Trumping truancy with technology

TRUANCY is a long-standing issue in Malaysian schools and if left unaddressed, can lead to serious social ills.

The use of technology to track attendance data patterns so that teachers and parents are notified in real time, can make tackling truancy more effective.

With the Internet of Things (IOT), mobile apps can provide instant alerts in the event of unauthorised absences or if a student skips class. It can help teachers monitor students. If a child goes missing, a search can be launched immediately.

There’s already a number of tech systems and devices like phone apps, smart chips on uniforms, and smart cameras in classes, to keep track of students, said National Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Association of Malaysia (Pikom) chairman Ganesh Kumar Bangah.

Identification and tracking technology must be seen as an investment rather than a cost, he said, adding that technology allows schools to address problems before it develops into a crisis.

“Technology will always be expensive if we just weigh the cost factor alone and not against the benefits it can potentially achieve.”

Last year, the Education Ministry told Parliament that most expulsions were due to truancy. Severe cases of truancy involved missing classes for 30 days in a row or for a cumulative 60 days in a year.

Yayasan Generasi Gemilang (GG) director of services Nick Foong said the incorporation of technology into society is inevitable as we’re in the age of IR 4.0 (Fourth Industrial Revolution).

GG is a foundation focused on improving the lives of under-served children, and families, by increasing their access to quality education.

It also holds cyber wellness, financial education, leadership, and character building, activities.

Technology, said Foong, makes processes more efficient and effective, and helps in digital inclusion initiatives that give every child access to education.

“Technology can help track and record a myriad of things, including attendance, student grades, and assignments.

“But the vital cog is the approach. Take truancy for example, while the tech tracks attendance, schools should also implement a motivation and reward system that incentivises the desired behaviour.

“So for attendance, perhaps they could recognise classes that have achieved attendance milestones, and reward the students publicly during assembly. This will spur others to work together to get that class reward.”

He said whenever technology is deployed, steps must be taken to ensure that the data collected and used - especially personal and private information about children - are securely stored.

From monitoring cameras to fingerprint attendance systems, China’s varsities and colleges are increasingly turning to technology to improve attendance rates.

Last month, Hangzhou Dianzi University’s artificial intelligence (AI) system hogged the limelight for an app which hunts down truants on their mobiles.

But as its students’ affairs officer Hu Haibin points out, AI only collects data.

Based on the data, the reasons why students don’t want to go to class is analysed, and effectively addressed.

“This is the most important reason for us to develop and use the AI system,” Hu told China Daily.

Technology helps but it can only go so far as to track and record data, said Ganesh.

Any use of technology must be accompanied by efforts to address the social ills that influence a student’s behaviour in school.

There’s a continuous need to instil good conduct, discipline, and moral values, in youngsters.

“There must be involvement from parents, school, and the students themselves. Technology should be used for growth, mentoring, and counselling initiatives, instead of punishment.”

Agreeing, education activist Mak Chee Kin said we should make full use of technology to help prevent truancy but forcing students to go to school shouldn’t be our only purpose.

“There are many reasons why  students skip school despite knowing that it will destroy their future.

“Detecting is good, but we must also know why students play truant and look into ways of helping them,” Mak, who is chairman of the Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education (Magpie), said.

As a parent-teacher association (PTA) committee member for many years, he’s noticed that students play truant because they aren’t academically inclined; fear going to school because of bullying; face problems at home; have no transport to go to school; have to work at night so they can’t make it for school the next morning; or have certain family obligations to fulfil.

There are also parents who couldn’t care less because they don’t see education as important.

“So, apart from detecting the students who play truant, the school authorities and the Education Ministry must play their part to inculcate the importance of education to both students, and their parents.”

The National Union of the Teaching Profession (NUTP) also supports the use of technology to keep track of students.

But more importantly, NUTP secretary-general Harry Tan said, is to have a standard operating procedure (SOP) for all schools.

This will ensure that teachers are clear on what to do. Society, the police, parents, and guardians, must work closely with the school to help reprimand and report truancy cases, he said.

A special Act, similar to those in other countries, can be enacted to penalise parents and guardians who fail to send their kids to school.

“Disciplinary teachers want a SOP that’s current. For example, what do they do if they see a student playing truant? Can they go after the student or is it the parents’ responsibility?

“Disciplinary teachers must be empowered. That’s the main thing. The role of teachers is not limited to classroom academics. Teaching is about producing good citizens who aren’t a burden to society.”

There have been some cases where teachers have been threatened by students or their parents, he said.

When teachers try to break up a fight or address a bullying case, some have to contend with unhappy parents or guardians.

“In some cases, the parent of the victim will behave aggressively towards the bully and teachers have to step in. It can be dangerous. We do our best but sometimes, the police have to be called in.”

Tan said truancy can be absenteeism either from class, or from school.

Skipping class is easily handled because the student is still in the school vicinity so he or she can be found.

Avoiding school usually involves a small group of students with disciplinary issues or family problems. This group plays truant because they’re looking for a distraction - for example, at a cyber cafe or mall, he added.

“There are also some students who are forced to stay home to care for sick family members, while others are themselves suffering from a chronic illness. Also, some parents are just too busy to send them to school.

“In such cases, the teacher can contact the family to see how best to assist. Only in certain cases are students kicked out of school and this includes being absent for over two months.”

Truancy, he said, is a perennial problem but it’s not serious. It’s only a big problem in certain schools because of geographical and environmental factors.

The problem is still manageable. Schools must work with the PTA and police to address truancy, he said.

“Firstly, the students involved must be identified and referred to counselling teachers. This is to understand the problem.

“If needed, parents or guardians can sit in on the sessions.

“In complicated cases, schools can get help from the police and other relevant government agencies.”

The Education Ministry, in responding to StarEdu, said from January to November last year, the overall average attendance of primary and secondary students was 92%.

It listed four factors that influence absenteeism:

> Students

The students themselves have a negative attitude towards school. They’re not interested in studying or have low self esteem. They lack ambition, self-worth, confidence, and motivation to study. Also, some students are more interested in skills and vocational training.

> Family

Poverty, and parents who always argue, are divorced, separated or deceased, are problems they face at home. Families that cannot afford school supplies and pocket money, and children having to help ease the family’s financial burden either by working or taking care of their siblings, are issues too. And, for some parents, education just isn’t a priority.

> School The environment and physical surroundings may not be comfortable or attractive.

> Peer Friends can influence each other to waste time.

To tackle truancy, the ministry is carrying out these programmes:

> Ziarah Cakna This is a programme where school administrators, and teachers, visit students’ homes to ensure that they don’t drop out of the education system. The programme also promotes discipline and self-development. In truancy cases, efforts are stepped up to identify reasons for absenteeism. To prevent any untoward incidences, permission from the headmaster or principal is a must before the visits are conducted.

> Guru Penyayang Since 2012, all schools must cultivate a caring culture in, and outside of classrooms. A Guru Penyayang is a teacher who shows concern about a student’s well-being by being loving, friendly, caring, polite, respectful, cheerful, attentive, and patient. Their main activities are to make students feel welcomed and appreciated, and to implement the mentor-mentee programme.

> Parent-Teacher Associations (PTA), and Parents and Community Involvement (PIBK) They play an important role in helping schools address disciplinary problems and develop students’ personality.

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