A viral Facebook post circulated in several WhatsApp groups of mine recently. The story and image was a heartbreaking one: an elderly grandma and her grandson standing outside a smartphone shop, both masked, eyeing the array of devices displayed before them curiously and cautiously, arms crossed behind their back as if afraid to touch the precious screens. The caption on the post explained that Grandma was looking to buy a smartphone for Grandson so he could participate in online lessons. But alas, Grandma and Grandson left the shop empty-handed.
As a privileged millennial who keeps tabs on the latest upgrade and new releases of gadgets, the jarring image of Grandma and Grandson standing helplessly outside the store replayed in my mind for a few days. For me, my smartphone is mainly used for communication and absent-minded scrolling through social media. For them, having a smartphone means access to education, information ... a better life. It was so close, yet out of reach.
Covid-19 has now dragged all corners of the world kicking and screaming into this era of technology. Access to electronic devices and a stable connection to the Internet are no longer a luxury but a necessity. However, this necessity has only exposed the widening socioeconomic gap in society, especially where education is concerned. In fact, a recent study by Malaysia’s Education Ministry revealed that almost 40% of students nationwide do not have access to electronic devices.
With the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the closure of schools and an abrupt transition to e-learning, educators have stepped up to keep lessons going. Teachers are exercising creativity and ingenuity by conducting lessons online using various platforms like Google Classroom, Zoom, YouTube and Instagram to name a few. For students without access to electronic devices and a stable Internet connection, I’ve heard teachers are even calling and send SMS texts to monitor the student’s progress on classwork and assignments. RTM’s TV Okey is another platform for students to keep up with their studies.
Private sector companies have pledged to donate smartphones with data packages to underprivileged students or have teamed up with the NGO Teach For Malaysia to donate laptops to students in need.
While these efforts demonstrate an encouraging push for equal access to education, I have to ask: “Is this enough?”. In my opinion, the answer is simply “No”. It is clear that the government must take swift action to remedy this problem. Among the many recommendations to address this serious issue is the need for the government to establish a proper action plan for education during a crisis, increasing Internet access in rural areas, and developing an “affordable device programme” to ensure that all families own at least one electronic device ("Lack of Internet access in South-East Asia poses challenges for students to study online amid Covid-19 pandemic"). These are ideal solutions that I hope policymakers will take on board.
As a layperson, however, I wonder, “What can I do now?”. In Singapore, non-profit organisations like ReadAble and Engineering Good have been receiving donations of used laptops and refurbishing them for onward distribution to underprivileged students. Russell Westbrook of American basketball team Houston Rockets have harnessed the power of celebrity to donate some 650 computers to underprivileged students after schools were closed in Houston.
By now, we are well aware that the world will not be like it was before the pandemic began. I feel strongly that we collectively share the responsibility of ensuring that we all move forward together – because it could very well have been my Grandma and me outside that store.
DEVINIA SUNSHINE OWEN DEVAN
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