Yesterday, when opening the Multimedia University (MMU) at Cyberjaya, the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad said Malaysia needs to radically change its educational outlook so as to harness the full power of technology and intellectual capital to bring about sustained growth.
He claimed that the country has already begun the educational change at the grassroot level by starting the Smart School MSC flagship application and it now needs to extend this upwards into tertiary education with the Multimedia University as the vanguard of this venture.
The question is whether Malaysia has really started such an educational change at the grassroot level.
Until the official launching of the Malaysian Smart School Concept Blueprint for 90 pilot schools early this year, Malaysians were told that the country's smart schools will have a significant number of computers to make a difference to learning.
However, when the school year started in January, the Education Ministry announced that the government was not ready to fully implement the Smart School concept as the 90 pilot schools were waiting for infrastructure and software to be properly put in place.
In the meantime, the Ministry had spent RM53 million for its Education Technology Division to develop temporary or "interim" multimedia courseware which was to be used until the contract with the consortium was sealed.
It was then that Education Ministry officials and school principals began to talk about the "smart school plan" being implemented with or without computers, on the ground that its emphasis was on developing analytical and creative skills and that the focus was on creating a "smart" teaching and learning culture with or without the computers.
If the smart school concept can still go on even if schools are not equipped with computers, then why should it be one of the MSC flagship operations and why should the smart school concept be confined to 90 schools rather than extended to all the 9,000 schools in the country.
As the full implementation of the Smart School flagship application is targetted for 2,010, can Malaysia claim to be ahead of other IT hubs in the region in preparing to power the country for the quantum leap towards a knowledge-based economy.
It would be salutary to compare the progress made by other countries to prepare for a knowledge-based economy. Singapore has an IT education masterplan to create an IT based teaching and learning environment in every school, from the first year onwards.
All primary and secondary schools are already equipped with computers connected to the Internet. For secondary schools and junior colleges, the present ratio of students to computer is 5 to 1. For primary schools, it is 7 to 1. Most kindergartens in Singapore already teach computers to young children through play and simple instruction.
The target in the Singapore IT education master plan is to increase hands-on use of computers by students to 30% of the curriculum time by the year 2002. To do this, there will be one computer for every two pupils in Singapore. Currently, one in two teachers in Singapore is provided with a notebook computer. Every teacher has his own email account. Every teacher gets a grant of 20% to buy his own computer. He will be expected to use his computer to prepare lessons, to mark homework and to communicate with his pupils.
How does Malaysia’s IT education masterplan compare with that of Singapore? We are now implementing the Smart School Masterplan in 90 pilot schools, with or without computers. We have still some 2,000 schools without electricity supply, not to mention connection to the Internet.
Under these circumstances, it is better for Malaysians to be more realistic and sure-footed and not be carried away by all the hypes as to believe that Malaysia is now in the forefront of information technology and well on the way to become an Information and Knowledge Society.