Minimising risks to the “lost generation” the way forward

By adopting a mix of low-tech and high-tech interventions, all children in Malaysia could follow up on their education syllabuses despite the ongoing pandemic crisis.

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Published in Astro Awani, Focus Malaysia & Asia News Today. image by Astro Awani.

After experiencing online learning for several months, finally, Malaysian students could enjoy some form of normalcy. They could now return to their respective schools for physical lessons, enjoying face-to-face interactions with their classmates and teachers.

Effective from Oct 4, ten Malaysian states in Phases Two to Four of the National Recovery Plan (NRP) are allowed to reopen schools. The school reopening involves 94,000 students in the following states:

  1. Penang, Perak and Sabah for Phase Two;
  2. Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, Selangor, Melaka, Perlis, Pahang and Sarawak for Phase Three; and
  3. Negeri Sembilan and the Federal Territory of Labuan for Phase Four.

Resuming face-to-face school sessions is an apt outcome for Malaysian students who have patiently endured school closures until now as we race towards the last three months of 2021. Due to the on-and-off school closures arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysian students have experienced more than one year of immediate learning loss.

As Malaysia has undergone nearly 35 weeks of school closure – one of the longest in the world, there is an increasing fear that more children will become disinterested in studying, which might result in a higher school dropout rate compared with the pre-pandemic period.

In contrast, schools in high-income countries were only closed between zero and 16 weeks. According to the Unesco Institute for Statistics’ “Global Monitoring of School Closures Caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic” data, the United Kingdom closed for 16 weeks, and other countries were as follows:

  • 9 weeks for China and New Zealand;
  • 7 weeks for France;
  • 4 weeks for Singapore;
  • 3 weeks for Japan; and
  • 0 week for Sweden.

In managing online learning as part of the measures to cope with the impact from the school closures, the government distributed nearly 130,000 out of the 150,000 laptops under the Cerdik Initiative. However, teachers would still find it challenging to have close contact with their students as either the students have limited Internet connections at home or limited access to digital devices.

Such a scenario is especially true among students in rural and remote areas. For instance, when Ryverra Wiviani Rinus, a 15-year-old Kadazandusun student from SMK Keningau googled “digital divide” using her mother’s phone from her home at Kampung Bomboi in Keningau, she could not download a single page.

Based on the parliamentary speech delivered by Kulai Member of Parliament (MP) Teo Nie Ching in Nov 2020, 37% or 1.7 million students under the Ministry of Education (MOE) did not possess any electronic devices to participate in online lessons. They did not have a laptop, tablet or computer to follow up on online learning syllabuses.

Although some students have access to digital devices, they have to share devices with their family members as their parents were low income earners who could not afford to buy additional laptops or smartphones for online learning.

Even though the government did strengthen the functions of community internet centres and extend broadcasting hours of DidikTV, Simpang Renggam MP Maszlee Malik warned continuous school closures could create a “lost generation” in Malaysia. Such a phenomenon is possible when the government and stakeholders have failed to synergise their efforts to prevent disruption to the education system.

Despite the MOE introducing numerous initiatives such as “[email protected]” and Digital Educational Learning Initiative Malaysia (Delima) to assist students in following up on their education syllabuses and acquiring future skills during the school closures, teachers still faced difficulties in conducting engaging lessons with students virtually.

Due to a sudden pivot towards online learning brought about by the impact of Covid-19 which was not foreseen, teachers could apply simplified teaching methodologies such as video conferencing to facilitate online teaching.

Many teachers could not adopt innovative teaching methodologies such as the extensive use and deployment of multimedia under the learning management systems (LMS) and online learning tools, gamification, virtual & augmented reality (VR/AR), etc.

This is because they either do not have skillsets to apply to online teaching or lacked sufficient funds to integrate innovative methodologies into current curricula.

Therefore, to recover learning losses arising from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and maintain safety within school premises, EMIR Research suggests the current administration introduce the following measures:

  1. Establish a national education council comprising experts, professionals, academics and representatives from teacher and parent associations to formulate an integrated plan for post-pandemic education;
  2. Apply a hybrid learning model, whereby students could study in school for two days and stay at home for online learnings for three days, as for example. Such a measure will ensure physical distancing can take place among students until such time when Covid-19 has truly become endemic;
  3. Waive costs associated with school attendance such as face masks, food and transport, etc. which will maximise re-enrolment rates, particularly among underprivileged students;
  4. Accelerate and expand the installation of fibre-optic cables in pre-existing electricity grids to ensure students based in rural and remote areas could enjoy better digital connectivity with appropriate digital devices;
  5. Identify those who have yet to receive laptops under the Cerdik Initiative and provide digital devices for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The government could work with the private sector in providing more affordable devices for all families, especially those with more than one child. Such an initiative provide the opportunities for children from low-income families to learn outside physical lessons; and
  6. Train teachers to use multimedia and online learning effectively by enhancing their digital skills, building up their capacity for more innovative pedagogy, and providing lifetime support to help solve any technical question they may have.

In addition, we strongly support efforts to encourage parents of children aged 12 to 17 to get their children vaccinated before going back to school (unless their children cannot receive the Covid-19 vaccine due to medical reasons).

It should be made compulsory for teachers and school personnel to receive vaccination before returning to school. Cleaning staff should also be trained on disinfection and sanitisation procedures and equipped with personal protective equipment to the extent possible. Schools also could increase the number of staff on duty whenever necessary to ensure physical distancing measures always taking place.

To cut the risk of transmission, teachers could lead by examples – ensuring students  wear face masks and sanitise their hands at all times as well as leaving all windows open in the classrooms to promote good ventilation practices.

By adopting a mix of low-tech and high-tech interventions, all children in Malaysia could follow up on their education syllabuses despite the ongoing pandemic crisis, thereby equipping them with the necessary skillsets for the future jobs market.

Amanda Yeo is Research Analyst at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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