An SOS for digital devices

Future of education: While it is crucial to note that PdPR does not only encompass online learning, it is also wise to understand that we can’t run away from it. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to embrace this new mode of learning in our education system. — File photo

UNDER the National Recovery Plan (NRP), schools are only expected to reopen between September and October.

And with Covid-19 cases still at an all time high, nothing is for certain.Worried that home-based teaching and learning (PdPR) would drag on, students and parents are calling on the government to deliver on its promise – 150,000 free laptops, tablets, and data connectivity.

Tabled in Budget 2021, the pilot project known as the Cerdik Fund, is aimed at providing for low-income (B40) students in 500 schools.

The fund, which began with a slow rollout, involves contributions worth RM150mil from 13 Government-Linked Companies (GLC) and Government-Linked Investment Companies (GLIC).

The first tranche of devices was set to be delivered from February, however, there were delays in the distribution process.

Last month, Education Minister Datuk Dr Radzi Jidin said the distribution is expected to be completed by the end of September.

The nation was grimly reminded of the urgent need for the devices when a sobbing father spoke with despair to about his inability to provide his children with the necessary gadgets for PdPR.

He told the radio station that being a low-income worker, it was impossible for him to afford gadgets for each of his five children to prevent them from falling behind in their studies, let alone be able to guide them at home.

His family is but one of many that do not have digital access to complement their children’s learning during the prolonged school closure.

Last year, based on a survey the Education Ministry conducted, 36.9% of 900,000 students said they do not own gadgets.

While it is important to note that PdPR does not only comprise online learning (see infobox), it must be acknowledged that virtual lessons are an effective component of effective learning.

Even if the Covid-19 pandemic had not hit, it was only a matter of time before this new mode of learning would have to be incorporated into the education system if the nation is to march forward in IR4.0.

While the Cerdik Fund initiative is a good step forward in providing holistic education to needy students, Teach For Malaysia (TFM) chief executive officer Chan Soon Seng is urging more corporations to come forward and do their part by providing needy students with devices to support their learning.

TFM is an independent organisation committed to ending educational inequity.

Calling on corporations to step in and help, Chan said everyone has a part to play in supporting education. “Every little bit makes a difference – now more so than ever,” he said, suggesting that corporations purchase new devices, donate their refurbished laptops, or support laptop rental schemes to help the B40.

While it is “frustrating” that these 150,000 devices are taking longer than expected to reach students, Chan commended the government for its initiative and foresight.

“We understand that there are many logistical challenges, including a global shortage of devices, that makes it difficult to roll out quickly at this scale.

“And devices cannot simply be handed out to students without the proper management and monitoring mechanisms in place.

“Device rollout programmes in the past, even in other countries, have proven to be ineffective without this,” he told StarEdu.

Chan, however, pointed out that these 150,000 devices do not even make up 10% of the number of students without a device.

Therefore, it is crucial for various parties to consider short-term offline solutions, he said, alongside a long-term plan for access to devices and connectivity.

“In the short term, we also need to invest in zero-tech distance learning solutions, such as ensuring that schools can operate as learning resource distribution hubs, and allowing schools and education district offices to deliver materials to students.

“As Cerdik is a pilot project, hopefully the lessons from this pilot will be used to implement a long-term scheme to provide a device for every child, alongside an acceleration in developing the infrastructure for connectivity.

“There also needs to be training, support and policy provisions for technology adoption, to ensure that technology continues to be utilised in schools once they reopen,” he added.

He stressed that outdated policies such as the 2009 circular that prohibits the use of mobile phones in schools, need to be revised.

Wiki Impact co-founder Terence Ooi said online schooling has multiple impacts on students, especially those in the B40 category, as many of them have to share one device with their multiple school-going siblings.

Wiki Impact is a platform where changemakers can find data and stories on social issues in the country.

Most of these devices, said Ooi, belong to students’ parents who may need it for their work.

“All these factors, stretched over a prolonged period, can add to the emotional stress faced by families trying to survive while helping their children keep up with school and deal with the mental stress caused by the pandemic.

“Therefore, the devices given to students must be durable and of quality.

“There is no point giving something that is cheap and fast but can’t be used for a long period of time.

“These devices will most likely be shared among siblings during the pandemic and beyond as hybrid learning is here to stay,” he said.

SOLS 24/7 Foundation, a humanitarian organisation that serves, educates and empowers underserved communities through education and social empowerment programmes, states that there are some 5.2 million students in the country’s national schools.

Its founder and chief executive officer Raj Ridvan Singh said of this number, at least 3.6 million students require digital devices for their education.

The numbers were derived from a research the foundation carried out, he said.

While he encourages telcos to support and provide free or cheap bandwidth to students to access their learning apps, he acknowledges that such initiatives are not their responsibility to provide.

The 150,000 devices being handed out under the Cerdik Fund is a drop in the ocean, he said.

“We need millions of devices to bridge the digital divide and massive education gap brought on by the pandemic.

“There is also the issue of bandwidth and connectivity.

“We have good infrastructure and 3G and 4G operators in Malaysia, so 95% of the children who need it should have access.

“For the rural and semi-rural areas, we need to quickly deploy very-small-aperture terminals and other options.

“If there was a concerted effort by the government and various agencies, we could have solved this digital issue within three to six months,” he said, adding that the government could collaborate with non-governmental organisations, or the private sector, to mobilise the government’s delivery system to ensure its efficiency.

Raj Ridvan estimates that an allocation of RM2.64bil would be needed if decent laptops and tablets with Internet connectivity, which cost approximately RM500 per unit, are bought for the 3.6 million students.

“Why can’t we allocate RM2.64bil for education devices?

“The government spends around RM64bil a year on education, so the amount suggested is very low in comparison.

“Tablets can be preloaded with content where we can show students the millions of online resources which are free, while we speed up the training of our national school teachers on how to teach remotely or online.

“The reality is, the solutions are there, but the willpower and push for it is not,” he added.

Agreeing with Ooi is United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Malaysia education specialist Azlina Kamal, who said the pandemic has had a “colossal impact” on the education and learning of children.

She stressed that the gap between children who have access to technology and learning tools and those who do not has never been more glaring.

“The massive scale of school closures caused by Covid-19 has laid bare the uneven distribution of the technology needed to facilitate remote learning. Digital inequality is deepening as digital inclusion increases in importance.

“This widening gap and potential loss of learning between those who have access to devices and connectivity and those who do not is absolutely critical – especially when we know that at least 36% of urban and 35% rural children are without any type of gadgets,” she added.

Digital exclusion, she said, is holding children back from learning and developing their full potential and enjoying the highest standard of well-being.

She stressed that commitment to the levelling up of education through quality digital inclusion is essential.

“If we are serious about every child – regardless of their background and socio-economic status – developing to their full potential and having equal opportunities to succeed in life, then we must make sure they are digitally included, and with quality gadgets.”

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