Prof Alfred J.Vella – University of Malta
Prof Colla J. Mac Donald – University of Malta
Prof Andrew Azzopardi – University of Malta
Dr. Ing Alex Rizzo – MCAST
Julia Cini – KSU
This webinar was part of the online event, “Shaping Malta’s Future: The New Norm” which was held in July 2020.
The spread of COVID-19 brought about new challenges to the educational system, namely the challenges of ensuring quality and practicability of online lecturing. The aforementioned speakers shared their personal experience on how the tertiary faculties adapted to this new norm. One must note that even before COVID-19, there was already a high adoption of educational technology. In fact, the University of Malta and MCAST both use a virtual learning educational system on a day to day basis. Consequently, there was no need for any additional set up, as the means to reach the students were already in place and in use, perhaps not to the extent as used during the pandemic itself.
According to Profs. Vella, the biggest challenge was to encourage staff to replace face-to-face teaching with virtual learning. With the sudden shift that this pandemic brought about, lecturers had to shift away from the lecture halls. The IT department had to introduce training sessions for the respective academic faculties, enabling them to reach the students within a week from the closure of educational institutions. Having said this, not all courses could be replicated in a virtual environment, for instance, students reading for a nursing course still had to be physically present. Dr. Rizzo believed that amidst this pandemic, students who were previously struggling to juggle between work and education benefited from the fact that lectures were delivered virtually.
The panelists agreed that online teaching is not equivalent to face-to-face teaching, especially the courses which are professionally oriented. Profs. Vella conveyed that direct interaction, eye contact, presence, and body language are all part of the formation of an academic course, which ultimately enhances the university experience. He further stated that face-to-face interaction can only be partly substituted.
Julia Cini, a law student, communicated that due to the nature of her course, the Law faculty was able to maintain the normal standards of lecturing, through the use of Zoom and pre-recorded lectures. Nonetheless, she agreed with Profs. Vella, stating that communication, atmosphere, and social aspects could not be present in such virtual lessons.
Some are wondering whether the adoption of online learning would continue to persist in a post-pandemic scenario. As Profs. Vella expressed, the educational system might revert to a new normal. The new urgency for remote teaching caused by this pandemic created an opportunity for Malta to implement a “Blended Learning” approach into the Maltese teaching system. This is considered beneficial as students are given a well-rounded experience. Students would only benefit from this initiative if taken on appropriately. Every program has to include knowledge, skill, and competence components. The competence component refers to the ability to work with autonomy and responsibility, which is considered to be the hardest component to achieve. This becomes even more complex with lower-level programs, as “blended learning” is not normally applied. Alternatively, in order to limit the number of students on campus, certain courses might be constrained to opt for a numerous clausus.
One benefit that emerged from the experience of the pandemic is that everyone stopped and discussed different alternatives in education. Profs. Azzopardi was adamant that certain courses cannot do without face-to-face contact. Notwithstanding, all the panelists agreed that e-learning should never be eliminated completely and that one should seize the opportunity to explore and develop upon the benefits of technology in education.