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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.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Promises and Challenges of Digital Technology in Distant Learning


Promises and Challenges of Digital Technology In Distant Learning


M. Bakri Musa


[Presented in part at a webinar sponsored by the Islamic Renaissance Front, Malaysia, Saturday January 31, 2021, together with fellow panelist Dato Dr. Madeline Berma, and Shamshir Alam moderating.]


Second of Four Parts


Issue of Content and Software


In Part I, I discussed the issue of hardware, principally that of costs. The second is software and content. By contrast, this is easier to overcome as we have many excellent programs available. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, only to modify them to fit local needs. Malaysia is fortunate to have many imaginative content made by enterprising local teachers for their students.


            Surf the webs of Norhailmi Abu Mutalib and Samuel Isaiah on the peninsula, both finalists in the Global Teacher Prize award. In the interior of Sarawak we have Cikgu Nazmi Rosli, winner of the Golden Hearts Prize. There are many others who have created attractive contents for their students. We must honor and recognize these teachers by giving them grants so they could expand their work. We do not need to wait for them to receive foreign recognition before supporting them.


Malaysia is fortunate that its script is romanized; we are thus spared the burden of the Thais, Chinese, and Tamils. Yet we do not appreciate this significant advantage.


There is one issue with respect to content. Eighty-five percent of the Internet and the language of digital technology generally is English. That is a big obstacle with Malays as our students are severely deficient in that area. We do not emphasize English as a matter of policy in the mistaken belief that learning English is tantamount to not respecting our national language. That erroneous conviction destroys our education system, and with that, our community.


To benefit maximally from the Internet, our students have to be facile with English. This is the biggest handicap, again self-created by our polivymakers, facing Malay students. That need not be. Sugara Mitra showed in his studies with rural students in India that this problem is readily remediable. With his innovative on-line programs in English like “Granny in the Cloud” and “Schools in the Cloud,” those students could converse and understand spoken English in a matter of weeks.


A year or two ago there was the sensational story of a seven-year-old Malay girl. They call her Aisyah London because of her fluency in English even before she entered school. More impressive, her English was not the typical rojak Manglish of locals but BBC English. Her parents had let her listen to BBC and Youtube. That is the same phenomenon Mitra discovered with his Indian rural students.


To Mitra, it would be better to build 5G towers and give free broadband access to rural students than to send ill-trained local teachers to teach them English, or Manglish.


In his studies with the “Hole in the Wall” experiment in India, Mitra placed a computer in a hole in a wall. He then videotaped the students’ reactions. In just a few weeks the students were able to surf the Internet on their own. Indeed they in turn taught their teachers! This experiment has been repeated elsewhere outside of India, and the results were the same. Visit any kampung and you will find students facile with using smartphones without having been formally taught.


Mitra concluded that children, whether in India, Sweden, or United Kingdom, can spontaneously organize themselves to learn on their own and to teach their fellow classmates without there being any specific instructions or directions from their teachers. With that, Mitra spawned such programs as “Self-Organizing Learning Environment” (SOLE) and “Hello Hubs.”


To recap, first, the issue of costs with hardware is surmountable. Indeed the cost of not supplying hardware and broadband access to our rural students is many times more. Second, the issue of content is non-existent. We should count ourselves lucky in that our national language uses the romanized script, the script of the Internet.


            There is one other factor that is often forgotten or ignored. The term I coined is “culture-ware.” That is, those elements in one’s culture and values of one’s society that would encourage one to accept new ideas and technologies, or conversely, oppose whatever is new and novel, except for cars and wives. 


Referring to my earlier example, yes that Orang Asli son in Ulu Kelantan could converse with the daughter of a billionaire in New York through Skype and Zoom, but will their respective parents as well as societies allow and condone that, or conversely put obstacles in their path?


This is what I meant by culture-ware, one that is difficult to overcome. At another level, would we encourage our young to learn English so they could surf the Internet? Likewise would our religious bureaucrats feel comfortable letting local Muslims listen to sermons given by Syamsul Ali from new York or Ilil Abdullah from Jakarta?


In her signature song Judy Garland croons, “How are you going to keep them on the farm once they have been to Gay Paree?” Today digital technology brings Gay Paree to the kampungs!


This is the biggest quandary referred to by my term culture-ware. There are many studies on students who are comfortable with the Internet. First their English fluency shot up. Best of all theirs is not pidgin English or local singsong Manglish the consequence of local teaching, but standard English. Beyond that, they could quickly be on par with those students in the First World. These advantages spill over onto the greater community to help local farmers and traders.


On the flip side, there are many sinister components with digital technology. Among them, on-line gambling, pornography, and cross-border money laundering. Then there is “face recognition” technology. On one hand, it allows the rapid detection of missing children. On the other, it allows a repressive government to violate their citizen’s rights as is happening today in China.


            That is a truism in science. All human inventions have this dual and contradictory potential. Nuclear technology allows us to have cheap energy but at the same time it has the potential to destroy mankind. Digital technology is no exception. That is the daunting challenge.


Digital technology affects all aspects of our lives, from trade and the economy generally to liberating the human mind. We cannot afford to ignore it. We must give it top priority. It is the technology for the present as well as the future, one that could enable us to lead forward to join the ranks of the developed world.


Next:  Third of Four Parts:  Digital Technology in Rural Education:  The Experience in Malaysia and Elsewhere.


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