Covid-19 has shown us just how wide the digital divide goes

JANUARY 27 — During the last year, I saw desperate pleas for food all over my social media. This year, I’m seeing parents at home struggling to help their children with homework and often sharing just one old smartphone between them.

Teachers are buying printers to create worksheets for students and buying laptops, paying out of pocket with little hope of being reimbursed. 

No smartphone or smart device at home? No schooling for kids then.

It shouldn’t be this way.

We had a whole year to know what worked or not and time to figure out a plan to keep our kids’ bodies safe without sacrificing their schooling.

Instead we have a minister crowdsourcing ideas, asking the students to figure out how to resume studying in a safe manner.

Last I checked, isn’t that a ministry, and a minister’s job? We have a country with education experts a-plenty, tech giants with local offices and regional offices in Singapore but instead we ask our kids what to do?

It’s maddening. I cannot imagine how heartsick many parents are feeling not to mention the fear and uncertainty among our children.

Some of our kids are too afraid of taking the exams in the middle of a pandemic, while some feel as though they haven’t been given enough time to prepare after the tumult of 2020.

The US Congress recently announced an Emergency Broadband Benefit program that would offer a US$50 (RM202) benefit to help pay for broadband for those from lower-income groups or those impacted by the pandemic.

Why can we not have something similar? Many poor families are relying on measly free 1GB of data on phones that are not ideal for learning.

We had this huge education blueprint based around all these neat values we were trying to indoctrinate our kids with, but can’t get a national digital framework in place?

E-learning is not new in Malaysia. The problem with it is that it has become something of a white elephant with various projects and initiatives that somehow end up enriching some local company without actually adding value.

We even had over-enterprising Malaysians selling free digital textbooks on Shopee, when they did not even have the rights to them.

I plead with Malaysians like these to just once not see everything as a potential money-making scheme. 

Broadband and smart devices should be treated as what they are — essentials. No more of that nonsense about why poor people have smartphones when they’re no longer optional in the 21st century.

Why are we relying on former ministers to crowdfund for devices, and set up learning initiatives or hope a popular philanthropist can spare the cash to give out devices?

Where is our government? Where are the ministers in charge? 

Right now we need leadership but alas, in this year, as in the last, we find it as absent as a defined vaccine timeline. 

Our kids deserve better than to be left behind and made to come up with their own solutions when it’s the adults’ job, not theirs.

Let’s hope that we don’t end up with a legacy of the Left Behind, Covid generation.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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