The Covid-19 crisis has forced school closures and heavily disrupted the learning process of billions of children worldwide. In Malaysia, schools have been closed for a total of 35 weeks since March 2020 — among the longest in the world.
While classes were moved online, virtual learning has not been as effective as face-to-face learning, mainly because the change was sudden and many educators were not prepared.
The disruption has been particularly detrimental to young children and those from low-income families, prompting not-for-profit organisation Teach For Malaysia (TFM) and US-based social impact enterprise Enuma Inc to collaborate to introduce a cost-effective e-learning solution to help children learn reading, writing and arithmetic.
“Before Covid-19, we had already seen massive gaps in education between kids who come from B40 communities and the rest. When I started as a fellow for TFM in 2012, I taught English to students from low-income backgrounds in Form Four, and although they had been in school for 11 years by then, those kids — aged 16 and 17 — had a poor command of Bahasa Malaysia and were completely illiterate in English,” shares Chan Soon Seng, CEO of TFM.
“If they needed to fill out a form, they would have to take out their MyKads to copy down their address, because they only recognised alphabets as pictures. Some could recite the alphabets in order, while some even struggled with that.
“I was supposed to be helping the students with their Form Four English curriculum, but there I was trying to teach them how to read and write basic sentences.
“It made me wonder how this could be happening after they had spent more than 10 years in school. [I realised then that] Malaysia’s high literacy rate is a proxy for primary school enrolment rates, which doesn’t show the full picture of literacy. This is the case throughout Malaysia.
“If this was the situation pre-Covid-19, what is it like now with long-drawn school closures?” he asks, adding that this is the reality for the most disadvantaged children in the country.
Chan’s prayers were answered when Enuma’s vice-president of government relations and strategic partnerships P Ming Wong reached out to TFM, seeking to expand its education technology (edtech) platform to Malaysia.
Leveraging TFM’s extensive network and its mission to achieve educational equity, Sekolah Enuma — the company’s proprietary digital learning solution — will be rolled out to selected government-funded schools and NGO-backed schools in the country.
The adaptive technology provides personalised learning sessions to aid children in reading, writing and numeracy.
Come March, Enuma will be piloting its edtech solution with 600 children between the age of five and eight at Sekolah Kebangsaan (SK) Bangsar in partnership with Yayasan Telekom Malaysia and LeapEd Services Sdn Bhd, a home-grown education services provider.
In Sabah, the programme will be used to teach pre-primary and primary students in four schools in partnership with Etania Schools, a non-profit organisation that caters for students from marginalised and stateless communities.
Enuma is also working with the Sarawak Digital Economy Corporation to pilot the programme in three public primary schools — SJK(C) Chung Hua No 5 in Kuching, SK Jagoi in Bau and SK Temong in Serian — in the state.
Once the first phase of the pilot takes off, Wong says they intend to expand the reach of the programme to include 3,000 to 5,000 students — for which they will need more partners and funders.
Sekolah Enuma was first launched in secluded schools in Lampung and Medan in Indonesia in 2021 after the social impact enterprise had secured a US$1 million grant from an Indonesian education foundation and two plantation companies.
In Medan, the programme was implemented as an extracurricular programme organised by Yayasan Fondasi Hidup, where groups of seven to 16 children gathered at community sites for 60 to 90 minutes daily to play with Sekolah Enuma. Children had been out of school for over nine months at the time of implementation.
In Lampung, the session started as a 30-minute class in three schools located in the plantations. However, due to school closures, groups of 15 to 27 children played hour-long sessions in community halls, and then as an at-home programme during a more severe community shutdown.
The rollout had such a success that Enuma was able to scale its edtech programme to include over 2,000 students in 47 schools across Java after striking up a strategic partnership with Muhammadiyah — one of the biggest NGOs in Indonesia.
Enuma’s core programme, which co-won the US$15 million Global Learning XPRIZE competition with London-based non-profit onebillion, is focused on using gamification for self-directed learning and is adaptable to suit local needs.
