Saturday 23 Sep 2023
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This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 21, 2020 - December 27, 2020

Since the pandemic forced schools to close, Cikgu K, who teaches in a public school in the Klang Valley, has been struggling to engage students online.

She has had to be incredibly resourceful. Every week, she conducts lessons on Google Meet for students who have good internet access and devices. Those who don’t, have to rely on textbooks, physical worksheets and online quizzes that require minimal mobile data.

“I have also personally sent project materials to students’ houses and prepared printed worksheets for parents to pick up from the school,” she says.

Like many others, she has observed that the pandemic has widened the education gap between privileged and underprivileged students.

"The number of users for Pandai shot up during the Movement Control Order period because parents were looking for alternatives to schooling to help their children learn. We are not meant to replace teachers but to complement them.” - Khairul

While some students have had no issues transitioning to an online learning environment, others cannot access online classes due to the lack of smart devices and internet connection. For instance, a family with three children will have to share their parents’ laptop and smartphones to attend classes.

“A teacher I know who is working in Tenom realised that many of her students can only go online in the evening because they are sharing gadgets with their parents, who only come back from work then. So, the teacher has to teach them in the evening,” says Chong Zhi Xiong, chief learning officer at maker space Chumbaka and a Teach for Malaysia alumnus.

The inequality is also observed when comparing students whose parents have the time to guide them when learning at home and those without guidance. On top of that, some students have to work to support their family during these difficult times, say teachers.

"We launched the SPM masterclasses after talking to a lot of headmasters and teachers who were worried about the results, since the students probably only attended about four months of classes this year. Most of the teachers could not finish the syllabus.”- Khaw

“One issue we noted was that not all parents have the ability to teach their children due to their own limited education. The older students had no one to guide them in their studies remotely and they lacked the ability to self-learn, especially for subjects like English and Mathematics,” says Melissa Ngiam, CEO of Yayasan Generasi Gemilang, a foundation that provides access to education for underserved children and families.

Many of the teachers Digital Edge spoke to use Google Meet, Zoom, WhatsApp and physical worksheets to engage with their students. The schooling hours are shortened and learning content condensed. They have also had to liaise more with parents, who may have language difficulties or are busy working, to deliver homework to the students.

Despite their efforts, they still observe lower engagement among students who are unmotivated to study, dropouts and concerns from students who have to sit for their SPM examinations next year. It is worth noting that this problem affects a wide range of students, including those from the urban poor and rural communities.

"You load Google Classroom into a local server using Raspberry Pi. Then, you can bring it to a rural area and deploy it there. It creates an intranet instead of an internet. But at least students can access whatever content is already loaded in Google Classroom.” - Chong

“We have a group of Orang Asli children with us. They stay with us, and because of that, our teachers can make sure they go online and access their lessons,” says Shereen Wong, head of primary education programme at Dignity for Children Foundation, which provides education for urban poor children.

“It’s a very straightforward problem that we have now. When students don’t have phones or data plans, they cannot access online classes. We need devices and internet accessibility for students.”

Technology has been credited with transforming the education system by allowing more interactivity and experiential learning. But it has also widened the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Digital Edge speaks to teachers and education technology industry players in Malaysia to find out what can be done to bridge this gap and fully realise the potential of technology in education.

What do students and teachers need?

A few common demands that teachers raise is the need to come up with different ways of teaching in this online era and access to online educational content. Teachers who are used to face-to-face teaching methods also need training.

“Our education [ministry] has been trying to incorporate technology into learning by equipping schools with information and communications technology facilities and the internet as well as training teachers to use technology in classrooms. However, it has not prepared us to utilise technology for remote learning outside of the classroom, particularly for those in rural areas,” says Cikgu K.

What is most important is that students need access to gadgets and the internet, say teachers. This point was addressed in Budget 2021, under which government-linked companies and government-linked investment companies will contribute RM150 million to provide laptops to 150,000 students in 500 schools.

