View Full Version : First the basics, then computers

15-11-2002, 06:46 AM
1:56pm Thu Nov 14th, 2002

<FONT SIZE="+1">First the basics, then computers</FONT>
M Bakri Musa

Malaysia is spending heavily to bring information technology (IT) to the
classrooms. But in our fascination with technology, we neglect the basics.

Examine the latest budget: RM978.8 million to supply teachers with
computers, LCD projectors, and other IT gadgets, while only RM850 million to
implement single-session schools. Hidden elsewhere is the amount to be spent
on teacher training. Obviously it is of a magnitude considerably smaller,
thus not meriting a separate line item.

The essential element to successful learning remains the well-trained
teacher who can capture the imagination of her students. Our job is to
ensure that she gets the necessary tools and support to do her job well. I
venture that we would contribute more to the learning environment if we
air-conditioned the classrooms than if we were to provide computers.
Teachers know how difficult it is to get the pupils' attention in the heat
of the day.

Air-conditioning is also cheaper. Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew
once referred to it as the greatest invention of the millennium. It enables
those in the tropics to compete intellectually with those in the temperate
zone. Seeing how far the island republic has progressed, he may be on to
something profound.

If my suggestion seems dramatic, consider this. We would do more by
providing musical instruments like recorders, violins and clarinets, and
music teachers. Early exposure to music helps not only in hand-eye
coordination but also in abstract thinking. My point is that there are other
priorities ahead of computers.

Limits of IT

I live in Silicon Valley, California, the nexus of IT, and I use computers
in business as well as at home. IT boosts my productivity immensely, and I
would be lost without it. I use computers to access patients' records and to
look up the latest journals. I researched, wrote, edited, and transmitted
this essay electronically, and I will read the final version on the Web.
These are the wonders of IT. But IT is no substitute for my clinical
competence or writing ability.

Likewise, IT enhances and extends the reach of but does not substitute for
the competent teacher. This notion that teachers could be mere facilitators
and that teaching involves merely switching on the laptop and LCD projector
is laughable. Teachers must be knowledgeable and have pedagogical skills to
engage their students.

Our schools are fast becoming the hobbyhorse of ambitious politicians. A
minister out to impress his religiosity insisted that Islamic Studies be
mandatory. Another suggested teaching entrepreneurialism, and yet a third
would have his pet subject of tourism be in the curriculum. These
politicians forget that there are only so many hours in the school day.

More recently Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi calls for teaching
IT in schools. I do not know what he means by that. If he means teaching
students to be computer literate, that is, to be able to use computers, then
surely you do not need it to be a subject in school. Even the mosque in
Section 14, Petaling Jaya, offers such classes.

I once taught a visitor from Malaysia how to use a word processor and then
had him log onto the Internet and register for free e-mail, and by the time
my wife was ready with dinner, he had already sent his first e-mail. I do
not understand the big fuss over teaching IT.

In Mauritius they could train villagers to use computers, and after a few
sessions these ladies were downloading the latest fashion off the Internet
for their sewing classes.

Computers in classrooms?

But if the Deputy Prime Minister means computational literacy, meaning the
ability to think digitally and understand the language and technology of IT,
then that would be a different matter.

There have been attempts to teach programming like Basic at primary schools,
but that fell by the wayside, as is the more recent Logo. But others are in
the pipeline, the most promising being Boxer. But these are still, to use
the ubiquitous phrase of the Web, "under construction." Malaysia should
participate in these leading edge trials, but only under research protocol.

Frankly I do not think that Abdullah knows what he means. To him and others,
IT and computers are simply the latest buzzwords to sprinkle their speeches.

Even if we do have computers in schools, that alone would not be enough. The
current rates for Internet hookups must be overhauled to allow for flat
charges. Otherwise schools would be burdened with prohibitive phone bills
negating whatever benefits the computers would confer.

The Berkeley astronomer Clifford Stoll in his book, High Tech Heretic, goes
so far as to say that computers do not belong in the classroom. He is
overstating the case, but his point is well taken. Computers are expensive;
they take funds away from libraries and laboratories, and teacher training.
Consider that the minister of education recently announced grants of RM5k to
RM15k for schools to buy books in English. That is less than the price of
one computer and LCD projector!

Computers are also major distractions. I would rather have teachers teach
writing using the word processor, with the emphasis on writing. Likewise,
teach science experiments first and then on how to use the spreadsheet to
present the data.

No shortcuts

Success in teaching science and mathematics in English depends on having
well-trained teachers. Getting them should the highest priority. Yet today
all we hear are "quickie" schemes to mass-produce them. There are no
shortcuts to attracting and training good teachers.

I suggest that some teachers' colleges be converted to English medium to
train teachers of English, science, and mathematics. Special allowances, as
suggested, are also timely.

We would enhance the learning environment if we have single-session schools.
With double sessions the last period of the morning session and the first of
the afternoon are wasted, with students distracted with the commotion of
shift change. Studies by the World Bank document the tremendous wastage of
hours with double sessions.

To achieve this we must allow for private schools and have open tenders for
school projects. The current practice of restricting bids to only bumiputra
unnecessarily raises the costs. While that may be great for those successful
contractors, the price would be borne by those precious young minds.

So before spending money on computers for teachers, I would first use the
funds on the teachers so they can get better training and be better paid.

Adapted from the writer's latest book, An Education System Worthy of
Malaysia, to be published in early 2003. The writer can be contacted at:

M BAKRI MUSA is a surgeon in Silicon Valley, California and the author of
The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia. His views on
Malaysia can be stated thus: Ours is a diverse nation; we can accept and
celebrate this reality or by default, it becomes a liability.


16-11-2002, 01:18 PM
According to my sis who is now a S'pore citizen, not all schools there hv airconditioning but all kindergartens and private schools do hv them. S'pore school still hv double sessions. It is a known fact that there is great pressure on children to excel in school, even rfom kindergarten age. You cannot imagine how my sis has to put up with complaints from the teacher when her 5 yr old son could not spell 'watermelon'. The teacher suggested tuition. For a kindergartener? So what makes S'pore students do better at school? Comfort or pressure? Or both?
Almost all public schools in Taipei hv computers with constant internet connection in every classroom, in addition to computer rooms for students' computer lessons even at primary level. Teachers, young and old had to take lessons on how to make webpages to update the individual class sites. My son (Form 1) is now learning HTML for his school computer lessons which are part of the curriculum.
A sample of the a normal Taiwan school website with contributions from all teachers and staff is attached.
So, are computers really so important in classrooms?? Who knows for sure. A lot of hardwork and planning are foremost.