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Malaysian Smart Schools Project

Since 1996, the Government of Malaysia has targeted education as one of the main vehicles to bring about the planned accelerated development of Malaysia. Knowledge and information were identified as important prime movers of the nation's economy for growth, wealth creation and competitiveness.

In 1997, the Smart School initiative was launched as one of the flagship applications of the Multimedia Super Corridor, under the management of the Multimedia Development Corporation (formerly MDC, now MDeC). The Smart School concept came out of a brainstorming session held at the Ministry of Education. Officials from the MDeC, the Ministry of Education and industry representatives produced a Conceptual Blueprint of Smart Schools. They then appointed Telekom Smart School Sdn Bhd (TSS), a consortium of seven Malaysian companies and three multinational companies, in a project management role. TSS became a partner of the Ministry of Education, and was responsible for implementing the Smart School Integrated Solutions (SSIS) in cooperation with the Ministry. It was the first partnership of its kind for a national education project. In support of this initiative, the Government invested in the development of Malaysia's ICT infrastructure, to enable new technology to be used in the selected schools. The arrangement was for TSS to complete a pilot programme for a group of selected schools by December 2002. On completion, the programme is to be rolled out to all of Malaysia's 9,000 schools by 2010.  The project involves 87 schools nationwide.

Malaysia's Smart School project involves a wide range of inter-related initiatives. These include schemes to improve Malaysia's ICT infrastructure, training in change management for teachers and school managers, a national school management system to link schools and the communities they serve, integration of software, and a help desk facility. The result is the incorporation of ICT into schools at a rate not far behind the rates of more developed nations. [Frost and Sullivan, 2004, Benchmarking of the Smart School Integrated Solution (Strive for Knowledge), Smart School Development, Educational Technology Division, Ministry of Education, Malaysia. p.11.]

The first step in the Smart School initiative was the introduction of computers, related applications, software and courseware into schools, classrooms and the teaching and learning processes. The 87 participating schools were divided into three types or "models". There are four "Model A" schools and four "Model B Plus" schools. "Model A" schools , all of which are situated in the Klang Valley (which includes Kuala Lumpur), are equipped with computers in every classroom and with video conference facilities. In these schools, the ratio of students to computers is 5 to 1. "Model B Plus" schools are equipped with computers in selected classrooms and in the science laboratories. The other 79 schools are Model B schools. These schools are equipped with a single computer laboratory. 

Smart School Integrated Solution
The Telekom Smart School and its consortium members developed the components of the "Smart School Integrated Solution" (SSIS). This comprehensive approach to integrating ICT into education encompasses five main elements:

» Teaching-Learning Materials.
Materials include 1,494 items of courseware and printed matter for four subject areas: Bahasa Melayu (Malay language), English, Science, and Mathematics.

» Smart School Management System (SSMS).
This is software for managing and administering student enrolment, educational resources, school finances, human resources, external resources, facilities, technology, and hostel facilities.

» Technology Infrastructure.
The infrastructure provided to schools included hardware, software and other equipment.

» Systems Integration.
This was implemented to ensure integration between the various components and processes of the SSIS, between the Smart School System and other flagship applications, and to ensure data integrity and security.

» Support Services.
The support services include Help Desk services, maintenance and support. The Help Desk is located at the Educational Technology Division of the Ministry of Education. The SSIS was implemented in the 87 pilot schools at a cost of about RM300 million (US$78 million).

Malaysia's innovative approach
In a study comparing Malaysia's approach to introducing ICT into schools with the approaches taken by eight other countries, researchers found that Malaysia's approach is radically different from the others. [Frost and Sullivan, 2004, Benchmarking of the Smart School Integrated Solution (Strive for Knowledge), Smart School Development, Educational Technology Division, Ministry of Education, Malaysia.  In Australia, Britain, Canada, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and the USA, initiatives for incorporating ICT into education have tended to be initiated by schools rather than by the national governments. The schools set the goals themselves, with the governments providing funds.

These ICT initiatives usually began as small-scale projects. Many started with installing ICT tools in schools and then providing professional development for teachers. This was normally followed by the development of a communications network and provision of access to on-line content. In the other countries studied, the schools aimed to integrate ICT into education and teaching and learning materials were usually produced as a result of the professional training and development of teachers.[lbid, p.10]  Often, projects began at the school level and moved on to a cluster of schools and then onto the national level.

The SSIS is innovative because it is government-led and is multi-faceted in its approach. An advantage of the leadership role of the government is that relevant policies are in place to support the necessary changes in theory and practice in education.

Another innovative aspect of the SSIS is the partnership between the Malaysian Government and the private sector in development, testing, installation and implementation of the SSIS. The Government sets the vision and provides the budget. For example, the building of schools and computer laboratories and the setting up of networking systems in the Smart Schools have been entirely funded by the Government. The private sector provides their expertise in their particular area of interest.

A further innovative aspect of the project is its focus on developing locally-relevant courseware. The courseware was created in recognition of the fact that teachers require digital content that is compatible with the curriculum. The quantity of courseware created has been impressive. By 2003, 1,494 courseware titles had been created at an approximate cost of RM1 million (approximately US$285,000). Each title required about nine months to develop. The courseware was created in four subject areas: Bahasa Melayu, English language, Science and Mathematics, for students from Year 1 to Form 5 (Grades 1-11). They are web-based and run on all platforms, including open source. They also conform to the Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) standard for web-based e-learning. The subject matter incorporates Malaysia's education philosophy, which includes knowledge, competency, moral values, and personal well-being of an individual and the need for each citizen to contribute to the harmony and betterment of family and Malaysia's multicultural society and nation. [Quoted from the Malaysian National Philosophy of Education.]  The courseware was distributed to all the schools participating in the project.

