Online Learning as Second Nature

Five Minutes with YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil,
President & Vice-Chancellor, OUM

By Dr David Lim

Dr David Lim (DL): Dato’ Mansor, thank you for taking the time to do this interview. The past few months have been tumultuous as a result of the pandemic. The education sector, including higher education, too, has had to face the headwind, as national boundaries are sealed, movements are restricted, and the global economy is battered. What are your thoughts on the state of things at the moment?

YBhg Prof Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil (DM): I’m glad for this opportunity to share, Dr David. The pandemic has certainly proven to be a black-swan event. Our first priority then and now is the safety of our learners and staff. And we have made concerted effort to work towards that by leveraging on online learning and the work-from-home scheme, on top of the social distancing and hygiene measures put in place at our offices around the country. Virtually all universities around the world have been compelled to either suspend classes completely or shift teachinglearning activities online. For understandable reasons, however, not all have been able to do so as smoothly and effectively as they would have liked. Unfortunately, this is true of many conventional universities where face-to-face is the standard default mode of teaching-learning. For them, the obstacles are very real, given the sudden demand and limitations they encounter in IT infrastructure and expertise, not to mention the cultural resistance to online learning, among other factors. Though not unscathed, open universities [OUs] around the world are, by their very nature, generally better positioned to weather the pandemic. Most OUs have had years, if not decades, to build robust IT systems to facilitate open and distance learning [ODL] amidst demand surge. Just as importantly, from the outset, OU learners and faculty have been formally inducted into online and distance learning and teaching. ODL is thus second nature to OU learners and faculty, rather than something to which they may be resistant.

DL: All final examinations of OUM’s January 2020 semester were conducted online or as take-home tasks. The May 2020 semester is running entirely online, as will the September 2020 semester, as mandated by the government. Clearly, circumstances have accelerated OUM’s long-term plans where default delivery mode is concerned. To recap, the plan has been to shift the default from blended learning [online learning and a set number of face-to-face sessions as a package] to fully online learning with an option for learners to add-on by request a set number of face-to-face meetings should they require them. How is the plan shaping up?

DM: Recent events have certainly nudged us to speed up our transition plans and the implementation of measures to enhance our existing tools and resources for online teaching and learning. We have, for instance, accelerated the preparation of video-based e-lesson sets to guide our learners online; and we are pleased to say that we have achieved the set target for an overwhelming majority of the courses we offer. As is familiar to our learners, each prepped course comes equipped with a minimum of ten e-lessons which are accessible online. Each e-lesson serves as a kind of entry point into an area of learning covered in a topic in the course syllabus. Typically, each e-lesson features at least one carefully curated video. Learners will watch the video before taking a self-test. The self-test consists of five online multiple-choice questions [MCQs] related to the topic at hand. Each response to the MCQs will receive instant interactive feedback on the correctness of the answer-choice made and further thoughts on the topic covered. All e-lessons, and the MCQs they contain, are constructively aligned with the topic and course learning outcomes, which are in turn aligned with the programme learning outcomes. The comprehensive collection of e-lessons that we have built over the years, and added in recent months, complements the course e-modules and other key learning materials that we have produced and enhanced since our inception twenty years ago. All our learning materials have been available in digital format for years since we transitioned from print. They are accessible from our learning management system called myINSPIRE. There, learners may access other learning tools and resources such as the digital library, past assessment papers, and asynchronous discussion forum. From myINSPIRE, too, learners may access links to prescheduled e-tutorials on Google Meet, as well as recordings of the e-tutorials. Eight to ten sessions of e-tutorials are featured from the May 2020 semester onwards and the response has been tremendously encouraging. In a true sense, our learners may now conveniently pursue higher education literally from anywhere in the world where there is internet!

ODL is thus second nature to OU learners and faculty, rather than something to which they may be resistant.

DL: Now more than ever, OUM offers a wide array of digital learning tools and resources to enable its learners to obtain a more interactive, engaging and holistic learning experience. How have learners responded to this?

Online learning has indeed matured and entrenched itself, so much so that our learners are taking to it like duck to water.

DM: In the past, a main obstacle to online learning was learners’ lack of internet access in some parts of the country. Today, with better infrastructure, this is no longer true. Studies show that the percentage of internet users in Malaysia has increased from 76.9 percent in 2016 to 87.4 percent in 2018, while 93.1 percent access the internet with their smart phones. So we’re looking at a rather different landscape than what we had when we first started out two decades ago. Not only that, OUM learner demographics, too, have evolved. More and more learners who choose OUM are in their thirties and are tech-savvy, to boot. Online learning has indeed matured and entrenched itself, so much so that our learners are taking to it like duck to water.

DL: Academics who have served as e-tutor for OUM and interacted with OUM learners in recent years would not doubt be able to attest to the productive changes you mentioned. What other innovations can learners and prospective learners expect from OUM in the near future?

DM: Ideas are being thought through as we study the everevolving landscape before concretising plans. To add to the flexibility that OUM offers, we are in the planning stage to implement a system of six intakes per year to replace the current three. Also in the works is virtual convocation to complement regular convocation which is currently suspended as per the government’s sector-wide rule. Lastly, we are beefing up the collection in our library to ensure that most, if not all, our resources, are digital rather than physical. This is to cater more comprehensively to the needs of our geographically-dispersed learners.

DL: Thank you, Dato’, for your time.