This is way cooler than going to the library!" exclaimed 11-year-old Norsyalinah Suad as her Google search flashed a handsome find on her idol, P.Ramlee. Between downloading the information and copying quirky trivia on the late performer for her scrapbook project, she said:" If this were an assignment in school, it would take me ages to complete. I can't believe the Net can give so much in so little time!" After a minute, she asked: “Do you think they’d allow me to use this when I sit for my tests? It sure would come in handy!”
It may seem odd these days to find an 11-year-old just discovering the Internet. Yet, this is the reality for many rural schoolchildren like Norsyalinah who have very little exposure to computers and the world of information technology.
For seven days, Norsyalinah was among 60 children from rural schools in Sabah who had the opportunity to discover the various functions of the computer, in a pilot project between Maxis Communications and the Ministry of Energy, Communications and Multimedia (KTKM).
The KTKM-Maxis Cyber Kids Software Camp 2002 was held in Kota Kinabalu in December.
“The camp makes no pretense of turning the kids into computer wizards overnight but aims to expose them to the world of information technology that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. The camp, like many of Maxis’ previous programmes, hopes to bridge the rural-urban digital divide,” said Maxis chief executive officer Datuk Jamaludin Ibrahim.
Many of the participants had little or no prior exposure to the PC or the Internet. By the end of the week-long camp, however, all the children, aged nine to 11, had learnt to use the mouse, surf the Internet and design their own web pages.
Camping in the city
The children traded jungle greenery for the whitewashed walls of Likas Square apartments, swapped traditional tents for air-conditioned rooms, and hiked by climbing up and down the stairs during the camp in the Sabah capital.
While classes were conducted during the day, evenings were spent in sing-alongs, fun-and-games and stage performances.
There was even a makeshift campfire where, for safety reasons, oil lamps were used in place of a log fire.
Day Three of the camp saw the children pair up at workstations to learn the basics of using a computer.
“At the start of the camp, these kids didn’t know anything beyond the mouse and the computer keyboard. But look at them now. They’ve basically taken to the camp like ducks to water!” teacher Farzier Masibu of SK Timbua later said.
As the children soon discovered, using the computer to write is a lot more fun than writing in long hand.
“At school, the teacher sometimes gets upset because my work is messy. That’s because I use liquid paper a lot to erase my spelling mistakes.
“But on the computer, there’s no mess because all I have to do is press the ‘Delete’ button,” said 11-year-old Rarebell Leo Jesta of SK Tiga Papan.
“You can use this to enter essay-writing competitions, can't you?” asked Farzier. Little camper Faniza Jatris fully agrees.
“I can’t write fast because my hand hurts. If I enter a competition, I have to do a draft first and then rewrite it to make sure my essay has no spelling mistakes. It’s a lot of work, but not when you’re using the computer,” said Faniza.
They've got mail
At one end of the room, Owen Ruslan of SK Kusilad was checking his e-mail account without assistance.
The children, who were all taught to create their own e-mail accounts at the start of the camp, had fun e-mailing each other between lessons.
“I like this most of all,” said Owen. “I try to write in English so I can improve my grammar as well. It also helps in getting to know the other kids in the camp, because sometimes I feel shy to talk to them.”
While Owen was occupied with e-mail, P. Ramlee fan Norsyalinah was busy putting the finishing touches to her scrapbook. She used the computer's drawing software to add lines and colours to complete her idol’s portfolio.
“This is exactly what we hoped the kids would learn,” said KTKM secretary-general Datuk Dr Halim Shafie.
“We want them to be both PC and Internet savvy, but at the end of the day, we also
want to make sure they were able to use all the skills they'd learnt to do relevant projects”.
The facilitators were also told that by the end of the camp, the children would have to be able to design web pages for their schools.
Many thought that was a tall order, said Halim. “We weren’t quite sure how these rural kids would perform and if the programme was going to be too hard for them. But the kids have surpassed many of our expectations.”
On the fifth day, the children learnt all about content and hyperlinks as they prepared to design their school’s web pages.
The six participating schools competed for the Best Web Page Design award.
Matter of opportunity
Sabah Education Department director Datuk Kamal Quadra, who visited the camp on the last day, said: “This camp should be seen as a catalyst for other schools to create or take part in similar programmes in the future.
“Kids, no matter where they live, have equal capacity to learn. I am not the least bit surprised that they had performed so well in so little time. We just need to provide them with the right opportunity and environment to do just that.”
What is more important, he said, is that the schools encourage the students to maintain their enthusiasm even after the camp.
Maxis' Jamaludin adds: “This may be our pilot project under the Maxis Bridging Communities banner, but we plan to allocate RM2mil for reaching out to more than 100 schools all over the country to help them run similar programmes this year.”
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