“What makes Enuma truly different is reflected by the philosophy of our founder, Lee Sooinn. She comes from a gaming background, and in game design, there’s no such thing as a bad gamer, there is only bad game design,” says Wong.
“If gamers find going to the next stage of the game too difficult, it reflects badly on the game designer. At the same time, if the game is too easy, they lose interest. So, it is up to the designer to set the right incentives to make it tough and yet engaging enough for them to keep going.
“When it comes to teaching kids, generally our educators don’t take the same approach, which is not entirely their fault. The system is such that there is so much material to cover in a limited amount of time that it’s very difficult unless you’re in a private school or home-schooled to allow the child to learn at their own pace,” he points out.
Enuma’s digital learning solution does just that. Lessons are broken down into smaller chunks and allow users to master a component before moving on to the next levels.
The curriculum covers two years of content covering English, Bahasa Malaysia and Mathematics.
“The content is gamified for kids aged between 5 and 8, and a child only has to play for between 30 and 40 minutes a day to achieve results. No internet connection is required once the app is downloaded onto the tablet or a smartphone, which addresses the issue of connectivity.”
The software is built for an Android tablet, which costs about RM600. “It sounds expensive, but the tablet can easily be shared among four kids and it lasts for a minimum of two years.
“Divide that over two years and four kids, we are talking about RM75 a year to educate a child, which is extremely reasonable.”
The devices are partly the reason Enuma is fundraising. “We’ve been quite successful in terms of getting some initial donors to help us pay for these tablets. For 500 kids, we only need about 200 tablets. When the pilot moves into the next phase, which is for 5,000 kids, that’s when we would love to get greater corporate and foundation support,” says Wong.
Currently, educators in the three localities are undergoing training to use Enuma’s cloud-based learning management system, which will be used to track the number of hours the child has been “playing”.
The role of a teacher is transforming
Citing a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education in 2020, Chan says 36.9% of students nationwide do not possess any electronic devices. The findings were part of the ministry’s research involving the teaching and learning platform on access to communications technology among teachers and students.
According to the findings, based on 670,000 parents and 900,000 students, 6% of students have computers, 5.67% own tablets, 9% own laptops and 46% have smartphones.
Chan points out that there is also a tendency for students about to graduate from secondary school to not attend online classes and not register for their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examinations.
“They’re not going through any form of formal learning at this point because even though these students were provided with internet data and phones and laptops [for their home-based learning sessions], they are most likely unable to keep up with lessons as they cannot read or write,” he says.
At the height of the pandemic, the World Bank had forecast that learning loss would result in learning disparity, which is likely to have implications on employment opportunities and potential and lower income earnings for these students in the future. It predicted that learning losses would be worse in countries with lower degrees of technological preparedness.
“Having been a teacher who tried to support all of the different learning needs, I understand that there is only so much a teacher can do. If this kind of cool technology [had existed] when I was a teacher, the process would have been much easier,” says Chan.
He believes the edtech solution would help teachers and the younger children — who had most of their learning conducted online the past two years — catch up.
“The kids in the youngest age groups are the ones who are most affected by school closures because online learning is the least effective for them, simply because being an independent learner at such a young age is such a huge struggle.
“If you don’t have family members who are educated or someone who can read and write, it’s unlikely that you’re going to develop literacy and numeracy skills through any of the online learning approaches,” says Chan.
Hybrid learning is going to be a mainstay, he adds, given the potential of edtech to make a difference in improving literacy.
“The Ministry of Education is trying to shift the role of teachers from just transferring knowledge to children to being facilitators of knowledge, where they work with the kids to allow them to be at the centre of their learning.
“The role of teachers is transforming and it needs to be about how they are helping kids to do the things that technology won’t be able to do. Everything that you need to know, you can Google now, right? But what are the things that you can’t Google? Social skills, critical thinking, creativity, communication and much more.
“If teachers could shift the majority of their time away from just teaching a kid to write letters and basic math, they could be focusing on other parts of children’s development like collaborative and analytical skills that they need to thrive in the 21st century,” says Chan.