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IT Literacy High on Govt Priority List in Malaysia
By Anil Netto
Inter Press Service

    PENANG, Malaysia, Mar 24 (IPS) - A bus rumbles to a remote school. When it stops, 20 excited pupils and their teacher clamber aboard. The bus looks distinctive. It is futuristic, grey with a rainbow painted on it and it remains stationary.
  Inside the bus, however, under the supervision of trainers, pupils click on mouse and keyboards and launch themselves on an unforgettable journey into the World Wide Web.
  In an effort to narrow the gap between those with access to information technology (IT) and those without, Malaysia has embarked on a series of pilot projects to bring new technology to rural areas.
  With only 2.5 million PC owners out of a population of 22 million, the PC penetration level in Malaysia is just 11 per cent. That, according to officials, is below the world average of 35 percent. What's more, only 5 percent of Malaysians surf the Internet, compared with the world average of 30 percent.
  Thus far, officials have focused on the Multimedia Super Corridor project, aimed at turning a huge fibre-optic wired high-tech zone south of Kuala Lumpur into a ''second Silicon Valley''.
   The government is also turning schools into computerised 'Smart Schools' to promote IT literacy. By the end of 1999, 90 schools were due to have been converted into Smart Schools. Malaysia has some 7,000 primary schools and 1,500 secondary schools nation-wide, many of them in rural areas.
  There is growing awareness that rural areas are likely to be left out of the high-tech push, creating a digital divide.
   Enter Mimos Bhd, an Internet Service Provider, and its pilot project, the Mobile Internet Unit, which is basically computers-on-wheels or Internet buses that visit schools. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided a grant, and a private firm chipped in with the bus, which Mimos and a coach-building firm then refurbished.
  Launched last August, the unit now comprises three buses. The biggest of the three buses, equipped with 20 PCs, visits 20 schools without computer facilities in central Selangor state while the two smaller ones, with 12 computers each, visit another 20 schools in the capital.
  ''The response is fantastic, very positive,'' says Kang Wai Chin, the MIU project manager in Mimos. The buses visit a school once a fortnight and spend the whole day on site, says Kang.
  A typical morning session sees five groups of 20 pupils and teachers, spending one hour each on the bus. A couple of trainers from Mimos provide the groups with hands-on training on the basics of PCs and the Internet. Afternoons are reserved for open sessions for another 40 pupils, teachers and parents.
  The buses make 10 fortnightly visits to each school, apart from pre-training briefing and post-training evaluation visits. Each pupil in the group is thus given about ten hours hands-on exposure on the computers. ''Our objective is to reach as many people as possible,'' Kang said.
  It may just provide a taste of the Internet, but Kang says the excitement and enthusiasm it generates is infectious. At the end of a series of training sessions in a school, it is common to find the school head and the parent-teacher association chipping in to buy more PCs to add to the Internet-ready PC that the project team leaves behind.
  Critics, however, argue it is more pressing to resolve basic rural needs before going for high-tech projects such as Smart Schools and mobile Internet units.
  A reader wrote to a national daily and cited the cases of schools in interior areas in parts of Sabah state in north Borneo that lacked basic amenities such as proper blackboards, chairs, tables and, in some cases, even electricity and piped water. He described the poor nutrition among pupils and the below par living quarters for the teachers.
  ''My question is: how can a country such as Malaysia have inadequate funds to provide the basic requirements needed for its rural children to be educated,'' the reader asked. ''I am not against IT but the Education Ministry should first ensure that all schools have the basic necessities to allow comfortable learning before diverting these funds to other projects.''
  That is a genuine concern. Recently, an opposition politician pointed out that 1,000 schools in the country did not even have electricity. Others say that it would be far better to use state funds to provide schools with free computers of their own so that each pupil will have more hands-on time on PCs.
  That does not deter Kang, who says that for schools without electricity, portable electricity generator sets could be set up to enable pupils in remote areas to access the Internet.
  Across the South China Sea, in Sarawak state, communities in remote areas are even more cut off and bringing IT to them poses bigger challenges. But one highland community in Bario is getting its first taste of new technology.
   In this remote mainly ethnic Kelabit community, the University Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) is carrying out a project dubbed 'e- Bario'. The project is organised under three areas: the school, the community and communications.
  The challenge is formidable. Located 1,000 metres above sea level, Bario is surrounded by mountains and has no road access; so, the only practical way of reaching it is by air.
  First, Internet access will be introduced to the school in Bario along with greater use of computers. The project will use the government's Smart School concept, so far only applied in urban settings, to guide the application and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the school.
   The project will also study the community's information needs and design innovative applications of ICTs, which can be delivered via a community telecentre with access to the Internet. Suitable arrangements on how the local community can manage and operate such a telecentre will be tested.
  Tests will also be carried out on various technologies for providing improved telephone access and Internet connectivity. This will include associated technologies for the supply of electricity.
   ''Genuine interest in IT can be generated if computers are used to perform some useful function for the community,'' said Dr Roger Harris of UNIMAS Faculty of Information Technology. These may relate to the electronic marketing of local produce or the promotion of tourism to the area of the research site.
  According to Harris, the project will define the opportunities for social development that are available from the use of ICTs within remote rural communities in Sarawak. Through action- oriented measures, he hopes the project will demonstrate how significant and sustainable social development can be achieved through the implementation of such ICTs.
    The project, said Harris, ''will dispel the myth that computers, telephones and the Internet are artifacts of urban life. Instead, it will demonstrate that they represent the most potent means of rural empowerment and renewal that is available and that a programme of rural digitisation should become a priority for State planning.''
  This article is free of copyright restrictions and can be reproduced provided that Inter Press Service is credited.
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