Some students need devices while others need connectivity. Ngiam assessed her students and realised that the need for sufficient data is bigger than the need for devices. Together with corporate partners and donors, she started providing data and devices to students.

“We realised that giving out connectivity packs with dongles and data was the best choice. One hour of classes would use roughly 1GB, so our connectivity packs consisted of 40GB per month. For families who did not own devices, we used donor funds to provide tablets. As a result, the attendance rate of our education programme increased from 58% to 92%,” says Ngiam.

The fact that many students have access to mobile devices rather than laptops also highlights a situation where perhaps, a useful solution is to create learning content suited for mobile learning.

“I think students don’t need fancy gadgets. Most of them are very tech-savvy and use mobile phones a lot. So just give them a mobile phone with data, and they will be able to do wonders,” says Rebecca Lin, head of the secondary programme at Dignity for Children Foundation.

Otherwise, she believes that blended learning could be useful at this time. “Maybe we can strike a balance so that some children come in during certain days while others do online classes,” she says.

What do the industry players say?

The education technology (edtech) industry in Malaysia has not been sitting around doing nothing during the pandemic. Many have offered complimentary access to their products while others are providing activities to engage students.

The resounding response they have received from students, teachers and parents highlights the demand for good learning opportunities, given that the content is engaging and the delivery method is suitable. Of course, gadgets and connectivity remain key to unlocking this potential and are still cited as the most needed solution by industry players.

Who says students don’t want to learn?

Chong has been running a young innovator’s competition remotely this year, where he sends an Arduino kit to students to solve real-world problems with open-source technology solutions.

As testament to students’ desire to learn, he received submissions from 300 teams of students, 33% of whom were from Sarawak and 10% from Sabah, after sending out these kits to schools across the country.

While the students still need devices to watch a webinar and submit their project in the form of a video, it has not stopped those without these items from participating. Some borrowed laptops from their teachers while others made do with limited resources.

“This group of students from Sabah told me that their internet connection was terrible, so they just recorded and edited the video on the phone. I received the video in parts because they cut it up to make it upload faster. Talk about tenacity!” says Chong.

Since online schooling hours are shorter, the students used their free time to work on the challenge, attempting to solve problems such as detecting floods with technology, he adds.

Going forward, Chong is interested in deploying offline versions of Google Classroom in rural areas. “You load Google Classroom into a local server using Raspberry Pi. Then, you can bring it to a rural area and deploy it there. It creates an intranet instead of an internet. But at least students can access whatever content is already loaded in Google Classroom,” he says.

Rethinking online education

Online education does not work when a traditional classroom teaching method is replicated on an online platform. Students are less likely to be engaged if a teacher just talks to a screen or shows a whiteboard.

It must be driven by pedagogy, says Michael Chian, founder of edtech firm Beeducation Adventures Sdn Bhd (BeED) and former principal of Fairview International School. It must include interactivity, contextual learning and attractive visuals.

“Every child is different, so you need an edtech solution that can facilitate this differentiation. You wouldn’t give the same learning materials to a student in Pahang as you would to one in KL. We also need to use edtech to connect [students to each other and to teachers]. How do you like studying alone in a cubicle?” says Chian.

“The teachers need to be trained and they need a support system. They also need resources because teachers have to spend extra time looking for good learning content.”

Chian points out that online learning must be mobile as students will lose interest if they have to sit in one spot all day. “They need an experiential form of learning. Does that mean they’re supposed to carry a laptop around? No. That’s why we focus on mobile learning.”

Screenshots of the BeED learning management platform

BeED is his company’s learning management system that is mobile-focused and currently used by four school networks globally. Using a mobile-friendly learning system is beneficial in that the solution requires low bandwidth, so students with a weak connection can still access it.

That is why he thinks the authorities can focus on distributing mobile devices with connectivity at this time instead of laptops. “Mobile devices are cheaper than laptops and the availability of mobile learning solutions is growing,” says Chian.

“Laptops are only suitable for higher-order processing. Currently, we are just talking about accessing classes. In the long run, we will need different solutions. But now, we need to find the cheapest way to do it.”

