IF education opens the door of opportunity, the year-long closure of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic means underprivileged students face a double whammy — deprived of a space to study and being shut out of online learning.
A high percentage of students from poor households lack adequate internet access and half do not have the necessary hardware, ground-level data shows.
In two surveys conducted among 300 households in Klang in 2020 and this year, more than 70% of students did not have stable and sufficient internet access at home and around 50% of students did not have devices, says the Malaysian Collective Impact Initiative (MCII), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on education.
To help overcome this disadvantage, MCII seeks to connect schools with expertise and resources that are available in the community and corporate world.
“Now, more than ever, we believe public-private partnership can truly help the nation moving forward in this anxious time by involving the corporations, social enterprises and NGOs,” MCII says in an email interview with The Edge.
Set up in 2015, the NGO espouses the concept of collective impact, which is described as the commitment of a group of key actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.
It is guided by the idea that the complex challenges of education can be solved if support groups were to strive for a collective approach to improving student achievement.
When schools were shut in March last year to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, it soon became clear that online learning was going to pose a host of challenges for everyone involved.
Connectivity and access to hardware were only the technological aspect of the issue. MCII chief executive Dipti Kumar identifies several other constraints that hold back students from the bottom 40% of households (B40).
The lack of a conducive learning space is a major drawback for many of them.
“Many of our beneficiaries in the B40 group live in confined spaces with on average six people per household. This can be distracting and distressing for the student to fully participate in online learning,” says Dipti.
Cut off from their peers in the same learning group, students have to adjust to changes in the learning style and have to be more independent.
On top of that, some parents feel overwhelmed by the need to supervise their children’s online learning sessions.
In a survey by MCII, 25% of 550 parents said online learning was not important, compared to 65% who felt that it was.
Beyond awareness of their role, many parents do not have the time to fully support the students’ learning. Some also lack an understanding of the syllabi and learning content, and hence feel helpless in supporting their children.
Online learning has been no less challenging for teachers.
“Teachers have had to transform learning online almost overnight and use different teaching strategies to address the gaps in a digital learning environment,” says Dipti.
This requires heightened digital skills from teachers and close support from parents. It has been a testing period for both.
Not surprisingly, more than 70% of MCII teachers want parents to take on a more collaborative role in students’ learning. On their part, parents still believe that teachers must undergo further training — more than 50% of MCII parents want 21st century learning training for teachers.
MCII member MYReaders Resources, a group that empowers children through remedial literacy programmes, sees daunting problems in online learning at close quarters.
Rachael Francis, director of programme and training at MYReaders Resources, shares some insights into the challenges facing B40 students.
“Teachers we work with through MCII have been sharing that in some instances, only a quarter of their students were responsive to lessons or work assigned over low tech platforms like WhatsApp. Some even resort to teaching at night because it’s the only time the only device in the household is available. Most times, siblings have to share this single device in a limited amount of time,” she says.
Students on their part face new mental health issues due to the closure of schools. Two common issues they express relate to isolation and anxiety about the future. This is seen in their feedback like: “I miss my friends” and “How am I going to move forward?”
YTL Foundation, a member of MCII, brings valuable resources to support the collective impact effort. Its programme director Datuk Kathleen Chew pinpoints issues related to the content of online lessons.
Finding content that is relevant to the students’ syllabi is fraught with difficulties.
“There is a whole host of content available on the internet but it is not easy to match content to the syllabus and learning goals for each level that the students are at,” says Chew.
Moreover, the content has to be interesting and engaging and not just replicate physical textbooks.
“It needs to allow for interactivity so that students are not just staring at the screen. There must be activities that they can undertake before, during or after the lesson. Most content is view only, rather like just listening to a lecture for an hour, which may lead to boredom and screen fatigue,” Chew observes.
For online learning to work, parents and teachers have to be partners in the students’ education and vice versa.
“Parents have their own struggles working from home, but they have to act as their child’s learning mentor at home. Teachers have to be prepared to engage with parents and regard them as their partners. There is no longer separation between school and home and both parties have to work together to get the best outcomes from the children,” says Chew.
To address some of these issues, the YTL Foundation has launched the Learn From Home Initiative, under which it developed lessons in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Maths and Science mapped to the Malaysian school syllabus. It also provides free smartphones with a 12-month data plan to B40 students. Over 100,000 phones have been distributed to date.
These resources are a crucial element of the public-private partnership that forms the basis of MCII’s work.
“MCII has always operated on the basis that collaboration across the board is key in social impact — we are connectors and enablers in education and have continuously advocated for the implementation of solutions in education through public-private partnership,” says Dipti.
The group focuses on five key conditions of collective success in line with the concept of collective impact:
• All stakeholders have a collective social agenda and commit to solving it together.
• Measurements of success are mutually designed, agreed and shared from the beginning.
• Continuous and open communication between stakeholders.
• Mutually reinforcing activities to further drive sustainability of solutions.
• An independent backbone team to enable and manage the collective effort.
This framework is drawn from a report on the collective impact concept in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011 issue) that provides the basis for MCII’s efforts.
Dipti notes that the closure of schools last year was like a shock to the system.
“Covid-19 forced us to fully realise that the future is now, transformation must happen today and there is no way we can do this in silos. We have observed an increase of community and parent interest to get involved and lead, especially since 2020!” she says.
Chew comments: “Trying to improve education outcomes for students from low performing schools is a challenge that requires systemic change that cannot be achieved without the engagement of all stakeholders. There is no single magic bullet that can solve this problem.”
As this report goes to print, schools have begun a phased reopening, with primary schools starting classes this month and secondary schools set to resume in April.
MCII stakeholder manager Alia Wahidin sees a combination of online and face-to-face learning happening in this transitional period and moving forward.
While external constraints such as lack of devices and poor internet access are a reality for many, educators need to consistently engage with students and parents to deliver lessons effectively.
Online learning means teachers need to have the interpersonal and digital skills to conduct exciting PdPR (home-based classes) to sustain their students’ interest. These skills are also essential for the flipped classroom, a form of blended learning where students are introduced to lessons at home and work through them at school.
“Instead of playing catch up, we should be at the forefront of future learning, so the students will be ready to face IR 4.0 (Fourth Industrial Revolution),” says Alia.
Chew points out that to prepare our children for the 21st century, they must be taught how to learn.
“We need to change the banking model of education that currently exists, pouring knowledge into our children and hoping it will return an interest. We need to teach them to be curious, to create, to explore and find answers,” she emphasises.