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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #15

Chapter 2: It's More Than Just Education (Cont'd)

Education and Technology

My discussion revolves around two central issues. One is how well the education system prepares young Malaysians for this age of IT, and two, the role of IT in education. I will tackle the much easier second topic first.

Technology has long been used in education. During my school days there were the radio programs, usually broadcasts of some classic plays enacted on air. What I remember most of those sessions was staring at a lifeless box and having a tough time keeping awake.

The brilliant economist Ungku Aziz extended the medium into adult education with his wildly popular and very successful Kursus Ekonomi Radio (Economic Course via Radio). This was decades before the concept of distant learning. I had no difficulty keeping awake listening to his animated explanations!

At about this time in America, Thomas Skinner and his brand of behavioral psychology were the rage. There was much hype about his “teaching machines,” where students could be taught pretty much like pigeons, through “operant conditioning,” that is, by rewarding every time they make a correct response – a form of positive reinforcement.

Thankfully Malaysia and the rest of the world were spared the fad simply because those machines were prohibitively expensive.

Later, with the introduction of television, there was Educational TV, crafted along the old school radio broadcasts but with pictures. And with video recorders there was a quantum leap in effectiveness. Teachers could stop and rewind the tape for replay and emphasis.

Living in Silicon Valley, California, the nexus of IT, I am very much aware of the impact of high technology. With the introduction of personal computers in the 1980s and the Internet a decade after that, IT has been democratized. It has reached the masses. IT enhances the reach and capability of television broadcasts and videotapes. Through web casting I can watch in the comfort of my home a master surgeon operate in real time just as if I were standing with him in the operating room. This is a considerable improvement over the old “wet clinic” where visiting surgeons would watch from the visitors’ gallery and all they could see was the surgeon’s back. Through web casting I can listen to a university lecture given thousands of miles away, or to a khutba (sermon) delivered by Tok Guru Nik Aziz, leader of the Islamic Party PAS. It is disorienting to hear this medieval-minded ulama using a high-tech medium to convey his ancient messages!

Computers are like automobiles in their ubiquity, utility, and impact on the economy. I can extend the analogy further to illustrate the point I wish to explore here. We readily appreciate the usefulness of cars; many would be paralyzed without them. We take the automobile in all its shapes and forms for granted. Everyone knows what a truck is for as compared to a limousine.

One does not have to be a car buff to appreciate the difference between a Porshe and a Proton Saga. Yet despite our familiarity, few really understand (or need to) how the machine works. Car owners do not have to understand the complexity of the laws of thermodynamics – the essence of internal combustion engine – to drive their car. Nor do most drivers know the significance of gear differentials. All they know is that when they are starting the car or going uphill, shift into lower gear, and when they want to go fast, shift to high gear. No need to know the complicated calculations of mechanical advantage or velocity ratio.

So it is with computers. One does not have to know the difference between bytes and bits to use and benefit from computers. I need not know the details to know that my new computer can download some jazzy graphics faster than my old one; or that with my old software I could not do the fancy editing and neat fonts that I now readily do with the upgraded version.

I cannot understand the present hullabaloo and obsession with making our students computer literate. My father-in-law was 72 years old when he first learned the computer. The only reason he did it was that the computer was in the guest room where he was staying when visiting us. Seeing my children pounding on the keyboard intrigued him and twigged his curiosity. He was determined to learn, and learned it he did, in a few days. Today he e-mails me about how to font his electronic newsletter and how to crop his “jpg” (picture graphic) files. He learned by doing and asking.

Yet today’s headlines carry the concerns of educators and politicians about how to make our students computer literate. The answer is simple: provide them with computers and let them loose. They will learn from each other and by trial and error, or if you want them to learn faster, organize a few classes in the afternoon or weekends. There is no need to take away valuable classroom time to teach these simple practical subjects.

The Indian computer scientist Sugata Mitra had a novel experiment of bringing IT to poor children. He placed in the slums and villages of India Internet-connected computers in a hole in the wall covered with a touch screen, and then monitored the activities around them via remote video camera. Within hours curious children were already learning how to use the machine and surfing the Web, visiting Disneyland websites, playing games, using paint world, and downloading Napster music files. They did not know what computers or Internet meant but they were able to use the device by fiddling with it. The adults in the village meanwhile were demanding why the government (whom they assumed put the computers up) did not send someone to train them how to use the machines. They obviously did not learn from their children. This experiment, appropriately called “Hole in the Wall,” has now spread to over 52 villages.

Clifford Stoll, the Berkeley astronomer and a severe critique of modern technology, goes so far as to say that computers do not belong in the classroom. I disagree with that extreme position but his point is well taken. Computers are expensive and they become obsolete very quickly. I still cannot read some of my old letters and essays that were written using PFS as the new software is unable to read those old versions.

And I do not want to waste my time rebooting my old jalopy to retrieve those ancient files. So my articles and notes of only a decade ago exist only in bits and bytes encrypted on some old floppy discs that no present-day computer could access.

Stoll’s basic argument (and I agree completely) is that we should not be mesmerized with computers and technology generally to the point that we neglect the basics. Schools must first have good teachers, adequate libraries, and well-equipped laboratories before we waste valuable funds on fancy computer labs. IT enhances the reach and effectiveness of the teacher but is not a substitute for one. Similarly IT complements but does not replace the basic school facilities.

A well-trained teacher who can capture the imagination of students is still the most important element in learning. We should not be distracted from this cardinal point. If I were to create a priority list, it would be thus: good teachers, single session, music lessons, library, laboratory, air-conditioned classrooms, and then computers. I would venture that our students would learn more if classrooms were air-conditioned. That would not only make the environment more conducive to intellectual activities but also cut out the extraneous noise. Teachers know how difficult it is to get the children’s attention in the heat of the day.

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