Health experts from the Malaysian Paediatric Association recently issued a statement on the safety of reopening schools. Based on existing data, children and young people make up the smallest proportion of Covid-19 cases. The conclusion is that they people are less susceptible to contracting the virus and, therefore, it is somewhat safe to open the schools as long as proper measures are in place. At this point, prolonged school closure would cause more harm than the virus itself.
Schools, on the other hand, are under some pressure to reopen because the alternative is little to no learning taking place. The effect of a loss of learning is devastating on young minds and will impact the achievement gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged groups, further increasing the inequality divide.
It is rather unfortunate that the alternative to schooling — home-based learning — is still stuck in its infancy. We have been wishing, hoping and pursuing the suggestion that the Ministry of Education (MoE) and schools must jump-start digital schooling and ramp up online video learning with urgency.
The Covid-19 crisis should serve as a lesson on ways to adapt to the new norm and we should take the opportunity to change and transform the system to be digitally enabled. The government is charting the path to economic recovery by subsidising wage earners and small and medium enterprises to spur economic growth, amounting to almost half the annual budget. But it is forgetting the importance of education and its relationship to the economy.
Educating our children can no longer be left to the same “business as usual” policy. We must also be aware of the widening inequality that the pandemic is undoubtedly creating between the various income groups.
Schools will now reopen, starting with the crucial examination year cohorts — those taking the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia and its equivalent, as well as the Sijil Tinggi Pelajaran Malaysia. Needless to say, these cohorts would also serve as a pilot study to test the standard operating procedure (SOP) in place to ensure that schools remain safe from spreading the virus.
The students from the remaining cohorts — Standard 1 to Form 4 — are advised to follow lessons through home-based learning. Here lies the irony.
Home-based learning, or e-learning, has been tough on students, parents as well as teachers so far. The preparations and readiness for e-learning have been slow and inadequate. For it to be successful, these crucial elements must work — teachers, content, proper learning devices, and connectivity or storage for offline learning.
Teachers need to know how to lead and guide teaching and learning online, and they must be given the proper training, coaching, ample resources, monitoring and mentorship in order to successfully conduct the lessons.
The MoE must give teachers urgent guidance and support, and allocate resources to ensure that they will be able to conduct these classes. It is quite unfair to expect them to perform to expectations and overlook their capacity and needs. Teachers have not been given a proper structure to manage online classes. However, those with initiative have managed on their own. Assignments and learning videos, on the other hand, are given quite randomly.
The MoE and teachers must select the best content already available online that is aligned to the curriculum, and complete lesson plans. There is a lot of good content and resources that can be extracted and rearranged, without having to reproduce new ones. With these, students can be directed to self-study in their own time.
For students with motivation and initiative, it is assuring to know that they are following the correct lessons within the syllabus. With targeted and proper content in place, students can proceed without having to wait for random communication and assignments by their teachers, if any.
With the government spending billions on wage subsidies and assisting various industries to revive the economy, why can’t some funds be channelled to subsidise laptops?
According to a MoE survey, 36.9% of about 900,000 students surveyed have no access to an electronic device for e-learning, while 46% own a smartphone, Minister of Education Dr Mohd Radzi Md Jidin had revealed.
A smartphone is hardly an e-learning device. One can’t be doing assignments or completing projects via phones. How then can e-learning be even close to being enabled when only 9% of students own a laptop? How can the MoE, with its school reopening guidelines, expect e-learning to be continued for those in Standard 1 to Form 4 when it knows that a big majority of students do not own suitable devices?
This can be quickly remedied by offering a laptop subsidy, perhaps coupled with easy instalment plans. A new, China-made Android mini netbook, WiFi-enabled with a webcam, for example, could cost under RM350 for an individual purchase. But if the MoE makes the order, with economies of scale, the cost would be reduced further.
Allocating free data as part of the economic stimulus package does little for those who do not own devices to use them or those located beyond the connected area. The majority of students fail to benefit from any teaching, even with smartphones, because there is no connectivity. Therefore, apart from connectivity, learning devices should have storage space that can be fitted with preselected content that is not dependent on connectivity, so that offline learning can be enabled.
Digital schools and blended learning are the new norm of teaching and learning that Covid-19 has forced upon us. They provide a platform for equitable education, on demand, and can be independent of face-to-face classroom teaching. Our school SOP may not be able to handle full-on reopening of schools, with everyone back in school.
Let’s get digital learning right before it is too late. Act now before it affects our future.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia