Operation And Project Management

GLIMPSES OF GLORY TO REMEMBER AND TO LEARN

Zarifah Abdullah, Hafizah Abd-Mutalib & Muhammad Rosni Amir Hussin

 

Synopsis

Covid-19 reached Malaysia in late January 2020. Since its first discovery in China and its worldwide spread, the management of Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) had closely monitored the development of the pandemic. Initially, in February 2020, UUM set up a special task force to manage its international students in their home country. Many of them were in China, and the task force was assigned to help them cope with teaching and learning for the upcoming semester. When the 1st Movement Control Order (MCO) was announced in March 2020, UUM immediately set up a special Disaster Management Committee (DMC) to replace the initial special task force. The DMC was led by the Vice-Chancellor, involving all the heads of departments in UUM as its committee members. Based on the DMC’s decisions, the Academic Affairs Department (AAD) had implemented the Remote Learning (RL) method for all teaching and learning (T&L) processes, including any forms of assessment, whether mid-semester exams, assignments, quizzes, project presentations, and others, including final exams. Meanwhile, the Students’ Affairs Department (SAAD) had managed to control almost 13,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students who were still staying on campus during the 1st MCO.

 

Keywords: Covid-19 pandemic, UUM, academic, student affairs.

 

Introduction

One cold morning at the end of July 2020, Mr Shahrul, the Director of Risk Management Department (RMD), UUM, entered his office for his weekday daily routine. He was the only person authorised to come to the office since his position was considered essential during the Covid-19 pandemic. His staff, including his personal assistant, were working from home following the 1st MCO requirement. However, they actively communicated through Whatsapp to ensure all the responsibilities were settled as planned. He switched on the lights, then the air-conditioner, and took a seat. He opened his laptop and clicked the “Outlook” to check his email. Lists of the new emails appeared, and he quickly checked, read and replied, if necessary. He looked through the email list and focused on the email sent by special officers of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic and International) (DVCAI), Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) (DVCRI) and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Student Affairs and Alumni)(DVCHSAA). He needed to compile all the information from these special officers and prepare a to be report tabled in the next meeting.

 

 

Early-stage

Mr Shahrul remembered when Covid-19 was first confirmed in Malaysia on 25th January 2020, detected on China travelers who arrived in Johor via Singapore. China was heavily infected, especially noticed in the province of Wuhan and Hubei. Since then, reported cases in Malaysia remained relatively low at first and were primarily confined to imported cases. However, a local cluster began to emerge in March 2020, linked to a Tablighi Jamaat religious gathering held in Sri Petaling, Kuala Lumpur, in late February 2020. This cluster was the largest, leading to massive spikes in local and exporting cases to neighbouring countries. Within a few weeks, Malaysia had recorded the most significant cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 infections.

Mr Shahrul also remembered that when the pandemic had spread worldwide and to the whole country, UUM’s management had taken necessary actions to closely monitor the pandemic’s progress. In February 2020, the new semester (A192) began, and UUM had many international students who were still in their home countries, including China. UUM’s management needed to decide immediately whether to allow these students to return to UUM to continue their A192 semester. UUM had two (2) alternatives to choose from. The first was to allow these international students to continue staying in their home country; however, UUM needed a proper online teaching and learning system to ensure they could continue the A192 semester. The second alternative was to allow the international students to return to campus; however, it was tough because UUM’s management would need to take an immense risk. These international students might have been infected by the Covid-19 disease and could spread the virus to the local students that stayed inside the campus. It was a critical dilemma for the management to decide on the best and safest option that takes into consideration the best interest of all stakeholders. Therefore, the UUM’s management created a new special task force led by the DVCAI to manage crucial decisions involving the issue. At the early stage, the task force’s objective was to decide on the best decision that the UUM’s management should take to deal with the international students, especially those from China. As the Director of RMD, Mr Shahrul was continuously referred to by the UUM’s Management to give his opinion and advice regarding the risk from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mr Shahrul, DVCAI and the representatives from various related departments joined the special task force to handle UUM’s international students. UUM, as an education institution, did not have any appropriate guideline or procedure to manage the pandemic. Even though UUM already established Risk Management Department (RMD) (previously known as Risk Management Unit) years before, but the responsibility of this department is to advise the university on the risk of its routine operation. Because of the pandemic, RMD had expanded its commitment to inform UUM of the best decision on any related issues. Thus, the department was appointed as a secretariat to this special task force led by the DVCAI to make the best decision to accommodate these international students. After conducting a series of brainstorming meetings, the special task force decided that UUM should not obstruct international students from returning to campus. Following this decision, UUM had planned a proper Standard Operational Procedure (SOP) where the students need to be quarantined for 14 days from the day they reached UUM. UUM lecturers were instructed to conduct classes using the online method for almost three (3) weeks. With this proper planning, UUM successfully controlled the international students, and none of them was infected by Covid-19.

