The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives, in one way or another, especially that of school children who have spent long periods of time this year studying from home.
With most educational institutions temporarily closed in an attempt by governments across the world to curb the spread of COVID-19, remote or distance learning is fast becoming the default method of education.
According to UNESCO, the pandemic has taken more than 1.2 billion school-going children all over the world out of formal classrooms, and governments are working hard to ensure that these students are able to continue their education in virtual ones.
In Malaysia, approximately 4.9 million students in pre-schools, primary and secondary schools nationwide have had their formal classroom learning suspended in stages since mid-March.
There are different schools of thought over whether remote learning is more beneficial for both educator and student and ongoing debates as to whether remote learning should continue even after schools reopen.
The reality for now, however, is that in order to ensure consistency and continuity in our children’s education, learning and working remotely are the new norms we have to accept and live with.
Challenges we face
That being said, the accelerated shift to a remote way of life has cast a wider and brighter spotlight on the urgent need to close the digital divide.
Statistics show that in Southeast Asia, only three countries have over 80% Internet penetration – namely, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. In countries like Indonesia, only 56% of its 268 million population have access to the Internet, while Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam also have less than 60% Internet penetration.
Therefore, in order to ensure a quality remote learning experience for our children, a few key areas need to be quickly addressed:
Availability of devices: A survey by the Ministry of Education (MOE) this year involving close to 900,000 students indicated that 37% of students don’t have any appropriate device, while only 6 to 9% of students own a personal computer or tablet. The survey also revealed that even if a household has a personal computer, many would have to share it with other household members for work or study.
One solution could be to look at setting up a lending system similar to the Malaysian Textbook Loan Scheme, where the government could loan e-learning devices for a specified period to underprivileged students whose families can’t afford them.
Good Internet connection: For a smooth and effective remote learning experience, good Internet connection is required. Although the national mobile broadband penetration rate in Malaysia was approximately 120% in 2019, only eight out of 100 people had fixed broadband – which provides faster and more reliable connectivity.
Here is where public-private partnerships can play a vital role in coming up with solutions. Telco companies have been pitching in to meet the surge in demand for Internet connectivity, such as free data during a particular time of the day, and should continue doing so to help ensure education continuity, while companies like Huawei can help provide reliable infrastructure to withstand the pressure from an increased demand for Internet connectivity.
One such public-private partnership is the Sasbadi-Huawei-TM One tie-up. Education is a basic human right and it is the society’s responsibility to ensure that equitable education is accessible by all.
Huawei believes in the power of technology to make education more accessible and inclusive, allowing everyone to benefit from quality education.
As such, Huawei, Sasbadi and TM One are joining hands to launch e-learning solutions for primary and secondary students, including a nationwide CSR initiative to provide support for SPM 2020 candidates during this crucial time in preparation for their SPM exams.
The Malaysian government has also pushed out many great initiatives to boost Internet coverage and speed. In August, the government launched the National Digital Network Initiative (JENDELA) to improve nationwide Internet coverage and service quality, and to lay the foundation for 5G in Malaysia.
JENDELA, the national aspiration for digitalisation, will be integrated into the 12th Malaysia Plan (2021-2025) and will be realised in phases, with priority given to maximising the use of new technological resources and infrastructure – taking a holistic approach to planning, implementation and monitoring for nationwide digital transformation.
The following objectives will become the primary focus:
1. 4G enhancement and 3G sunset:
- The government’s plan to turn off 3G networks in stages is to improve 4G networks, which will serve as a strong foundation for 5G. This plan will see the retiring of older infrastructure which are less able to support the speed and capacity required by newer technologies.
- 4G mobile broadband coverage rate in densely populated areas to be increased from 91.8% to 96.9%.
2. 5G deployment:
- The move to improve and expand 4G coverage will clear the path for Malaysia’s transition to 5G with the goal of full 5G deployment.
- The closure of 3G network will free up 900MHz and 2.1GHz spectrum to assist 4G expansion and in doing so pave the way for 5G rollout.
- JENDELA aspires to achieve 100Mbps wireless broadband speeds by adopting 5G.
3. Fixed broadband speeds to be increased from 25Mbps to 35Mbps
- By 2025, there should be nine million fixed access points with fast broadband.
