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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, May 03, 2006

An Education System Worthy of Malaysia #16

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

Education and Technology

Numerous studies show the benefit of early musical education. I would thus provide musical instruments and music classes ahead of computers. Music lessons are also much cheaper. Music would teach these youngsters the concept of symbols and abstractions, and also teamwork. Very few Malaysian schools now have music programs.

While we have been bludgeoned with the mantra that information is power, in truth it isn’t. As Stoll so rightly points out in his book, librarians are famous for having the most information, yet they lack power. Politicians on the other hand have no or very little information, yet they are very powerful. Having the information is only the first step, the more important issue is how to evaluate that information and put it in the proper perspective. That requires a faculty for critical thinking, rational reasoning, and a high degree of skepticism.

Again comparing with the car, the skills or level of understanding needed to use one is very simple. Start the engine (two seconds instructions: insert and turn key) and then practice steering and braking.

With those simple instructions you could drive the car safely on a deserted road. But if you want to take the car on the freeway, then you will need more skills lest you become a menace to yourself and others. You would need to improve your steering and braking, and learn defensive driving and rules of the road. If you want to fix the engine then you would need to learn to be a mechanic. Going further, if you want to design cars or build a better suspension system, then you would need to go to design or engineering school.

Likewise with computers; if you want to write software, then you would need to learn one of the programming languages. But for the vast majority of users, all you have to know is which key to punch to get a certain result on the screen. That is all. The most frequent question asked when I was learning the computer was, “How do I do…?” You do not need special classes in the school curriculum to teach how to use word processor and e-mail, connect to the Internet, or access data from the Web. A visitor from Malaysia learned all these in one evening, and by the time my wife was ready with dinner, he had already sent his first e-mail. Yet this gentleman and his colleagues back home had been clamoring for the government to set up special computer classes for senior civil servants! If you want to get fancy, you could learn other slightly involved software like spreadsheet (good for accounting), PowerPoint (for slide presentations), and web authoring. Once you have the basics and are comfortable with computers, then you wonder how on earth you coped in the days before word processing! Today I rarely compose an essay on paper anymore, I do it straight on the keyboard, editing as I go along.

While learning how to use word processor is easy enough, writing is not. That requires a patient teacher, frequent exercises, and the availability of good books. If your prose is of the variety, “It was a dark and stormy night…,” no amount of fancy fonts and jazzing up on the word processor will improve it. Had you written, “I could barely make out his wet face amidst the rough rustling of the reeds…” then regardless whether you have fancy fonts or merely scribble it on a yellowing piece of paper, your readers would know that it was a dark and stormy night.

More importantly, they would likely to continue reading. It is more important to teach students how to write using the word processor rather than simply teaching them how to use the software. Likewise it is better to teach them how to collect, present, and interpret data using the database and spreadsheet rather than simply teaching them about the software.

The government has a high-level committee looking into bringing IT to the schools. I agree that schools should have computers, but before spending billions in wiring our schools, I would first attend to the basics. Having done that then I would introduce IT, starting at the upper levels, the universities. I would provide every faculty member with a free computer and unlimited Internet access. I would also ensure that the campus is “wired” and encourage the faculty to post their class assignments and reading lists online. Students too should be encouraged to submit their assignments electronically. All incoming students must be computer literate. I do not mean that the university should run word processing classes rather students would have to spend the months while waiting to enter the university acquiring those skills. There are plenty of proprietary classes where they can do this.

Even the mosque in Section 14, Petaling Jaya, has such classes. There is no need to waste expensive university personnel or resources for students to acquire these basic computer skills.

Having computers in schools would be useless if there are no changes with the present Internet hook up fee structure. In America there is a fixed fee for unlimited access; in Malaysia it is hourly rates. Thus users are inhibited from reaping the vast potential of the Internet because of the additional costs incurred.

Deputy Prime Minister Badawi in a fit of enthusiasm recently proposed that IT be taught in schools. The curriculum is already crowded. Besides, I do not know exactly what he meant by it. Teach programming, software writing, and website designing? Surely our students have plenty of time acquiring those skills after they have mastered the basics and developed critical thinking. But if he means that students should be able to use computers and be comfortable with them, then you do not need to have a separate subject for that; it can be done in computer clubs and as extracurricular activities. Frankly I do not think Badawi himself knows what he is talking about. To him IT is only the latest buzzword to sprinkle his speeches.