 

Disaster Management Committee (DMC)

In March 2020, the impact of the pandemic had gotten serious at the national level. The National Security Council (MKN) and Ministry of Health Malaysia (MOH) had suggested to the Malaysian’s Government to implement Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18th March 2020, referred to as “lockdown” or “partial lockdown”. The Prime Minister had announced the order at a press conference on the 16th March 2020. In corresponding to this new order, UUM immediately set up a special committee named Disaster Management Committee (DMC) to replace the special task force. The DMC was led by the Vice-Chancellor, and all the heads of departments in UUM are members of this Committee. Among the members of this committee are three (3) Deputy Vice-Chancellors (DVCAI, DVCRI, DVCSAA), directors of institute/department, schools’ deans and the principals of residential colleges. As the previous special task force, Mr Shahrul, as the Director of RMD, was appointed as the secretariat for this committee. Compared to the last task force that only focused on managing international students, DMC was responsible for making broader decisions for the university level, especially to take immediate action when the Malaysian’s Government or MKN issues new orders of circulars. Besides that, the DMC needed to make various important decisions to protect UUMs’ internal stakeholders from being affected by COVID 19 and, at the same time, must make sure that university operation continues as usual.

This committee met regularly through face-to-face or virtual meetings to respond to new orders or circulars from the Malaysian’s Government or MKN or to resolve any issues or impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in UUM. It was well understood that UUM should follow any new orders or circulars from the Malaysian’s government or MKN. Still, the DMC would discuss on the best method to implement it thoroughly to fit the UUM’s current condition. For example, during the first MCO, DMC needed to plan to manage staff and students appropriately. Besides, among the earliest decision that DMC has made was to supersede the essential purchasing and spending rules because, during this Covid-19 pandemic, multiple emergency purchasing and spending could happen. Until now, DMC continued its function and conducted meetings regularly until the Covid-19 pandemic was ended.

All the new policy decisions, especially related to internal issues made by the DMC, will be brought down to each department to plan for the operationalisation process. Each department set up its own operationalise committee to make sure all the policies made up by the DMC were executed as planned. The departments impacted most by the Covid-19 pandemic were the Academic Affairs Department (AAD) and the Student Affairs and Alumni Department (SAAD). The most crucial department was AAD, since semester A192 had just begun when the MCO was initiated. The AAD need to make various decisions related to teaching and learning and the assessment process. As per the earliest discussion, the very first decision made by the AAD was to quarantine international students, especially those students from China. Due to this decision, Semester A192 face to face classes had been postponed for almost three (3) weeks. During this period, all lecturers were encouraged to start their courses through online learning to cater to the needs of all international studentsthat were undertaking quarantine period. After the entire international student completed the quarantine period, all classes continued for almost four weeks until the Prime Minister announced the MCO in mid-March 2020.

 

Academic’s matters

 

During the 1st MCO, by corresponding to the new national order, the DMC had issued a circular that all staff, including lecturers, were not allowed to enter the campus. All classes were postponed until further notice. Only staff in essential service departments, such as student affairs, health centre and security centre, were allowed to enter the campus. This is because all public universities, including UUM, received an additional order from the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) that the teaching and learning process should be postponed until MOHE come out with a specific mechanism for how the teaching and learning process should be conducted during the 1st MCO. MOHE had decided to postpone teaching and learning immediately because they needed some grace period to discuss with all leaders of public universities and related parties to determine the best method to continue and to complete semester A192. Three (3) main factors that needed to be considered by MOHE before any action was taken by MOHE: safety, quality, and continuity. After a series of discussions and meetings, MOHE had initiated various field surveys on the due diligence of the lecturers’ and students’ preparedness and the state of readiness of associated infrastructure to continue T&L for A192. Finally, MOHE came out with the Higher Education Programme Management Post Movement Control Order (MCO) guideline. Based on this guideline, together with the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) circulation, public universities were given two options for how to conduct the T&L activities by using; (1) online learning (OL); or (2) remote learning (RL) methods. MOHE had given full authority to the public universities to decide on the best method and appropriate date to continue semester A192’s T&L. Each of the public universities needed to make the best decision for their institution by considering their strengths and constraints in implementing the new teaching and learning method.

 

Based on the alternative given by the MOHE, both DMC and AAD had decided that all teaching and learning activities, any forms of assessment, whether mid-semester exams, assignments, quizzes, project presentations and others, including final exams, would be carried out via the RL method. By implementing RL, students and educators were not physically present in a traditional classroom environment. Instead, instruction was disseminated through technological tools such as the discussion boards, video conferencing, and virtual assessments. It was an attempt to recreate the in-person, face-to-face classroom over the internet. Various technologies could be implemented in the RL method to connect lecturers and students, such as through WEBEX meetings, WhatsApp, Telegram, learning management system (LMS), YouTube or any other suitable technologies.