What about content? Do teachers have the time to create a syllabus suitable for online teaching and produce interactive content like quizzes and graphics?

Chian says BeED, which is often used by network schools, allows teachers to use content from an internal library and adapt it to their needs. A specialised team in schools can be in charge of creating the main structure and then train other teachers how to modify it.

Chian is offering pandemic-affected schools a complimentary subscription for six months.

Going forward, he would love to see solutions that combine online learning with experiential learning. For instance, students who are studying biology remotely can visit farms to continue their learning, which also supports the education tourism industry.

“Then you are not just rejuvenating the education industry through contextual learning, you are also building a learning economy,” says Chian.

Screenshots of the Pandai app

Gamifying education

Perhaps one of the most successful edtech start-ups to emerge this year in Malaysia is Pandai, which created a learning app with interactive quizzes based on the national curriculum. The team launched the app in January and 11 months later, it has reached more than 100,000 students just through word of mouth.

“The number of users for Pandai shot up during the Movement Control Order period because parents were looking for alternatives to schooling to help their children learn. We are not meant to replace teachers but to complement them,” says founder and CEO Khairul Anwar Mohamad Zaki.

The start-up is launching a free Pandai Guru platform later this year to help teachers create quizzes. “The teachers can use the free app to create a customised quiz through platforms like Kahoot or print it to distribute to students,” Khairul says.

The free version of the app comes with limited features while the paid version goes from RM9 to RM39 per month. Of course, the limitation of this app is that it cannot reach students who cannot afford to pay or do not have gadgets with connectivity. That’s an infrastructure problem that will require help from the government, says Khairul.

Pandai helps teachers change the structure of teaching to one that is more interactive. It also helps students understand educational content better.

“The app doesn’t require much bandwidth. You can download the content beforehand and access it offline. The only parts that require internet access are our daily quizzes,” says Khairul.

Solving the problem of inequality in access to education is going to take collaboration from many parties as well as parents, who need to take a more active role in supervising their children, he adds.

Pandai is participating in two government initiatives to address this issue. One is the National Innovation and Technology Sandbox to test its solution in a school environment. The second is MYHackathon, which aims to digitalise government services.

Another start-up trying to increase student engagement is Zapzapmath, which gamifies the learning of mathematics.

“Zapzapmath app allows teachers to set their homework and also enables reports to be sent to parents,” says its co-founder Max Teh.

The app is widely used in the US, where it has millions of customers, he adds. Zapzapmath only started selling the app to Malaysian parents, schools and tuition centres in the last few years. “If there are people or schools in need of a solution like ours, we are very happy to extend our help by giving them some of our subscription plans,” says Teh.

Minimal connection is needed to play the games on the app.

“Children learn better and faster through digital platforms than through a textbook. More investment needs to be done in this aspect so students can have access to connectivity, whether at home or in school,” Teh says.

Preparing students for exams

A concern among students who have to take the SPM next year is their lack of preparation. Uni Enrol, a website that matches students with scholarships, tried to assist them by organising online SPM masterclasses this year.

The start-up invited eight teachers to teach exam-answering techniques online. Usually, these top teachers are only accessible to a select group of students, but the online platform has allowed Uni Enrol to reach about 2,000 students nationwide.

“I’m from Taiping. Back then, we never had the chance to learn from these top teachers, who also charged fees that we couldn’t afford,” says Uni Enrol CEO Rickson Khaw.

It is a three-day event with fees starting from RM250. Khaw found sponsors who were willing to support underprivileged students. Meanwhile, those who don’t have data plans or mobile phones can join physical sessions.

For instance, Khaw worked with some tuition centres in Johor and Sabah that were willing to bring in students to watch the livestream. “We launched this after talking to a lot of headmasters and teachers who were worried about the results, since the students probably only attended about four months of classes this year. Most of the teachers could not finish the syllabus,” he says.

There will be more upcoming sessions, so students who are interested can sign up via Uni Enrol’s website (https://unienrol.com/)

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