The digital divide is too wide for the poor

APRIL 29 — As the movement control order (MCO) drags on and our kids are still kept (safe) out of school, I wonder how badly the children in lower-income groups are doing considering how challenging it has been for middle-class families.

Trying to juggle work and the educational needs of their children in times like these is a struggle for many Malaysian parents right now.

Going from dropping your kids off at school to now being teacher, facilitator and carer at all hours of the day is daunting — you can clock off work but you don't get a break from your kids.

My own struggles seem petty; juggling work with Coursera courses while trying to learn to use the Procreate app. That's on days when my chronic fatigue is manageable and on days it's not, I can lie in bed and just not move.

How much harder must it be for those staying in PPR or itinerant housing? It is rather terrible to begrudge the poor any form of entertainment as I see some people huffing about the poor wanting things such as TVs and radios.

At the same time it is also terrible that the internet isn't more available to poorer children so they could access learning resources and keep up with their peers.

My broadband and mobile subscription fees combined could probably feed a poor family for two weeks. It's criminal that the internet isn't more accessible to everyone, no matter their income level.

On paper, with an internet connection and the right apps, students could still learn at home. But our curriculum isn't standardised as yet for dissemination online and certainly not optimised for self-directed learning.

There is a wealth of resources online as well as the possibility of easily delivering assignments and texts via digital means but all that takes money, expertise and time.

It seemed frivolous, not long ago. Why bother giving students electronic devices, bothering with apps, digitising textbooks and assignments?

Paper was cheaper, face-to-face time in the classroom more straightforward and already enough work with lesson plans, marking and paperwork.

Then the pandemic happened and the schools, the richer, better-equipped ones were able to keep students engaged and learning while the institutions with no online preparedness left their students bereft.

There will never be a return to normal. We are never going back to things being exactly the same as they were and there is no guarantee that some other new pandemic isn't on the horizon.

We have discovered we are not as resilient as we thought, that our collective health is a precious, fragile thing.

Imagine how much worse things would be if the internet did not exist. So many people would be out of work or be forced to return to work or starve.

We need to find a way to foster new connections online, to live in this new normal where infrequent physical interaction is necessary.

I want to believe in a world where the internet would level the playing field but what I see is how much it highlights the divisions between the rich and the poor.

In the meantime I can only hope the Education Ministry has a plan beyond our current circumstances because surely our children deserve better.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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