The government demonstrated its commitment to IT by funding it massively, nearly a billion ringgit for 2003. In contrast, only RM 850million for implementing single session schools. The amount allocated for teacher training was considerably less and did not merit a separate line item. The prime minister is deluded into thinking that teachers could be mere facilitators, their job reduced to turning on the computers and letting the students learn via electronic modules. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have to differentiate computer literacy from computational literacy. The former as it is commonly understood means the ability to use the computer; it is a tool. In a way this is a misuse of the word literacy. A better term would be computer familiarity or facility. Computational literacy on the other hand is the ability to use programming language and to think, visualize, and extrapolate concepts in that medium. An illustration and comparison with text literacy would clarify my point.

Text literacy means more than just being able to read and write. It is a basic instrument to understand and communicate with the written word. Text literacy produces the works of Shakespeare and Steinbeck, and also the countless memos, letters, and little notes we write each other. It is a basic tool: an intellectual infrastructure. Through it we can communicate our deepest thoughts and emotions, a significant advancement over communication via cave wall drawings and oral traditions.

The discovery of the printing press brought a quantum leap forward in enhancing the utility of and democratizing text literacy. It brought literacy to the masses.

Computational literacy is also an infrastructure, and computers enhance it in much the same way that printing presses do to text literacy. With our understanding of the language of computers we would be able to think and project our messages and thoughts or otherwise communicate in this new medium.

Andrea di Sessa (the man who coined the term computational literacy) in his book Changing Minds describe an experiment with computational literacy using his Boxer programming language to teach the physics of motion and other abstract mathematical concepts to Grade 6 students. The students were asked to picture someone on a roller blade sliding down the street with a tennis ball in his hand. He then dropped the ball from his chest while skating. The class was asked to visualize the motion of the ball from three perspectives: the skater, a miniature man looking up from the skateboard, and an observer standing by the roadside. This was an exercise on relative velocity, a difficult concept to teach.

The student who was asked to present the view from the skateboard explained his very simply. He pressed a function key and a small dot appeared in the middle of the computer screen. This then rapidly enlarged to fill the entire screen. He had to write only a line of codes in the program to effect this, and it captured accurately in a visual and concrete manner the image of a ball dropping and landing directly on the eye of the miniature observer on the skateboard. It would be tough to explain the motion of the ball using conventional text literacy or even standard mathematical formula. With computers, the message and the concept are readily grasped – very graphic representation and easily understood.

It is this ability to look at concepts differently that is so promising about computational literacy. At its most optimistic level, computational literacy would have the potential to do what text literacy and mathematical literacy do to our present understanding and level of communication. Galileo’s theory of motion took pages to explain in texts but only a few crisp lines of formulas to explain fully using modern algebra. He took that long because algebra was not yet invented in his time. Similarly with calculus; we could not begin to describe such concepts as acceleration without it. But with calculus, acceleration is merely a differential of velocity (dv/dt), or in words, the rate of change of velocity. Today calculus is taught at high school and is widely used to describe relationships and phenomena in the social as well as natural sciences.

Computational literacy is still rather primitive, or to use the ubiquitous phrase of the web, “under construction.” Past attempts at teaching programming in schools using first BASIC and later, LOGO, have floundered. But with better programs like Boxer, developed at the University of California Berkeley and tailored specifically for learning purposes and not to write applications, computational literacy may yet prove to be as infrastructural as text literacy. Malaysia must participate in these leading edge trials at selected schools but only under strict research protocol. But this is a totally different idea than the current mindless agitation for teaching IT in schools.

I am cynical of the current move to bring IT to the classrooms and provide teachers with laptops. This has less to do with enhancing the quality of education and everything to do with business. If it were the former, I would expect the ministry to provide computers to university lecturers and teacher trainees first; they need them more. Think of the billions worth of contracts, enough to make any executive drool at the prospects. Not to mention interested politicians who would gain by being the lucrative intermediaries. The whole scheme is business driven and corrupt, the pupils’ interest is only incidental. This program will end up like the computer ownership scheme sponsored by the Employees Provident Fund. It failed because EPF did not get substantial discounts or wholesale prices. Instead there were significant markups because of the “commissions” paid to politician middlemen. Likewise the schools and teachers will end up paying highly inflated prices.

The literature on the effectiveness of computers in classrooms is mixed and contradictory. Where they are successful it is because the authorities have clear and definable goals, and the efforts initially focused on few demonstration projects where the kinks could be ironed out. Once the project is running smoothly then it can be replicated and expanded. In choosing the software, teachers must have clear goals: computer assisted learning (CAL) as with self-directed drills in mathematics and language learning; for simulation and exploration; as computational tools as with word processing, spreadsheet, and Power-Point; part of a communication network; or merely as pedagogical administrative tool to keep track of students’ achievements.