Educators’ readiness to conduct remote learning classes: The sudden need for full time remote learning has understandably caught many educators off-guard. They are suddenly finding themselves having to quickly equip themselves with the necessary digital skills, while at the same time looking for creative ways to keep their students engaged.
Many start-ups and larger tech companies have since developed free online tools that can be leveraged by teachers and students to conduct e-learning. With the government ramping up its support for start-ups and building a healthy ecosystem for digital growth, these tools can be continuously enhanced and improved to provide good quality education for all.
Using technology to bring lessons to life
While there are, of course, learning experiences that can only be translated through face to face interaction, there are many ways in which e-learning, leveraging the latest technology, can allow students to learn in unprecedented ways and widen their horizons beyond anything the formal classroom can offer.
For example, students living in remote parts of the country often find it a challenge to access good quality education, due to the locality of their schools, lack of available transportation and financial constraints. A recent report citing the State Education Department Director of Kuching, Sarawak, Dr Azhar Ahmad, showed that these factors are the main causes for school dropouts in the rural parts of the state.
Given the right technology solutions, e-learning can offer students in these rural communities a higher chance of staying in school, while levelling the playing field in terms of quality of education between the rural and urban areas.
E-learning can also introduce educational experiences for a larger reach of students that conventional classrooms cannot.
One such technology solution is Huawei’s TECH4ALL Remote Education initiative, which seeks to bridge the digital divide in education through connectivity, technological applications and digital skills.
Huawei recently launched the TECH4ALL Remote Education initiative in Malaysia in partnership with the Ministry of Communications and Multimedia, the district education office, local authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Kuantan, Pahang. Through this initiative, Huawei provided several units of its IdeaHub Smart Screen — an all-in-one device which integrates communication devices such as a projector, whiteboard, tablet and video conferencing equipment – to several schools to assist in the state’s shift to remote learning.
On the global front, ever since the start of the pandemic, Huawei has been working with partners all over the world to provide online teaching services to schools and universities through Huawei CLOUD services – so that teaching and learning activities can continue undisrupted.
Huawei CLOUD supports remote learning where teachers and students can interact through audio, video and chat rooms, while the online tools provided enhance the efficiency of curriculum development and allow teachers to work together remotely and share teaching materials.
In Malaysia, Huawei has already collaborated with Telekom Malaysia Berhad (TM) and has launched the first Malaysia public Cloud.
Moving forward, we will continue to advance our hybrid cloud solutions to meet the complex digital transformation needs of governments and enterprises around the world. We hope to become a preferred partner in their intelligent upgrade process
Raising an ICT-ready generation
Remote learning also offers opportunities for students and educators alike to learn new digital skills and to train them to become more flexible and adaptable towards the latest innovative education methods. These are skills that will give them a more competitive edge in an increasingly digital and rapidly evolving world.
The forced move to remote learning is accelerating the transformation of education as a whole, and from it will emerge a generation of students who will grow up to be workers familiar with a digital-first world, and educators who are equipped to ride the waves of change and remain effective and relevant.
Making sure no one gets left behind
As mentioned previously, one of the limitations of remote learning is that it is highly dependent on the availability of technological solutions. This is also where Huawei can help.
We have always been highly invested in providing digital solutions to bridge the digital divide and to ensure that no one is left behind. Through our expertise in cellular technology such as 5G, and the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as through our wide array of ICT devices and infrastructure, we can serve as connective tissue, bringing reliability to areas where fixed wired connections aren’t always available.
We will continue to harness the power and potential of Cloud, AI, and 5G technologies, to help ensure equal access to high-quality education resources and outcomes, making sure we cover all ground — and we are always on the lookout for partnerships that will make this happen.
5G means connectivity. In Malaysia, the 5G spectrum has not been released by the government as of yet, but that does not mean we stop there. We still can use 4G, fibre and the current connectivity to ensure education is accessible to all.
Huawei is committed to smart education, building the bridges that cross the digital divide, to equalize educational opportunities, and help improve teaching quality. We believe in education “anytime, anywhere”. We want to reach the unreached. We believe in Education4ALL.
Article by Michael Yuan, CEO of Huawei Malaysia