It’s clear as day that Covid-19 has brought a seismic shift to our way of life. For school-goers, in-person or classroom-based learning wasn’t possible at all during the enforcement of the Movement Control Order (MCO).
To ensure there is somewhat of a continuity, education switched to remote learning. For the privileged, it means learning from the comfort of their own homes. For others, it could well mean spending the night in a tree in order to stay connected to the Internet. Stories such as the one where an elderly grandma frequented a smartphone shop with her grandson in tow, but ultimately left empty handed, were heartbreaking to hear. For the less privileged, this is the inconvenient reality they have to confront every day for an equal opportunity at education.
As schools in Malaysia gradually reopen, we ask Chan Soon Seng, CEO of Teach For Malaysia (TFM), an organisation dedicated to address and eradicate education inequity, on how they aided students during the MCO period, Malaysia’s readiness at e-learning and what the new classroom environment holds.
Has the MCO altered TFM’s objectives and plans for the year? What will be the new alignment if any?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought alive a gap in access to education between students from B40 communities and their more wealthy peers. According to an Ministry of Education (MOE)-conducted survey of students from 670,000 households, only 6% have access to a personal computer, and as many as 37% of students don’t own a device for e-learning. That’s at least 1.8 million out of the 4.9 million students in Malaysia who might not have had access to learning through online methods during the MCO.
The limitations of Internet connectivity, mobile coverage, and access to devices, pose real challenges to ensuring all children have access to education. From our perspective, almost 9,000 students, or approximately 60% of students taught by TFM Fellows in B40 communities have not been able to engage in online learning methods.
During this period of MCO and school closures, our objectives remained the same, but we had to pivot our methods to do what we can to ensure that no children are left behind in their access to learning. A key factor to address this challenge is a teacher’s ability to implement a full range of distance-learning strategies, including low-tech and zero-tech solutions to complement online learning solutions. As such, we retrained our Fellows to ensure they were able to effectively deliver distance learning. We also partnered with consulting firm Bain and Company to develop guidelines and resources for students, parents, teachers and school leaders that are made available to the public at TFMdistancelearning.org.
During the MCO period, TFM partnered with HP and YTL Foundation for some innovative initiatives. What do you hope to achieve with these initiatives?
TFM’s primary focus during this time is to ensure that learning doesn’t stop for children across Malaysia. We are continuously finding ways to galvanise collective action to support those most in need. Through our distance learning initiatives and the partnerships we have launched, we hope to support the MOE in their efforts to overcome the challenges both during and following Covid-19, by making home-based learning work. Our partnership with HP allowed us to provide laptops to students. With YTL Foundation, we created free online lessons for every schooling year, covering English, Math and Science. We’re constantly looking for more people to partner with, especially during this time, and we have some exciting upcoming partnerships to announce.
For the past couple of months, schools were closed, the classroom-based learning process was interrupted, and education took to the Internet. How ready is Malaysia at e-learning?
The MOE has done well in the e-learning space by ensuring that there is a digital platform that is available for all teachers and students in the public school system. This includes access to the full suite of Google’s G Suite for Education, and Microsoft 365 apps. So from a software’s perspective, we are very well resourced.
There are, however, significant hardware and connectivity challenges that have disrupted learning for at least 1.8 million students. Teachers also have needed to ramp up their tech proficiency during this time, and continuously need to upskill themselves. On top of that, students learning from home need conducive learning environments, as well as parental support. This is challenging when you may live in a low-cost flat with a large family, and parents who don’t know how to read and write.
What were some of the challenges students and teaching staff encountered during this period?
From the student’s perspective, a study conducted by TFM Alumni shows that 80% of students prefer in-person learning. On top of a lack of devices, challenges include the need for mental and emotional wellbeing support, unclear/ inconsistent learning structure, and a lack of engaging interaction.
Other than the teacher’s ability to implement a full range of distance learning strategies through varying technological constraints, teachers have also shared challenges of a lack of student involvement and motivation in learning. There is also uncertainty in how to collaborate with parents effectively in this critical period to coordinate distance learning effectively.
Were those who are less privileged or from rural areas more severely impacted? How can we ensure they don’t get left behind?
Definitely, besides the lack of devices, and a conducive physical environment, according to an analysis by Opensignal, Malaysian users in thinly populated rural areas connect to 4G just 44% of the time. It’s hard to load a picture quickly on anything less than 4G, let alone a YouTube video or video call. So even if you had devices and could afford a connection, you might not still be able to have effective internet access in a rural area.
To ensure these students don’t get left behind, the most immediate solution could be to provide physical learning materials.
TFM is working on a Zero Connectivity project to address this issue. This project is to create a self-directed learning resource box that gets sent out monthly containing engaging activities and materials that can help students continue learning even in limited or zero connectivity environments. We are partnering with members of the community and local teachers to facilitate community-based learning where students can seek support from someone in the community.
Beyond that, when schools reopen, it will be important that students are able to begin learning from where they left off and not where the curriculum expects them to be at this time of the year, as there will be gaps for many students. It will be important for learning to be personalised to the different needs of students, in order to ensure they don’t get further left behind.
The national unemployment rate is at its highest in 30 years. Will we see the less privileged drop out from schools under involuntary circumstances such as to help ease the family’s financial burden?
Yes, this is likely. Under regular circumstances, it is not uncommon to hear of students dropping out of school to financially support their family – this will likely be exacerbated during this time. In addition to this, the further students are left behind in their learning, the more disengaged they are likely to become, as they will feel that they are unable to catch up. This could further demotivate students from less privileged backgrounds who already feel behind, and cause them to want to drop out.
Where possible, students who are least resourced and who struggle the most with their learning should be prioritised to return to school as soon as possible.
As schools reopen, what can parents, students and teaching staff expect from the “new” classroom environment grappling with the containment of Covid-19 and an unprecedented interruption to the children’s education?
Expect schools to look different. Students will need to continue to maintain a 1 metre distance between desks, and maintain physical distancing throughout school areas. Recess will take place in the classroom, where students will be allowed to eat at their desks. Movement will be controlled, with specific traffic flows marked out in schools. There will be additional precautionary measures like scanning and recording of body temperatures at school gates.
Beyond the physical health and safety measures, what would help ease into the “new” classroom environment is to prioritise student’s social and emotional wellbeing and ensure they have a positive learning experience as they adapt to many new routines. Distance learning will most likely continue for the majority of students for the next few weeks or months. Parents will need to continue to play a pivotal role in supporting their children’s learning, and should collaborate as closely as possible with their teachers.
Looking forward, especially with the cancellation of major examinations like UPSR and PT3, we should place less of an emphasis on exam results. We should be asking ourselves what a holistic, meaningful education looks like. Our education system needs to prepare our students for jobs that do not exist yet, therefore things like creativity, critical thinking, and inculcating a love of lifetime learning should be more valued than exam results.