Once the objectives are clear and agreed upon, key personnel can then be trained. It is better to concentrate the effort initially, once we can have a nucleus of competently trained experts, they can then spread their skills. The most logical place to start would be the teachers’ colleges and with teacher trainees. Once these are done only then could we consider selecting the hardware. With the goals and objectives clear, the hardware and specifications would be that much easier to define.

In 1999 Malaysia embarked on an ambitious “Smart School” project of bringing IT to selected schools. This program had yet to be digested and its lessons learned when the government embarked in its current and more massive project of providing laptops and LCD projectors to all schools. This is exactly the wrong approach. First, the teachers have yet to be trained and two, the objectives are not yet be clearly delineated. By next year all those expensive gadgets would be stored untouched or more likely be reported “stolen”. The students would be no further ahead.

There is one place where computers would be useful, and that is to help with the administrative chores like monitoring student attendance, payroll, accounting, and keeping tabs on supplies and budgeting. Not only would this be very efficient and accurate but it would also force the headmasters to be familiar with computers.

While it is easy to teach students how to use computers and surf the Net, the more difficult part would be to teach them the limitations and dangers lurking in cyberspace. The Internet is not filtered or censored; Einstein would have the same prominence in cyberspace as the simple villager. Those using the ‘Net must have the ability to think critically and be skeptical of the materials they get. The age of IT calls for even more emphasis on such traditional higher order intellectual activities like critical thinking, abstract reasoning, and information processing.

These can only be learned with the help of a good teacher. This point was illustrated to me recently when my readers asked me which websites they should look up on some questions about Islam I had discussed in one of my essays. How could they be sure that the information is genuine and the site authentic, and not the work of some anti-Muslim groups masquerading as believers? The answer is, you cannot be sure. Thus you must be able to evaluate critically the information as to its veracity and validity. There is nobody out there in cyberspace who will put a stamp of approval or to check the facts. The web is uncensored; that is its beauty.

This fact is extremely pertinent especially with medically related web sites. If someone suggests taking arsenic as a cure for baldness, you take that advice at your own risk. One needs to use one’s judgment. There is a lot of what is called “noise,” that is, irrelevant and nonsensical if not downright dangerous materials on the web.

There is also much hype on using IT for distance or e(electronic)-learning. I am in favor of this to a point. The Internet is much better and more efficient than the old correspondence schools. It is immediate; you do not have to wait for the mail and you can post your questions and have them answered immediately. It is also cheaper (after you invest in the computer) as there are no postages and papers. But this does not mean that e-learning could replace traditional classrooms.

There is much more to learning than the mere transfer of information from teacher to student. The class discussions and the social interactions are also very important. In a classroom you learn to relate with those you like and tolerate those you don’t – very important lessons in life. You cannot get that sitting alone before a computer screen. We must appreciate what can be achieved through e-learning as well as the limitations. I use e-learning for my continuing medical education (CME) but only as a supplement. It does not replace the live conferences and seminars.

The best e-learning programs are precisely those that combine distance learning with in-depth and intensive face-to-face class and residential experiences. One of the best executive e-learning programs is that of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. Students gather every two months at various locations around the world for concentrated “live” sessions with their fellow students and instructors. In between they communicate and receive lessons via the ‘Net. Such programs are ideal for working executives who would have difficulty taking long stretches of time away from their jobs.

My small hospital has an electronic hookup with a tertiary medical center where we could participate in live CME conferences. Through a two-way cable hookup we can see the speaker and he could see us, and we could communicate in real time as if we are in the same room. This is entirely different from e-learning via the computer. Such hookups via satellite would be ideal to connect a Third World university with an elite institution in the West. MIT has a similar program with the two public universities in Singapore to conduct joint “real-time” seminars.

Malaysian universities should have similar links. With the 12-hour time difference, an early morning lecture would be an early evening one in Malaysia. There is a great potential for IT in enhancing the learning experience, but in our enthusiasm we should not forget that the basics remain the first priority.

The second more important issue of how well the education system prepares Malaysians for the age of IT can be turned around by asking the more fundamental question: What are the skills required to thrive in this age of IT? The specific and basic skills required are English fluency, high mathematical competency, and science literacy. Our students must also be adept at critical thinking and higher-level reasoning. They must have flexible and transferable skills. We should also inculcate early the need and importance of life-long learning.

It is in all these areas that our education system has failed miserably. The good news is that the government is finally waking up to this fact, forced by the overwhelming evidence that it can no longer ignore. The entire premise of my reform is to prepare Malaysians for the competitive era of IT and globalization.

Next: Education, The Economy, and Demographics


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