Coronavirus, youths and digital readiness

Recent data by Unesco show that 363m pupils and young people are affected by the closures of schools and universities


THE Malaysia government is currently implementing the Movement Control Order (MCO) from March 18 to April 14, 2020. The purpose of this MCO is to combat the spread of coronavirus (Covid-19) disease.

The MCO aims to enforce self-quarantine for all citizens and residents. School students, who were on their one-week break which started on March 14 and supposedly to end on March 21, 2020, have to continue staying out of school. The holiday period is subsequently extended after the MCO was announced by Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on March 16.

Our daily lives have changed drastically within these few weeks. The coronavirus is affecting all of us here and internationally.

Several months ago, precautionary measures were taken to curb the virus, but the spread of the virus was drastic and further actions were needed before the situation gets more serious in the few weeks and months ahead.

The MCO and social distancing are necessary to cut down and (eventually) eradicate the Covid-19 spread.

These measures certainly have consequences for all citizens, especially for students. They can’t go back to schools, colleges and other learning institutions. The recent data by the United Nations’ (UN) education agency, Unesco, showed that 363 million pupils and young people are affected by the closures of schools and universities.

Due to the MCO, some students are corresponding through the digital network or commonly known as online social network. The online activities are not restricted for social communication and correspondences.

The use of the ICT medium for online studies, educational activities and entertainments is gaining more traction.

More schools and colleges are deploying online learning programmes and education applications, and platforms, including the use of computers and the Internet to reach students.

These digital-based learning activities would be easier for those who have access to the digital network. About 54% of the world’s population, or 4.1 billion people, use the Internet.

However, only two out of 10 people in less-developed countries have online access according to the International Telecommunication Unions, the UN’s Internet and telecommunication agency.

It remains a challenge to bridge the “digital divide”. It explains the gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those with limited or without such access.

“Digital exclusion in general reflects and entrenches broader patterns of disadvantage across age, gender, social and economic dimensions,” said Julian Thomas, a communications professor at Australia’s RMIT University.

“The cost of Internet access can be prohibitive for low-income families, and the infrastructure and services necessary for everyone to be able to use the Internet at home is unevenly distributed across urban, rural and remote areas,” he said.

Another researcher from University of Twente, the Netherlands, Jan van Dijk, categorised digital access into four types: Material, motivational, skills and usage. The material or device access comes first as it is an essential to support the subsequent three accesses in harnessing the digital world. Without the possession of computers and Internet networks, it could be a failure in addressing modern digital technology.

The 2018 Department of Statistics Malaysia’s (DoSM) ICT use and access data described the current annual figures of digital usage and accessibility in the country.

It provides a clear indication of households and individual usage of digital devices and activities.

Households access to the Internet increased between 85.7% in 2017 to 87% in 2018. How- ever, the access to computers, as it refers to a desktop, a laptop (portable) computer or a tablet (or similar handheld computer), decreased to 74.1% (2017) to 71.7% (2018).

Furthermore, the 2018 percentage of individuals who were using computers by state and strata showed a wide disparity between urban (75.6%) and rural (54.1%) users. Rural pupils and youths were behind in access to the latest technology and information. The microdata depicted the age group of 15-20 years old, which are secondary schoolchildren and pupils.

These youths need to be exposed to ICT skills during this period. It showed that only 5%-6% of youths were able to operate computers and had the confidence to perform main computer tasks.

The rural youth, aged between 20 and 31, lacked ICT skills to become technophobes. This is a worrying fact.

According to Thomas, low-income families are particularly dependent on mobile devices for Internet access, which may not be suited for learning purposes.

The 2018 percentage of individuals using computer by state, type of ICT skills and strata lagged behind in nine common computer-related skills such as copying or moving a file or folder, sending an email with attached files, using basic arithmetic formulas in spreadsheet, connecting and installing new device, transferring files between a computer and other devices, writing a computer programme using a specialised programming language, and searching, downloading, installing and configuring software.

Recently, an online learning initiative for students was launched by the YTL Founda- tion, YES and FrogAsia Sdn Bhd. This initia- tive should be applauded as it will assist the B40 (bottom 40%) income group of school- children and pupils.

Their parents are able to get up to five free 4G prepaid SIM cards with 40GB data from telecommunication company YES. They are ready to be used for two months free of charge.

The government also unveiled the economic stimulus package to cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Internet subscribers — prepaid and postpaid — will get free Internet data of 1GB for two months during the MCO.

In Chapter 3 of 11th Malaysia Plan 2016- 2020, the following strategies have also formed another inclusiveness platform in the focus area B, which is empowering communities for a productive and prosperous society.

This focus area is the establishment of family institutions and the potential of youth development.

Moreover, building human capital with knowledge and skills as well as the moral and ethics requires a lot of commitment especially to support inclusiveness and sustainable economic growth.

Consequently, in Chapter 5, the government raised the issue of human capital development in accelerating economic growth.

This focus area also includes the improvement of labour productivity and wages through the shift of high-skilled jobs by continuous upskilling and re-skilling initiatives.

In facilitating the application of high-tech equipment and improving technology-enabled innovations in education, the problem, project, production-based learning can develop critical, creative and innovative thinkers in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

The 2017 Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) Annual Report revealed that Malaysia is currently at an “adopter” stage in the global digital map. Malaysia’s digital advancement is on a par with other progressive economies like Canada, New Zealand, Republic of Ire- land, Australia, Slovenia, Latvia and Czech Republic. In reaching the frontrunner stage, three key structural features are needed.

Firstly, fast and affordable Internet (home broadband and mobile). Public digital infrastructure is needed to persuade more digital participation and adoption.

This infrastructure consists of speedy connectivity, digital identity, an efficient payment system, open data networks, online delivery services, telemedicine, financial services and others.

Secondly, human talents for digital advancement. The education system must emphasise lifelong learning, encourage more interest in STEM degrees and strengthen ICT literacy skills (ie computational mathematics, robotics, peer-to-peer learning, etc).

The 2012 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)-PISA Results in Focus report stated that Malaysia’s score in mathematics and science was 421 and 420 respectively, which is below the OECD average scores of 496.

According to the Education Ministry, Malaysia’s higher education institutions are going to release a considerable number of graduates in arts and social sciences and less so in STEM and technical-vocational fields between 2010 and 2025, based on BNM Annual 2017 Report.

This development is terrifying as economic activities in the future become more digital and driven by technological innovations.

Thirdly, high digital adoption in the government and citizens — consumers, producers and businesses. Malaysia’s digital adoption is growing rapidly although consumer services such as Internet banking and e-commerce remain quite low.

The majority of Internet usage in Malaysia is content consumption. The consumption of content such as social media, games and downloading movies/music is rather limited instead of productive digital tasks such as mobile applications production, content creations, learning from formal online courses and professional networking, according to the 2017 BNM Annual report and 2016 DoSM’s ICT Satellite Account.

These are the issues the country must look into to ensure Malaysia is not left behind in the digital race.

  • SM Reza Yamani Sayed Umar is a PhD candidate in Economics at the International Islamic University Malaysia. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.