One of the sectors hurting from the Covid-19 crisis is education. Public and private educational institutions have been closed as part of the movement control order (MCO), which has been extended to April 14.

It is clear, from our observations and interactions with other students, that Malaysian university students are not having a breeze during this MCO period, and this is due to the education inequality that still exists so glaringly in our society.

A crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic shows us how equipped we are as a society.

It has exposed the complacency of some of our universities, for instance. Some faculties are still struggling with the concept of e-learning. It took a pandemic to push these faculties out of their comfort zone.

It is time our education ministry utilised digital platforms to the fullest to aid our students in times of an emergency like this.

We have to be proactive in venturing into new means of education, as opposed to frantically reacting to an MCO. Screaming “stay at home” does not solve any of these problems that our youths are facing.

Here, we’d like to talk about e-learning which has been employed as a teaching method by many countries worldwide as a means to navigate this crisis. E-learning has its pros and cons, but in the context of the Covid-19 crisis, knowing how to use and access e-learning material is a huge plus.

E-learning constitutes the main form of learning for students and teachers in Malaysia during this period.

We spoke with three students from the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and Monash University Malaysia (MUM) to ask how their e-learning experience has been thus far.

Baderan, an undergraduate at IIUM, felt e-learning was “manageable and passable.” However, he hasn’t experienced the full process of e-learning as the university has not shifted all classes from the classroom to the computer yet.

The issue for him was not about whether students should have been trained in e-learning much earlier; what was important was that students and educators should be able to understand the technology when it mattered. On the other hand, he acknowledged that e-learning was not so effective “but that is the only way available to continue the semester learning as usual”.

More worrying for Baderan was the inability of some students to even have access to e-learning materials.

“Students from the B40 income bracket do not have a laptop and have always relied on the university’s computer lab or library facilities to do their work.”

The fact is that in local education, e-learning is a privilege not all can afford.

Celine, from MUM, expressed concern about the efficacy of e-learning. Whether students and teachers can make use of e-learning in the first place depends on the availability of a reliable internet connection.

Asked about the challenges of e-learning, she said: “I guess it is internet connection, on-and-off WiFi connections, even some glitches in the system.

“For example, my lecturer posted our unit structure via a forum online (through the Moodle learning platform); I did not receive an email about it and I missed out and I thought about what else I could have missed if this continued. I was lucky that I went in to check.”

Asked if e-learning was effective for her, she replied that it made her less productive. Also, not being able to leave the house had an impact on her mental well-being.

“I’m an anxious person and I usually like going outdoors to keep myself busy with activities such as sports. I live in a hostel, thus the need to be active and to be distracted.”

Aida, from IIUM, had only one experience with online learning before the MCO began. Despite her lack of experience with e-learning, she said it should have been made the norm long before the MCO, during normal circumstances.

She said one of her batchmates did initiate a training programme on e-learning. But the e-learning platforms were under-utilised and lecturers were not very familiar with them.

Now that Aida is confined to her home, she has ample time to do her assignments. She felt that the question of the effectiveness of e-learning should be secondary.

“We are going through a pandemic; we don’t go through this kind of thing all the time. I think the priority should always be making sure you’re healthy, your mental health is healthy, you’re able to help out your family at home.”

One thing constant about Aida was that she always worried about how other Malaysians, students or not, were dealing with the MCO. “I feel we ought to check up on our friends.”

It is always easier to think only about ourselves. We worry that we might not graduate on time due to this pandemic. We think online classes are a dread. But if we just spent a little more time reflecting, we’d realise that many of our friends don’t even have the opportunity to think beyond surviving each day, with only RM100 left in their bank accounts.

Imad Alatas and Firzana Redzuan are FMT readers.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.