its pros and cons.

“The advantages of an online-only/distance degree programme are its flexibility and relatively cheaper cost.

“As for the cons, one needs to give careful consideration to the quality and validity of the degree, given the many fake and online diploma mills; lack of individual attention and feedback; and missing out on campus life,” said Lee.

He highlighted students also need to carefully research and look out for bona fide, professionally accredited and endorsed programmes and genuine online universities before enrolment.

Rozinah noted that online learning is excellent for most academic courses and training programmes requiring cognitive learning where the student uses memorisation, learns concepts, uses analytical skills, evaluates data and uses this knowledge to arrive at solutions.

Examples of cognitive learning include augmenting one’s knowledge of accounting procedures, economics, political science, health services, office administration and psychology.

“Programmes which seek to change student attitudes, such as dealing with cultural differences or behavioural training do not work as well online. Nonetheless, online information may be used effectively as an adjunct to traditional classroom teaching.

“Similarly, courses that require students to use physical skills such as welding, auto mechanics and learning to fly cannot rely on online learning. Hands-on experience is vital to the success of these type of courses.”

THE WAY FORWARD

Can online learning replace classroom learning?

Mohamed Amin gives a resounding “yes” if the programme is designed for experiential learning — learning by doing.

Lee feels online learning cannot replace classroom learning entirely. “Online-only learning will not entirely replace classroom learning though the boundary between traditional and online-only degree programmes is getting more and more blurred. Even current face-to-face-based learning degree courses incorporate a mix of online, blended, and flipped approach to learning.

“Vice versa, online-only degree courses are not wholly online in the sense that interaction between students, peers and professors, and feedback are crucial for learning to take place,” he added.

Rozinah said online learning can replace the classroom experience through virtual contact instead of face-to-face interaction, provided the Internet connection is of high bandwidth speed.

“However, at present most universities — public and private — in the country offer the blended learning approach where students meet lecturers three to five times per semester and sit examinations offline and in a specified location. No university has gone fully online yet. But there are plans for fully online programmes.

“Malaysian students still need to see the lecturer face to face, they need the human touch. So blended learning is the way to go.”

Lee is of the opinion that Malaysian universities will need to look at the possibility of providing 100 per cent online degree programmes soon.

“A lot has been said and discussed about the impact of IR4.0 and how it is likely to influence business models and employment trends.

“There’s no denying that the rapid development of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and robotics will render certain jobs obsolete in the future.

The promise of a university degree that will set students up with a job for life is no longer a sustainable model for universities.

“To stay relevant, a university must be bold, creative, and innovative to design programmes that combine the best of workplace experience and theoretical rigour.

“Providing wholly online degrees is one of the options for Malaysian universities. But I doubt we will go wholly online soon. A rich mix of online, blended and flipped models of learning will more likely be the case.”

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