The Smart School initiative emphasizes the constructivist approach to learning, taking the focus off "teaching" and placing it on "learning". This approach recognizes that students will construct knowledge for themselves if teachers create the right learning environment.

In Malaysia today there is nationwide awareness of the Smart School initiative. The launch of the project sparked new ICT training initiatives, schemes for parents to buy computers for the home and initiatives to establish learning centres, colleges and universities which specialise in ICT and multimedia development.

Obstacles and Challenges
The initial phase of the SSIS exposed a range of obstacles and challenges. Achieving a consistent level of ICT infrastructure in schools has been one of the biggest challenges facing this project. There continues to be enormous disparity in the level of ICT availability and in the level of ICT use in schools, especially between schools in rural areas and schools in urban areas. [Zaitun Abu Bakar, University of Malaya, Malaysia, The utilization and integration of ICT tools in promoting English language teaching and learning: Reflections from English option teachers in Kuala Langat District, Malaysia, 2005.] The issue of lack of Internet connectivity is a particular challenge. At the current rate of development of connectivity, it is unlikely that the infrastructure will be in place in time to connect all schools to the Internet by 2010.

The lack, or low quality, of connectivity in rural schools threatens to amplify the disadvantages of rural learners. Without infrastructure and connectivity, the integrated system (encompassing web-based courseware, on-line management tools, and technical support) provided by the Smart Schools project is not accessible to rural schools. This poses a big challenge for the Ministry of Education. To address this issue, the Ministry provides schools in remote areas with special training programmes and provides teachers with notebook computers and with CD-ROMs containing teaching materials. In addition, the Ministry has launched special schemes for the schools and communities which are located on remote islands and in mountainous districts. For example, in Bario, an isolated community on the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, there is no road access and poor telecommunications infrastructure. For Bario, the Smart School project was divided into two Phases. Phase I involved conducting a baseline survey to gain an understanding of the information needs of the local Kelabit people. Phase II involved the establishment of a telecentre in a secondary school. Internet access was provided to this school via a VSAT satellite link. Another initiative implemented in remote areas is the Demonstrator Application Grant Scheme.

The integration between the Smart School System and other flagship applications is another challenge. Developing the courseware through a single vendor (though the vendor is a consortium) led to over-reliance on a single source of supply. Some companies within the consortium could not produce the work on time and to the quality specified. Beset with internal administrative problems and issues relating to evolving needs, and suffering from a lack of insight into developments in new technology and changes in national education policies. TSS lost the monopoly on the production of courseware. Government tenders for courseware development are now open to all companies. This involves lengthy procedures for tendering and evaluating and selecting companies but has seen an increase in the standard of courseware.

Currently, courseware developers for the Ministry of Education assign their intellectual property rights and copyright to the Government. The contract for developing courseware includes minimal service levels, mostly restricted to meeting specifications and satisfying user acceptance tests and other technical criteria. Advanced services for updating and corrections post-delivery have not been sought so far.

Providing teachers with courseware has its advantages but this system also has disadvantages. Under this system, teachers are not trained to create and implement teaching materials themselves. There is no requirement for teachers to experiment with the particulars of using ICT in the classroom or to explore the vast resources available on the Internet. In addition, some teachers see the courseware as a replacement for pedagogy. A common misconception among teachers is that using the courseware simply means assigning a topic for students to learn or search. Thus, the teacher merely projects the courseware on the screen and the students use the courseware without any guidelines or teacher supervision. At the other extreme, some teachers claim that teaching with the provided courseware requires more preparation time and creates more work, requiring them to structure the learning by providing a framework, formulating guide questions, recommending websites and facilitating discussions. Some teachers feel they can teach more content and make students understand better by using traditional chalk and talk methods. The courseware remains in its boxes for these teachers.

To make the best use of new ideas and tools, teachers must understand the relevance, usefulness and usability of those ideas or tools. Teachers need to be computer literate themselves and be confident in the use of ICT in order to understand what ICT can do to enhance their own development and to enrich the learning experience of their students. [The Smart School Roadmap (A consultative paper on the expansion of the Smart School initiative) 2005-2020: An Educational Odyssey, October 2005]

Teachers also need help and support when things go wrong or technology does not function. While technical support is a component of the SSIS, it is perceived by some as being inadequate. In a review of the SSIS carried out by the Ministry of Education, an important recommendation was in the area of technical maintenance and the need for more suitable and adequate technical support for teachers in schools.

Positive unintended consequences have arisen from the decision to provide courseware to the 87 Smart Schools. This major investment of Ministry officers' time and Government funds has resulted in the development of a vibrant e-learning and creative content industry with over 100 companies. Malaysia is becoming noted for its capability in content development for on-line learning and its expertise in areas such as interactive multimedia courseware development. Phase One, which covered the launch in 1996 through to 2003, saw small and medium sized enterprises and multi-national corporations working together, generating over 5,000 jobs.

Alongside the growth of companies which specialize in developing on-line learning content, and the software and related technology for delivery of on-line learning, a growing number of teachers and officers are developing skills in mapping curricula and using progressive checks on learners' achievements. Involvement in courseware development and evaluation has enhanced the professional development of teachers and officers at a much faster rate and in more depth than traditional training would provide. Teachers with subject specialization were seconded to companies in the TSS consortium as subject matter experts and evaluators. 

Author: Bismillah Khatoon Binti Abdul Kader