When the movement control order (MCO) started, school teacher Alex Rasidin said learning continued for his students through messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram, as well as Google Classroom.
In one WhatsApp chat group for Form Three pupils, there are only 11 students, said Alex, explaining that the rest, around 30, can’t participate because they don’t have phones.
“The reality is, most students in rural schools don’t have their own phones and are unable to switch to e-learning during MCO,” he said.
Alex, who teaches maths, science and physics at SMK Bakong Miri in Sarawak, said the school is about an hour away from town.
“If a student with access to the group chat is living in a longhouse or close to other classmates, I will ask him or her to share the exercises with them,” he said.
Even though the government announced free 1GB data daily through selected telcos for MCO, Alex said that isn’t enough.
“In the rural areas, there are students whose parents are happy to get them new smartphones but there is no access to a stable Internet connection,” he said.
Alex, who is now back in his hometown in Lundu in Kuching, Sarawak for MCO, said he also doesn’t enjoy a fast connection with his postpaid mobile plan.
“I’m paying RM150 a month for unlimited data but I have to do things like stick my phone out of the window for it to transfer messages or images. It’s a daily struggle but I do what I can to stay connected with my students,” he said.
Another teacher, Mohd Azuwan Samsulazli, is using services like WhatsApp and Microsoft Teams to teach students from SMK Merotai Besar in Tawau, Sabah, now that he is back in Selangor.
Mohd Azuwan said his school has come up with a daily schedule to help teachers conduct lessons as usual for students during MCO.
Since April 13, students have been expected to participate in three sessions – the first is from 7.30am to 9.30am and the last is from 2pm to 4pm.
“I have approximately 113 students and for sessions that involve live streaming, I can get up to 70 active participants. The rest don’t join in due to lack of Internet access or they don’t have their own device,” he said.
And the teachers have hit another speed bump – Internet data allowance given by telcos throughout MCO is not enough as the students are expected to participate in more than one streaming session a day.
“When we first tried a live streaming session, I could see that my students were so excited because they got to interact with others and it was a livelier learning environment,” he said.
“Each session uses about 200MB. Some students are worried that live streaming is taking up too much data and they don’t have money to get extra for other activities like social media, and may also be sharing the data with other siblings.”
Nabihah Hashim is also in the same boat and is finding it difficult to conduct after-school coding programmes for girls in Penang.
“Most of my students don’t have access to home broadband with unlimited data so they have to rely on their parents’ smartphones and mobile data. For now, I can’t reach out to all my students via online classes, not even the ones who need guidance,” she said.
Meanwhile at Kok Lanas in Kelantan, primary school teacher Rodzi Ghani is the one who is having issues with his Internet.
“I’m paying RM80 a month for a postpaid line with more than 20GB data. However, most of it is unused along with the free 1GB daily data allowance. For image or video uploads through WhatsApp, I have to walk out of my house just to get a stable connection to complete the task. It’s the same for Google Classroom,” he said.
Rodzi is frustrated over the lack of stable connectivity in his area, as this is preventing him from teaching his students in SK Pauh Jaya in Penang who do not have any issues with their Internet access.
“I’ve called my service provider about the issues I’m facing and was told that there is nothing much they can do,” he said.
They said the connection is congested and slow because there are more users in my area now trying to connect to the Internet at the same time.”
Education Minister Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin, in a press conference on April 15, acknowledged that some students may find it difficult to embrace online learning with video conferencing services like Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
He described the ability for most students to adapt to e-learning as “agak terhad (somewhat limited)”.
According to a study involving more than 670,000 parents and up to 900,000 students in Malaysia, 6% have a personal computer, 5.76% have a tablet, 9% have a laptop and 46% have a smartphone.
More than one third or 36.7% don’t own a device.
“In a guideline for teachers to help students during MCO, we have asked them to consider constraints that they themselves as well as parents may be facing in terms of choosing the best method for home-based learning,” Radzi said.
“There are students who don’t have access to high-speed Internet or stable connection. As an example, they may end up taking a long time just to load one webpage.”
As school has been suspended, parents are also struggling to get their kids used to home-based learning.
James Nayagam, the chairman for Suriana Welfare Society Malaysia, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that focuses on the prevention of child abuse, said he has been receiving phone calls from both frustrated students and parents voicing concerns about remote learning.
“I work with mostly people living in low- cost flats. There are parents with a number of children in small spaces,” he said, adding that when a child is unable to understand a lesson, the parents feel exasperated if they are unable to assist.
“The inability to help their child will just add to more frustration during this period. There are parents who are already worrying about how to put food on the table, if their jobs will be affected and what happens if MCO keeps being extended.”
Teachers too have to be flexible, said Alex, which is why he doesn’t expect his students to complete their exercises immediately.
“I don’t want to upset them because they may not feel like studying anymore. It’s important that I encourage them to keep learning during MCO,” he said.
“I understand that some students have to help their parents who have farms to manage or they will only get to use the phone at a later time. I often advise them to take their time. Most of them will be able to complete the homework during weekends.”
Alex is also hoping that telcos will continue to upgrade towers or other infrastructure to improve Internet connectivity in rural areas.
For students that are living in areas where Internet access is questionable, Azuwan said he aims to help them catch up with studies when school reopens after MCO.
“I have a list of students with difficulties doing e-learning and I will pay more attention to them when we’re all back in school,” he said.
In the meantime, he hopes that telcos would consider offering students even more data during this time.
Rodzi has found an interesting solution for his Internet problems by handwriting his notes for maths and sharing them with his students on WhatsApp and uploading them to Facebook for others to view as well.
“I have written up to 400 notes so far and have received good feedback from both parents and students who are not even from my school. They said the notes are easy to understand, as they come with explanations as well. One particular note has received more than 13,000 shares on Facebook,” he said.
Nabihah said she will be reaching out to companies to equip students with devices to help them keep up with e-learning while James wants telcos to offer discounts on mobile plans.
“That would really help to lighten the load for some parents,” he said.
The Education Ministry has announced examinations like UPSR for Standard Six students and PT3 for students in Form Three have been cancelled for this year while SPM has been postponed to the first quarter of 2021.
Though exams have been cancelled for some, Rodzi hopes that his students will continue to be inspired to learn.
“Knowledge is not just for examinations. Whatever they have learned today such as maths will be applicable for other aspects of life in the future,” he said.
Alina Amir, co-founder of social enterprise Arus Academy, said students should not just rely on the Internet to keep on learning.
“Go back to your books! On top of that, kids also need to think about why they are learning? Now that some examinations have been cancelled or postponed, they must be wondering ‘what is the purpose of studying during MCO?’” she said.
She said students need to be motivated to keep learning beyond just getting As for examinations and this is where parents should come in.
“They can adapt learning about mathematics into activities that can be done at home. For example, people have to stand apart at a certain distance from each other due to social distancing. Parents can illustrate that distance at home using just a ruler,” said Alina.
“There are plenty of other important skills that students can pick up that will improve their life along the way such as helping to care for their siblings, cooking and even cleaning the house. MCO gives everyone an opportunity to rethink knowledge.”