 

After the DMC and AAD had reviewed UUM’s internal strengths and constraints, UUM started the RL approach for the T&L from 27th April 2020. Before implementing the RL, through the University Teaching and Learning Centre (UTLC), AAD conducted various trainings and workshops to ensure all the lecturers were ready with the new online T&L method. UTLC also created a help desk to assist lecturers with any issues or problems related to RL. Fortunately, all the lecturers had fully committed and equipped themselves with all the skills needed in implementing RL. Among the most critical training given by UTLC was how to use WEBEX meeting software and the appropriate assessment method under the RL method. The special officer of DVCRI reported in his email to Mr Shahrul that before subscribing to WEBEX meeting software, UUM had reviewed various virtual meeting software available in the market. UUM, through Information Technology Centre (UUMIT), had decided to subscribe to WEBEX meeting software and not for others. Mr Shahrul noted that the decision to subscribe to WEBEX meeting software was made earlier before the COVID 19 pandemic happened because UUM was in the process of strengthening its digital academic system. Thus, when the COVID 19 pandemic happened, immediately UUM hastened the subscription process of WEBEX meeting software. The first training session was conducted by the supplier to the lecturers a day before the 1st MCO. With the strong cooperation from the UUM’s top management, AAD and their related departments such as the UTLC, and the lecturers, RL for A192 had been successfully implemented and was continued until now.

 

Another crucial issue when the T&L was conducted using the RL approach was the readiness of the internet connection and devices among the lecturers and students. For those still inside the campus, this problem was resolved by the UUMIT by increasing the internet capacity. Concurrently, lecturers have equipped themselves with any needed devices to run the implemented RL approach smoothly. UUM had conducted a continuous survey to collect inputs on students’ readiness in terms of internet connection and apparatus for the students already in their hometown. The survey output then is the essential input for the lecturers to plan various RL methods to suit the students’ condition. For example, from the survey conducted, students were categorised as; (1) having a high internet connection, (2) medium internet connection, (3) poor internet connection, and (4) without internet connection. Thus, lecturers should plan their RL based on these students’ categories. AAD had detailed out the suggested best solution and action through order/circular to cater for each of the students’ categories. Student Affairs and Alumni Department (SAAD) had launched crowdfunding to buy almost 400 laptops for the B40 students related to the students’ devices issue. SAAD also made a deal with the telecommunication provider to offer a special package rate for the students. At the national level, all local public universities implemented an open university concept where any students who needed an internet connection could come to any university campus with minimal rules and regulations.

 

Student’s affairs

 

For the SAAD, when the government announced the 1st MCO, UUM’s campus was closed immediately where students were not allowed to go out from the campus, and outside students or external parties were not allowed to enter the campus. During the implementation of 1st MCO on 18th March 2020, almost 5,000 students were still on campus, and that was the campus with the second highest number of students inside the campus for the public universities after Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM). Nearly 13,000 students went back immediately to their hometown when the Prime Minister announced the MCO on the 16th March 2020, i.e. two (2) days before the 1st MCO began. However, their personal things and belongings were still on campus. With almost 5,000 students still inside the campus, the most challenging part for the SAAD was to make sure students’ welfare were well taken-care. SAAD was responsible for monitoring students’ safety and security, and for fulfilling their personal needs such as food/beverage, and for guaranteeing their mental/physical health. SAAD staff from various departments worked for almost 24 hours a day during the 1st MCO to ensure students’ welfare was intact. SAAD had created a specific operating room to make sure any issues related to students could be resolved immediately.

 

Besides that, another challenging part was that SAAD was expected to entertain and update the parents about their children, who were stranded inside the campus. Even though parents could contact their children directly, they also contacted the representatives from SAAD, including the DVCSAA himself, to get a clearer picture about how SAAD planned to protect their children. At the early stage of the1st MCO, all classes were postponed, and students were not allowed to move around the campus. Social activities such as sports activities were also forbidden during the 1st MCO. Thus, SAAD also conducted various additional activities through their related departments, such as the Cultural Department and Counselling Centre, to ensure students were not bored and that psychologically, they were healthy. To ensure students’ welfare were secured, SAAD needed a lot of funding primarily to provide free daily food and beverage to the students. Besides the funding from the MOHE, SAAD also received a donation of almost RM70,000 in cash and RM300,000 in non-monetary items from individuals, corporates and politicians to support the students’ welfare.

 

Another challenging phase for the SAAD was when the government allowed the students to go back to their hometown with strict SOP somewhere in April 2020. This process is called “Ops Pulang” (Returning Ops), and UUM was appointed as the centre for the northern Peninsular Malaysia region covering Penang, Kedah and Perlis. This process had involved almost 70,000 students from 71 higher institutions. This tedious and challenging process took more than a month involving various government institutions such as the police departments and the Fire and Rescuedepartments. However, SAAD managed to successfully execute their tasks and duties with the help and support from the top management, the staff, the funder/donators, the parents, and the students.

 

Conclusion

 

Finally, Mr Shahrul has completed preparing his report to be tabled in the next DMC meeting. Mr Shahrul believed that UUM had successfully handled Covid-19 pandemic situation from getting serious and had a significant impact on its stakeholders. UUM took serious action from that early COVID 19 pandemic that happened in China. In an earlier effort, a special task force was created to decide and manage international students, specifically those from China, in the early semester of A192. This was continued by forming the DMC, which led the VC to make crucial decisions related to UUM administration, especially their primary business on academic matters and student affairs. In 2021, Covid-19 pandemic was still around, and UUM still had a high fighting spirit until it was able to control the situation successfully. It was already lunch hour; Mr Shahrul had saved the document and went back to his house for lunch because none of the cafés was allowed to be in operation just yet.

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