How UCTS adapts to Covid-19 pandemic

Prof Datuk Dr Khairuddin Ab Hamid. Photo: Ghazali Bujang

KUCHING: Lecturers and educators must not rest on their laurels although the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the teaching and learning processes.

University College of Technology Sarawak (UCTS) vice chancellor Prof​ Datuk Dr Khairuddin Ab Hamid said there was no compromise to the standards of education delivered by the university.

He said it should be maintained despite the transition from face-to-face teaching and learning to online learning as well as other learning methods.

In an interview with New Sarawak Tribune and its sister daily Suara Sarawak, Khairuddin explained how the university was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and how it adapted to the challenges posed by the virus.

Below is the full text for the interview:

New Sarawak Tribune (NST): How did Covid-19 affect the institutions of higher learning, especially your university?

Khairuddin: The pandemic hit us suddenly. There were no prior knowledge and indication so we were caught by surprise. We were relying on the instructions and advice from the authorities as we could not act on our own. We were in a dilemma. We needed to take immediate action but had to wait for instructions. It taught us to be prepared in terms of manpower, policy and to share information immediately and transparently.  

What about the welfare of the students? Were they taken care of?

We had to handle students who were locked in their rooms in the campus. Parents were asking us about their welfare. It was a challenging period for us. At our university, we also had frontliners who handled student affairs. They were on standby at all times.

Food became one of the concerns when the movement control order (MCO) was imposed. How did the university react to that?

When there were no decisions by the (Education) Ministry, we gave them free food. I had to decide immediately; we didn’t have time to discuss it at that time. We had to think about the welfare and protection of the students. Welfare was first and foremost and we had parents calling to find out whether their children were taken care of. We had to make the right move as it not only affected the image of the university but by virtue that the university is owned by the state government, it also affected Sarawak’s image too.  

How did the students and lecturers accept the shift to online learning?

At UCTS, we wanted to implement 10 percent online learning in 2018, go up to 20 percent in 2019 and 30 percent this year. But with Covid-19, we had to go 100 percent. We gave the lecturers the freedom to use any (online) platforms they wanted. The preferred one was Google Classroom but the lecturers could also use Zoom but they had to inform the students so that they were prepared. So overnight, lecturers who were not supporting the online platform had to accept online learning.

What are the cons of online learning?

We don’t have a standard platform so everyone is using his or her preferred platform and creating different expectations from different students. Secondly, in Sarawak, not everyone has access to the internet while some have unstable internet lines.

We asked those without internet to stay in the campus and to use the university’s internet. Most of them are from the rural areas. We also realised that the university’s IT infrastructure could not handle a big volume of users at any one time. That pushed the university to upgrade the infrastructure at its premises and around the area.

What about university fees? Are there any changes following the suspension of university activities?

The parents asked for reductions in the university fees. Since there were no teaching and learning, we reduced the fees to give comfort to the parents and students. It is logical as we are operating as private institutions and if the requests are reasonable, we will consider.

Does online learning affect the delivery of education by the university?

Of course. So, one of our concerns was how to maintain quality. The lecturers and students were not used to online learning and teaching. Quality was important so we looked for methods to ensure that the quality of education was unaffected. This was also one of the ways to teach the lecturers and students to be more responsible.

What are the advantages of this new learning method?

Firstly, the university’s plan to go for online learning was implemented. Secondly, the use of digital technology was accepted. All must use the technology, even lecturers who were not used to it. The responses have been positive and surprising. In the short time, we managed to train the lecturers to produce videos for their teaching contents.

With technology being adopted as one of the new norms, how do you view its usage?

Technology cannot be used on its own. It has to be combined with face-to-face teaching and learning. Students still need to be attended to by their teachers. Not all subjects can be taught online. It must be hands on for engineering subjects, TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) and others. For this, we conduct blended learning, a mixture of traditional and online learning.

How do you view the role of lecturers in the new normal?  

Lecturers have to be creative. For example, if a class is small and coverage is small, since we are able to travel between districts, they can go somewhere and convene a class there.  If the place has no internet, then prepare earlier. They can send a thumb drive for the notes or print them and send them by post. At the end of the day, what matters is that the knowledge is transferred. This is why, this is also the first time in history when lecturers have to know the background of their students, their families and whether they have internet access and coverage. Lecturers have to be creative and students have to accept and understand the new method.

Did Covid-19 affect the number of students who enrolled in the university?

It has affected us. In fact, we had an intake in June. We expected 250 students but only 140 turned up.

When we asked the students, they said they wanted to postpone their studies as their parents felt it was not safe for them to study yet. It is hoped by September or October, when the situation recovers, more parents will send their children to the university.

How does this affect the university?

Our income has been reduced, but with online learning, the cost of conducting teaching and learning has also decreased, so there is a balance there. Now we are focusing our budget on IT services and the library as students need access to the internet and the resources must be available online.

Personally, what is the biggest lesson from Covid-19?

We need to work together to combat the spread of Covid-19. Our government is good in managing Covid-19. There is a minister in charge of security and we also have a health director-general. We have adhered to the directives and are able to attain a Covid-19 recovery rate of 97 percent, one of the best in the world — this is because we follow orders. This is what Malaysia has shown to the world.  

What is your advice to lecturers, staff and students?

Education is not only about getting a scroll. Covid-19 is also a lesson that is not in our curriculum. We have to ensure that students have the best education, we need to develop them as educated and well-mannered persons.