(This writing is based on SKAShine sharing session presented on 21 June 2020. Thanks for AC Research and Academic Staff, Prof Dr. Mohamamad Ismail, SKAShine Talk team and School of Civil Engineering for this opportunity.)

Once COVID-19 pandemic hits Malaysia, with no exception, our beloved School of Civil Engineering, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia also affected. All learning and teaching activities changed abruptly from face to face to online learning. As coordinator of Civil Engineering Laboratory I course(SKAB2012), I myself as the coordinator of this course, have to rethink again on how to continue the laboratory via the online medium.

One of the biggest challenges is that most online medium learning is ONE-WAY COMMUNICATION. Gillett-Swan (2017) mentioned in group work activities, students appear to experience isolation to their full participation in coursework units. Many students are not provided with the high bandwidth or the strong internet connection that online courses require, and thus fail to catch up with learning activities and with their virtual classmates. In the same time, academic staff also feel challenged due to instant require for higher levels of technological competency and proficiency on top of their regular academic workload. The transition can be difficult for many learners and also the educator.  Ultimately, these online environment lead to POOR MOTIVATION.

Problems in online learning; isolation in interactions and poor motivation.

Recalled again – yes, face to face learning and teaching (L&T) activities offer vast of opportunity to engage, to easily see one body language and for us, lecturer – to deliver more effectively. Me myself have opportunity to arrange laboratory visits with my Soil Mechanics class (and in there was the first time they taking a class photo for first time), and in their feedback, the visits help them so much during next online classes. They easily could recall again how we do the soil compaction test and see the apparatus of soil classification.

My SEAA1713 Soil Mechanics class visit’s to Geotechnics laboratory before movement control order (MCO)

And when talking about laboratory learning, face to face laboratory do allow students to experience seeing the laboratory in real, to hold the laboratory tools and to feel the real experience conducted. This is agreeable with what Merrill (2006) that once described a model to enhance and engage students in L&T.  He divides the L&T model into 4 different level, namely:  (1) Delivery of information only, (2) Delivery of information accompanied by demonstration, (3) Delivery of information accompanied by demonstration and application and (4) Task-centred with demonstration and application. The 4-level approach which the one that we could conducted easily during the face to face T&L indicate demonstration and application of student centred such as laboratory activities.

Therefore, one could see that the conventional laboratory is at their own par for providing more enhancement and engagement of students in L&T. So how could we do at least come to similar par for the online laboratory? To answer this, I would to recall again things that the father of Engineering Mechanics, Stephen P. Timoshenko addressed in his biography books, ‘As I Remember’. This book is the first book I read in the early day of my tutor/lecturer in UTM recommended by my seniors Dr. Airel Yasreen. Timonshenko literarily had mentioned that,

“Exposing students to hands-on will lead to a broader understanding, therefore it is important for lecturer to become a facilitator rather than a lecturer in lab”.

Similarly Assoc.Prof. Dr Zol Bahri Razali in his paper of  “Valuable Experience in Engineering Laboratory enhance understanding of engineering concepts” mentioned that,

“The development of experience either intentionally or unintentionally, will happen when the students are performing tasks in the laboratory.”

Two keywords mentioned by both scholars are the thing that as a coordinator I hold to, in order to provide good online L&T for our laboratory courses, 1) facilitate (assistive) and 2) experience (aiming for students to interact with the provided data).

In order to solve low interactions and isolation among the students (and also lecturers), what we do in School of Civil Engineering, is to facilitate (provide assistive). Interactions medium is being enhance. As prior discussion during JKA meetings, for Civil Engineering Laboratory, we started the laboratory online session during the additional lecture weeks and allocate two weeks solid for laboratory session and submission period. Online laboratory is carried out via asynchronous task bases where lecturers prepared the briefing video and multiple sets of data ahead. In details:

  1. General briefing of new norm on laboratory goes online was conducted to brief students and lecturers before starts the laboratory. Alhamdulillah via this briefing, lots of confusions is cleared and in the same time, I have an opportunity to boost their motivation towards the laboratory sessions (as the laboratory is conducted end the end of the lecture weeks)
  2. All the L&T material is centralized via one stop centre i.e. using e-learning Moodle. Videos, data and softcopy of laboratory modules are provided in e-learning for easy access by both lecturers and students.
  3. Series of WhatsApp group for each section also created as additional platform for easy question and answers session. At early session of laboratory each day, a QR code for attendance is shared via the WhatsApp.
  4. Students (via e-learning system) are required to watch briefing video(s) prepared earlier by lecturers, interact with data provided (within their group) and prepared the laboratory report.
  5. Additionally, a series of online laboratory briefing also provided (when needed).

At the end of laboratory week, students submit their report via e-learning with flat submission deadline. Lecturer grading the reports either online inside the e-learning system or download it and do the marking either digital or conventional way.

Flowline of Civil Engineering Laboratory 1 in School of Civil Engineerng, UTM

Phase of work for Laboratory Coordinator

For conclusions, it is indeed truth that sustained investments in hands-on experiences help inspire students to further their education and prepare them for high-technology careers by fostering skills sought by potential employers. However, although with constraints condition, alhamdulillah, during our online laboratory implementation, I could see that students do interact directly with the provided data and this help students to enrich the scientific concepts and finally able to enhance students’ interest, motivation, and problem solving abilities.

A first-hand learning experience by performing various experiments on their own – but they don’t experienced it; I hope a series of substitute laboratory hands-on later can be arranged for the respective students.

Finally, some notes for further improvement;

  • To increase laboratory ab staff involvement in preparing laboratory video, according to standard (with guidance from lecturers)
  • To initiate bank of laboratory data
  • To create Youtube channel/Website for laboratory
  • To suggest a virtual laboratory with supplementary kit set of sample from school to students (if needed to be conducted online again)

Thank you.