To start face-to-face in-class sessions in school or not? That is the conversation buzzing on Facebook among parents, teachers and policymakers.
A peek at comments in the Facebook pages of Minister of Education Datuk Dr Radzi Jidin and Datuk Jalaluddin Alias (MP Jelebu), chairman of the newly set-up Parliamentary Special Select Committee on Education, shows a poll soliciting parents’ feedback on whether they are prepared for schools to re-open.
As expected, some say “yes” and some say “no”. Parents and teachers are worried about the high community infection rate of Covid-19 and prefer schooling to continue at home. Some prefer face-to-face in-class sessions, however, citing ineffective and inconsistent remote learning, owing to challenges such as connectivity, devices, higher cost, lack of space, focus and guidance, to name a few.
Though the school year started on Jan 20, in-class sessions for all levels will only begin on March 8. But, perhaps it may not. The final decision, according to the Ministry of Education (MoE), will be announced on March 1. To a certain extent, the poll asking about parents’ readiness for schools to re-open is really pointless, as the issues are obvious and have been much talked about in the media.
It would be more beneficial to have discussions on how learning will continue effectively and safely regardless of how and where it is being done. The biggest concern should be how to ensure that students remain safe and will be able to catch up with learning, for those who have fallen behind, or need luring back to learning, for those who are deprived, demotivated or have dropped out altogether.
Currently, all learning is done remotely via online and TV Pendidikan except for the examination years — those taking the SPM, STPM and their equivalent. Only these students are allowed to be in school for in-class sessions to prepare and catch up on last year’s loss of learning. But the sudden recent announcement by MoE is that schools will close again for the exam-taker years on Feb 9 prior to Chinese New Year. These batches are expected to study from home until their examinations, of which SPM and its equivalent start on Feb 22 and STPM and its equivalent start on March 8. This means, schools are open for just over two weeks, and then closed again!
The MoE, under the guidance of the Ministry of Health and National Security Council, must give clear directions, plans and scenarios in the event of any Covid-19 outbreaks to ensure that schools will not be the cause of infection clusters. There have been reports of clusters happening in schools and school closures. This is rather worrying and disruptive when it happens during exams.
The standard operating procedures (SOPs) must be clear on how to handle these cases to ensure that there is order and control with minimal disruption. We recommend that the MoE review the SOP for exams during an epidemic, which was drafted in 2009 for the H1N1 outbreak. This needs to be updated to be used for a serious and ravaging pandemic.
Moving on to the other school-goers, the most urgent and important matter that the MoE needs to address is its promise on digital learning initiatives as outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 roadmap, which is to leverage information communication technology (ICT) to improve access, quality, equity and efficiency in education deliverables.
The 1Bestarinet project was supposed to equip 10,000 schools with broadband connection and a virtual learning environment (VLE), and MoE was to train the teachers to use the system and integrate it in their teaching practices. It was targeted that Wave 1 of the roadmap in leveraging ICT for learning was to have all teachers trained and competent to use VLE by 2015.
Also, via 1Bestarinet, all schools should have had internet connection by end-2013. YTL Communications Sdn Bhd, which secured the 1Bestarinet project, claimed in 2013 that most of them did. In reality, however, an urban school in KL at the time complained that there was not enough bandwidth, connection was slow and coverage area was limited, and therefore the school was unable to fully capitalise on its smart school potential.
The year 2020 marked the end of Wave 2 of this roadmap, by which time each school was to be equipped with devices in the ratio of 1 device to 10 pupils. By Wave 3, which starts in 2021, ICT should have been fully embedded throughout the pedagogy and curriculum of the education system.
This should be the case now and we would not have to deal with issues about virtual learning struggles during this time. Had the preparations as outlined in the blueprint been on target, it would have been a breeze to adapt and acclimatise to the current learning requirement.
Instead, at the last leg of the blueprint, the MoE is relying on the aid of government-linked companies and investment companies to assist in equipping marginalised students with devices and connectivity to improve access to home-based learning through the CerDik Programme, which is to be rolled out this month.
The content of online learning is also a matter that needs attention. Wave 1 of the blueprint mentions enhancing a high-quality e-learning video library on a par with the Khan Academy, which would be mapped to the current curriculum. This has not been achieved either.
The blueprint is a pet project of the current prime minister that he took up when he was education minister and deputy prime minister. Not much of the blueprint is talked about these days by the present government and current minister of education. It would stick out like a sore thumb of serious underachievement. Can the government make good the promises of the blueprint, and salvage what needs to be done?
May the Year of the Ox bring some bullish changes to our education system and Happy Chinese New Year.
Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of Page Malaysia