Thu, 28 Sep 2023


30,000 who did not take the SPM exam: School closures, online learning to blame
Published on: Sunday, September 10, 2023
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A sudden surge in technology usage does not mean students’ actual learning has occurred. An online learning space is different from a face-to-face classroom. The sense of belonging in a learning community is crucial. Belonging is when someone feels a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a particular group. 
SOON after Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) 2022 results were released, Untuk Malaysia, a NGO headed by Dr. Maslee, reported the number of candidates who missed their SPM examinations. 

This time around, praising and applauding were kept minimal. No longer were we excited about the number of candidates who aced all the subjects. The Ministry of Education assured that they would investigate the matter to find the root cause. 

After all, it is not a tough nut to crack. We do not need to look far. What immediately catches the eye when looking at this data is that absenteeism is staggering. The numbers say it all. 

We looked at the statistics from 2020 to 2022. In 2020, 19,211 did not turn up for the public examination. In 2021, 24,941 candidates failed to take the main national examination. The number of candidates in 2022 was at an all-time high of 29,663. Behind the numbers of SPM absenteeism are indicators of more significant problems.

Uncertainties were imminent towards the end of 2019. The first Movement Controlled Order (MCO) in Malaysia was announced from March 18, 2020, to May 3, 2020. Most educators fumbled over ways to teach online during this time as they were only familiar with the traditional mode of teaching (Kanyakumari, 2020). 

To say that teachers lacked technical skills in online teaching was an understatement.  It was a disaster. Online education consists of synchronous and asynchronous learning. Synchronous learning is online or distance education that happens in real-time. In contrast, asynchronous learning occurs via online platforms but without real-time interaction.

Remote learning is challenging for Malaysian public primary and secondary students. Students struggled to switch to online learning. In a survey conducted, it was found that 36.9 per cent of about 900,000 students did not own electronic devices to study at home in Malaysia (Kanyakumari, 2020). 

According to the Sabah Education Director, a shortage of devices, such as smartphones, among students from rural and interior areas in Sabah was the issue.

Although 98pc of the teachers in Sabah were prepared for this unprecedented shift, students were not. 52pc of the students in the state did not possess smartphones, computers or mobile phones needed for online learning. Some teachers had to send textbooks, workbooks and worksheets to the students’ or village heads’ homes. 

All this while, mobile phones cannot be brought to schools for fear that students might be distracted. However, when schools switched to virtual space, mobile phones became a must-have necessity. In a study, over 45pc of the students used their mobile phones to attend online classes, and only 13pc used computers.

Most teachers claimed that their students showed little engagement and seemed detached academically. 

A lot of students inadvertently fell off the radar. Incidents like these were not isolated cases. Even university students struggled and dropped out. Students whose parents were educated might get guidance and support. Students from B40 homes were mostly unsupervised.

The years of neglect – at least the last three years- have taken their toll.  

Not only were the issues of needing the devices to attend online classes questionable, but also the Internet connectivity in isolated areas.  

The network infrastructure in some areas was unavailable. Teachers could attest that meeting in real-time with students was impossible as many students had problems connecting to the Internet. Due to the Internet connectivity issue, online teaching was primarily asynchronous. 

Methods of asynchronous online learning include self-guided notes, streaming video content, posted teaching notes, and occasionally exchanges through social media platforms. Teachers provide materials for students to read, view and give assignments, and take online tests. 

Even asynchronous class was challenging in Sabah, as many students experienced low bandwidth. Many teachers switched to WhatsApp and other social media platforms as a last resort to reach their students. It is easy to assign tasks in asynchronous class.

However, Form Five students reported it was exhausting to “repeatedly do past year papers over and over again”. Is this learning? Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience, or being taught. Learning is not regurgitating information.

Common sense tells us that the increase in student absenteeism in SPM is associated with the decline in the probability of enrolling in a university.  

A sudden surge in technology usage does not mean students’ actual learning has occurred. An online learning space is different from a face-to-face classroom. The sense of belonging in a learning community is crucial. Belonging is when someone feels a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a particular group. 

It is when an individual can bring their authentic self to work. However, many researchers have reiterated that students do not feel connected with their peers and instructors in the virtual classroom. This sense of connectedness and sense of belonging is known as social presence. 

Social presence includes student connectedness with other learners in a group. It is the feeling of involvement and closeness in a learning environment. Students’ sense of belonging is whether they fit into a group. In virtual learning, students feel lonely and isolated. 

Social presence also includes instructor or teacher presence. Students will pay more attention if the teacher is close to their students. The opposite is also true. The farther away the lecturers are from their students, the more the students are off task.

Research has shown that social presence is associated with student satisfaction and connectedness to online class members. 

Online learning is learning at a distance. Many students commented that they missed learning in person. This may explain why the absenteeism of SPM candidates escalated in the last two years.

Online learning is, by and large, passive. What that means is that online learning is self-directed or self-regulated. Self-directed or self-regulated learning is defined as a process of learning in which an individual learner controls his or her learning. Students plan, implement and monitor their learning. 

Technically, self-directed and self-regulated learning promotes autonomous learning, ideal for 21st-century learning. When schools migrated online, some innovative projects were implemented. For instance, an online facilitation of project-based learning (PBL) was in place for primary and secondary students. 

PBL requires students to do the project independently with little or no teacher support. Theoretically, project-based learning (PBL) is a 21st-century learning approach. However, without proper teacher support, students fell short of thinking critically and writing the project papers in the online environment. Students in a physical classroom need a lot of hands-on coaching and constant monitoring. 

Some pedagogical approaches and facilitation techniques are not directly transferable to the online setting. Like in a physical classroom, students need more support in Online PBL. Some teachers said they “completely lost their students.” 

When secondary schools across the country finally reopened their doors, students were about to sit for the public examination in 2020. Under such circumstances, students’ learning was disrupted, while others were left behind and could not catch up.

There were more disruptions in 2021: Conditional Movement Controlled Order (CMCO) and the Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO). Students were out of the classrooms one after another until teachers also lost count of the total number of times. 

There were also instances where classes in schools were split into As and Bs to take turns to attend classes to maintain 50pc of the student population at one time. Then, schools were shut again for some time. Uncertainties brought confusion and consternation. This sudden shift away from the classrooms, back to the classrooms, and then out of the classrooms only demotivated students’ learning. 

More concerning is the long hours of sitting at the computer. Boredom creeps in and attenuates learning. Long hours of listening to the teacher online is torturous. I am sure you have attended an online meeting or a virtual conference. When a meeting exceeds two hours, your mind will be somewhere else.

You will realise how short your attention span is. You will multitask and do other stuff to avoid apathy. It is true that attending a two-day virtual conference is convenient. You are at home, and it is cost saving.

Even though we were likely wearing the most comfortable outfit while in the coziness of our living space if you are a presenter, you will likely not sit through other sessions after your presentation.

This is because attending an online meeting or session drains one’s energy. 

People are suffering from digital fatigue – a form of mental exhaustion. Most students revealed they were scrolling through social media while their teacher was teaching. Findings from different studies show that students could not focus, and their academic performance plummeted in the online learning environment. 

The crux of the matter is that prolonged school closures disrupt student education. What can be done now is to move on and prioritise students’ actual learning. Many studies have reported similar findings that online learning is not as effective as face-to-face classroom instruction. 

Learning loss is real, and the price is high. Closing schools damages the human capital our country depends upon. The implications are deeply unsettling. Shut the doors of the schools no more! 

Jocelyn Lee, PhD

Universiti Teknologi Mara, KK

- The views expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Express.

- If you have something to share, write to us at: [email protected]


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