MY sister used to teach Form Five Chemistry. She is now retired. She shared with me her school’s bitter experience with the “computer for schools” programme in the 1990s. Do people remember that nationwide programme where schools were given free computers as part of the national digitisation plan? It received much publicity and was aimed at migrating our education system into e-learning mode.
The intention was good. But it was let down by the poor broadband infrastructure that existed then, especially in rural areas. Add that to the fact that no consideration was given to maintenance costs, and it was inevitable that most of the computers soon became just another source of e-waste.
Now, as the Covid-19 pandemic is changing the education sector, the need for fast broadband is even more pressing. The speed at which anything can be downloaded and uploaded becomes critical as e-learning becomes the norm.
Most of the nation’s tertiary education institutions have been conducting their lessons online already. Some schools have also done likewise. Though the country’s broadband has witnessed improvements since the “computer for schools” débâcle, broadband professionals feel the system is still insufficient to cater to the current explosive rise in demand.
Education is not the only sector that needs good broadband support. Other sectors such as e-commerce and online banking all need good broadband infrastructure.
According to the latest professional assessment of global Internet service, Malaysia does not seem to fare very well. We still linger around position 40 with the likes of Bangladesh and Ethiopia. Among the countries that top the list are South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. And this is more than 20 years after Malaysia launched that ambitious Multimedia Super-corridor project. South Korea also launched a similar initiative at about the same time. Adding salt to injury, during those years we beat South Korea in football to qualify for the Munich Olympics! It is truly humiliating that we are still far behind that country in improving our broadband speeds and access.
It is not too late, though. We can still catch up. The budget coming up soon should allocate more for broadband development. Of course, we should also ensure proper implementation. There should not be leakages. We cannot afford to remain in the backwaters of global broadband ranking if we want to compete on the world stage.
And education is now a global business. It has been reported that each year the nation earns about RM40bil from overseas students alone. That figure is set to rise as foreign students move away from traditional study destinations such as Australia, Britain and the United States. Malaysia and South Korea have been mentioned as having the potential to attract students. So we must be broadband-competitive, as more lessons will now go online.
If our broadband network can match the best in the world, digital learning will become much easier. Universities now experience some hiccups because of poor broadband support in rural areas. Schools in rural areas struggle to deliver lessons online.
Of course, students and teachers must be taught the skills to navigate the many online teaching and meeting platforms. But that would not be difficult with an efficient network.
Many realise the benefits of online education. There is much lower costs involved since there is less travel. There is no urgency to invest in brick and mortar schools – no more worries about neglected schools in rural areas. All lessons can be streamed direct into homes. No more excuses to skip classes! Like working from home, learning from home is becoming accepted as the new normal. The positive social impact of such a family arrangement is immeasurable.
Investing in a good broadband network clearly offers many far-reaching benefits.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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