Remote learning ‘a luxury’ for Malaysian ‘elite’

Digital divide is ‘greatest challenge’ facing country’s education system in Covid era, researchers say

February 25, 2021
Malaysian student in tree to access signal for virtual lessons
Source: Veveonah M./YouTube
Veveonah M., a Malaysian student, sits in a tree to access signals for virtual lessons

Malaysia’s continuing campus closures have laid bare social inequalities and should serve as a wake-up call that results in long-needed reforms to higher education, according to the authors of an in-depth analysis of online learning.

“The digital divide clearly still exists, posing the greatest challenge to Malaysia’s recovery post Covid-19,” says a study in the Journal of Sustainability Science and Management, covering the period from March to August 2020. “It seems that remote learning is still a luxury largely accessible to the elite and middle-class students.”

Norzaini Azman, professor of higher education at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and a co-author of the paper, told Times Higher Education that “it really took a pandemic to expose internet inequality in the [school and higher education] systems and among Malaysian students”.

THE Campus resource: how to reach remote students with limited access to technology

She added that data on university students’ readiness for online learning were “rather sketchy and not available for the public” – a situation that should be rectified if the sector makes systemic changes moving forward.

With solid information and “evidence-based policymaking”, the pandemic could offer the opportunity for a “breakthrough” in a sector that had been “highly resistant to change for the longest time”, according to the analysis.

Campus closures are expected to affect most Malaysian students until the third quarter of 2021, with only specific groups – such as those who work in labs, or those with no internet access – allowed back to classrooms in March.

Doria Abdullah, senior lecturer in higher education at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and a co-author of the paper, told THE that the country suddenly had to take a different view of digital access.

“Pre Covid-19, solutions on improving the quality of internet access focused on the penetration rate,” she said. “But issues exist in terms of infrastructure and connectivity.” She cited cases of rural students trekking up hills and climbing trees in an attempt to get better internet signals.

The study showed that despite a general penetration rate of 87 per cent – and almost full mobile phone coverage – only 8 per cent of Malaysians had a fixed broadband service, which provides fast and reliable connections.

“Although Malaysia’s digital adoption rate is comparable to advanced economics, the actual digital adoption is that of a lower middle-income country,” the paper says.

Before Covid-19, students could get by with just mobile phones because computers were available on campus. During the pandemic, however, students would ideally need what Dr Abdullah called a “remote learning starter pack”, including a laptop, headphones, broadband and access to various platforms and video apps.

Similarly, universities that previously managed to operate with free tools such as Google Classroom would now have to invest in more stable and secure platforms, especially for assessments.

As for academic staff, many do not have the “basic home studio” tools – such as webcams and microphones – required to record lectures, teach and supervise in real time. They might also lack access to applications and online platforms.

The paper offers several recommendations for post-Covid reform, including better digital teacher training.

In normal times, it might take six months to a year to develop an online course properly, even with “deliberate planning and practice”. During Covid, it became an “uphill battle” for staff to pivot quickly and “virtually impossible for every faculty member to suddenly become an expert in online teaching and learning”. The authors warn against producing “a pale imitation of what quality online instruction is”.

They say it is important for university managers to collect data on student and faculty experiences and to “use the feedback to improve on contingency plans”. This would include a “rapid technology assessment” and the estimated financial cost of sustained remote teaching.

“The Covid-19 experience should make us seriously more cautious about taking things for granted,” the researchers conclude.

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