Impact of COVID-19 on Brunei’s Higher Education Teaching
WIDA SUSANTY HAJI SUHAILI
Brunei’s first case of COVID-19 was announced on 9 March 2020 and to date, we have had 138 confirmed cases. The COVID-19 cases within Brunei are all imported cases from three different clusters: a mass religious gathering outside Brunei; secondary contacts of those who were infected at the mass religious gathering; and Bruneians returning overseas from vacation or study.
On 4 February, Brunei imposed a travel ban to infected countries on Bruneians. All unnecessary travel to coronavirus-affected countries is to be postponed to reduce the possibility of more imported cases. Travel restrictions on the coming in and going out of Brunei have been imposed to contain the situation. Only those returning home are allowed to enter Brunei and once back, they have to undergo 14 days of self-isolation. The government has provided special quarantine places that ensure their safety and their families’.
School closures were announced one week before the school holiday period. Activities such as mass gatherings, dining in restaurants and social meetings were all prohibited. Social distancing and personal hygiene were advocated for all. This is the one-nation approach carried out by the government to break the chain of infection. The public was advised to maintain a high level of personal hygiene and to wash their hands frequently with clean water and soap or disinfect them using alcohol-based hand sanitisers.
From the first detected case, the nation was updated daily on the current situation of the novel coronavirus infection and measures taken by Brunei Darussalam. A daily update of the current situation was broadcast live through different media channels. Information is also available from the Ministry of Health website. This transparency has more or less provided assurance to the public and guidance on best practices for handling COVID-19.
Impact on Brunei’s Higher Education Teaching and Learning
In Brunei Darussalam, the higher education system is made up of higher education institutions, namely Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Universiti Teknologi Brunei (UTB), Universiti Islam Sultan Sharif Ali and Politeknik Brunei. The country’s decisions on matters relating to COVID-19 have been well informed by Ministry of Health. All higher education institutions under the Ministry of Education took precautionary measures in ensuring that the infection was contained. Health, safety and well-being of their community are the institutions’ top priority. Hence, respective institutions were asked to come up with their respective Business Continuity Plan, or BCP. All universities have decided to suspend face-to-face teaching and learning for students.
UTB remains open and operational but has changed its methods of engagement with students, in light of the current COVID-19 situation. Teaching and learning continue online and remote instructions were provided to the students. UTB has been utilising its online education platforms and other non-face-to-face delivery methods of teaching and learning since the first BCP announcement.
Moodle, an online education platform, is not new to the university but unfortunately, utilisation was not very high. But with the suspension of face-to-face teaching and learning, utilisation is now at its highest. Both lecturers and students have no choice but to embrace the technology. Especially with no on-campus examinations, all assessments are to be converted to 100% coursework. Issues such as access to the Internet, unstable devices and unconducive environment for learning at home have emerged and to attend to these issues, individual students or faculty can write in to request for necessary assistance from the University.
In addition, all students’ work is to be submitted online. The graduation dates are fixed with no extension to avoid any delay in the completion of study for final-year students. Individual lecturers are to set their own submission deadlines, with the final date of marks submission sent out by the Examination Office. Assignment or coursework are allowed to start now so that students will not be overwhelmed by too many of them within a short period; there are also no changes in degree classification.
All lecturers are working from home on a weekly basis. To restrict access to the campus, including laboratories, except for group design projects, students are allowed to return to campus to work on final year projects and other research projects at most three times a week and only if recommended by their respective supervisor. Students must observe the current access procedures put in place by the University and the respective rules and regulations for laboratory use of the respective faculty or school. Prior permission must be obtained from the BCP Team in order to access the laboratories.
According to UTB’s BCP Issue Number 11, as an additional measure to minimise the risk of potential COVID-19 spread in the campus, the University Senate on 26 March 2020 approved the following recommendations: suspension of face-to-face teaching and learning and shifting of such activities to online mode; all assessments to be converted to 100% coursework, with no on-campus examinations; arrangement with host organisations for students on local ExperiencePlus (a third-year internship or attachment programme) to work from home; those doing ExperiencePlus abroad were asked to return to Brunei.
At the time of writing, Brunei’s number of confirmed cases remain below 200. While Brunei did not opt for a lockdown, its government was swift in introducing measures such as travel ban, restrictions on public gatherings, closure of places of worship, work-from-home arrangements, and all public and private educational institutions shifting to online learning. The government may relax its COVID-19 response measures if there are no new cases of infection observed for a month.
Technology plays a powerful role today and institutions can no longer meet students’ needs through classroom-based instruction alone.
A survey was done on online education platform usage during the COVID-19 crisis from 14 to 17 March. 670 responses were collected, which represent 45% of UTB’s student population. The analysis of the data concluded that students prefer blended learning over online learning, and to limit this to a maximum of four hours per day. The report further stated: “Higher education institutions are trying to innovate their services and raise their public reputation as education is currently undergoing a dramatic transformation. Technology plays a powerful role today and institutions can no longer meet students’ needs through classroom-based instruction alone.” It added that the university is increasingly focused on determining the right model to integrate technologies in teaching and learning in order to fulfil students’ needs and provide the skills and education needed to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
No one knows for sure how long these closures are likely to last. All measures will be extended until the pandemic subsides. All are reminded not to panic and to continue to maintain the advocated good practices at all times as a precautionary measure.
Press Release Ministry of Health ref. KK/PR/2 dated 16 March 2020
Circular from the Prime Minister’s Office ref. 06/2020 dated 16 March 2020
UTB website- BCP circulars
Survey conducted by (Dr Saiful Omar, Dr Hjh Noor Maya Hj Md Salleh and Dr Afzaal H Seyal)
This article first appeared in the print version of HESB Issue #08. Click here to read the full, online issue.