Transformation to digital education is slow in schools as teachers are more comfortable with traditional teaching methods. School systems must find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide pupils with the 21st century skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

The structures and processes of the education sector have remained largely immutable by digital disruptions as technology continues to drive nearly every commercial industry — as it has for the music and news industries — to forge its own unique path into the digital age.

With 2017 fast approaching, would the education institutions be the next in line to make bigger impact in digital transformation? There are signs that this change is already beginning to catch up, at least for higher education.

In 2011, massive open online courses also known as MOOC exploded in popularity when Stanford University attracted over 160,000 students who registered to undertake its free online course on artificial intelligence taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, two of the world’s best-known experts of the field.

Since then, the last five years have seen higher education evolving significantly to include digital content, learning platforms, online courses, education apps, and rethinking of how credit is awarded.

Recently, the University of Oxford announced its first MOOC to become the latest prestigious institution that provide free, short courses to anyone, anywhere with access to the Internet.

In February, Sir Paul Collier, a professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government of this top university will lead an economic course titled “From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development”.

Although there are already online degrees offered, such as distance learning, mainstream and respectable universities often do not engage in such a concept. The credibility of online learning will strengthen as Oxford joins in the MOOC movement together with other top universities including Harvard, MIT, Caltech (California Institute of Technology) and Sorbonne. Anyone can now take a course at the world’s best universities for free.

In Malaysia, the last one year saw its higher education sector of both public and private institutions expanding online courses rapidly. In comparison to 64 courses launched in 2015, there are now 300 online courses running or under development for 200,000 students in public universities on OpenLearning, an online learning platform founded in Sydney four years ago.

Recently, Universiti Tun Abdul Razak also announced its collaboration with OpenLearning to offer the first fully online MBA to deliver flexible learning experience for working professionals.

Most of the online courses have been short units that give students a certificate, rather than a full programme towards a degree. In September this year, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh launched credit transfer guidelines for MOOCs. This would allow students to take online courses at other universities which will earn them credit at the universities they are enrolled in.

With the rising student debt and tuition fees, online learning is going to become the route for those who want to improve their qualifications but cannot afford the time or money to study for a campus-based degree. The transformation could now be approaching if universities work out their strategies for a potentially huge market.

The next transformation stage will take just one leading university to offer mainstream undergraduate courses online, incorporating formal fee-charging degree courses that will put the higher learning institutions under an entirely new business model.

When this happens, the hype around MOOCs might fade, but the impact of digital revolution on higher education could be about to begin.

However, while higher education in the country is ready to move forward to the next stage for online learning, digital education still remains elusive in Malaysian schools. Technology transformation has been slower in becoming an integral part of every student’s school day and every teacher’s lesson planning than what we see in higher education..

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report last year, many schools globally have yet to take advantage of the technology potential in the classroom. It says that even countries which have invested heavily in technology for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science. Teachers are far more likely to use technology to make their own jobs easier or to supplement their teaching than to put students in control of their own learning.

Similarly, school teachers in this country have been painfully slow to transform despite the RM663million investment on 1BestariNet. Even with the massive influx of new technology for the classrooms, only a handful of adopters embrace innovative uses of new technology.

It is likely that not only the technology can be the barrier for these teachers, it is the perception — that includes their beliefs about what constitutes effective instruction — that needs to break.

Indeed, online technology demands far greater instructional insights. Probably, the educational battleground is not a matter of accepting either physical or virtual education but rather the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning. If an educator goes online, the effort to rethink how to present the content and reassemble the syllabus requires serious commitment.

To move to the next stage as higher education has started to do, school systems must find more effective ways to integrate technology into teaching and learning to provide pupils with the 21st century skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

At the end of the day, it is the educators who have made the digital education transformation and are able to introduce innovative methods to engage with their students.

Hazlina Aziz is NST’s education editor, and is an ex-teacher who is always on the lookout for weirdly-spelled words

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