Efforts to digitalise Malaysian schools back to square one

1BestariNet

Tomorrow marks the end of the 1BestariNet and Frog virtual learning environment (VLE) in 10,211 Malaysian schools and the beginning of another nightmare for teachers and students.

For the past 15 years, the country has been trying to digitalise its schools but can’t seem to get it right. Some teachers admit they are not tech-savvy while many already bogged down with clerical work, view the digital effort as an additional burden.

Telekom Malaysia’s wholly owned subsidiary GITN Sdn Bhd, entered into an agreement with the government to implement SchoolNet for 10,000 schools in the country on Feb 25, 2004. The contract was valued at RM374.2 million.

SchoolNet ended in 2010 and was replaced by 1BestariNet and Frog VLE after YTL Communications Bhd won an open tender involving 18 other companies. It was awarded the contract in 2011 for being “the most technically compliant of the lot” and for its “cost-effective bid”.

The 15-year programme, valued at RM4.1 billion and divided into several phases, was launched by then Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

1BestariNet is powered by Yes 4G while Frog VLE is a learning platform where teachers create and post content that students can access.

But the project came under the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

On March 17, 2015, PAC’s then chairman Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed suggested the project be scrapped, adding it did not yield the expected results although RM633 million was spent on the first phase. He, however, said it was up to the Education Ministry to decide on the fate of the project.

It remains unclear if anyone from the present government had reached out to YTL Communications to review its services but the company must have known their days were numbered after Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching told reporters at the Parliament lobby in July last year the ministry would call for a fresh tender early this year to provide schools with Internet connectivity.

While assuring YTL Communications would not be excluded, Teo was quoted as saying: “The direction for the new government is that all contracts to be awarded will be on an open tender basis.”

She also revealed YTL Communications was paid RM741.2 million for services provided between July 31, 2016 and April 30, 2018.

On June 27, Education Minister Maszlee Malik tweeted his ministry’s statement stating three Internet service providers – Telekom Malaysia, Celcom Axiata and Maxis Broadband – will provide Internet connection for the 10,211 schools for the next six months and that the “ministry will select a new Internet service provider starting January 1, 2020, after carrying out an evaluation.”

Frog VLE would be replaced by Google Classroom.

The statement was silent about any tender process and did not highlight what was wrong with 1BestariNet.

A day later, “Friends of Maszlee Malik” provided a graphic that showed seven reasons why 1BestariNet should be terminated.

Friends of Mazlee Malik poster
The poster on website sekolahkita.my

It remains unclear if YTL Communications will be involved in the migration of the system during the interim period or if they would pull the plug at 12.01am tomorrow, leaving schools without Internet connection.

Maszlee’s move to “announce first, justify later” reminds many of the black shoe fiasco last year where he raised eyebrows after announcing school children would start wearing black shoes in 2019 – without consulting stakeholders including shoe manufacturers and suppliers.

He claimed the switch from white shoes was made following a request by parents but until today has yet to affirm if a nationwide study was carried out to justify the regulation.

The ministry later announced the black shoe ruling would only come into effect in 2021, after considering views by parents, teachers, shoe manufactures and suppliers.

It is also unclear if Maszlee had reached out to fellow Bersatu party member Muhyiddin, who is now the Home Minister, about 1BestariNet.

Some teachers spoke highly about 1BestariNet but there were those who admitted they have only used it “once or twice” in seven years. Others rubbished the speed of Yes 4G.

Were studies ever done to find out the real reasons why SchoolNet and 1BestariNet failed? The findings of such studies ought to be made public to ensure the mistakes are not repeated.

Those who approved the digital contracts must be equally accountable. This will keep all parties, vendors and decision makers, on their toes.

A teacher, tasked to supervise the system in a school in the Klang Valley, said teachers and students were the victims.

“A new minister comes in and implements new policies. The players are in for the money, the politicians are eager to say nice things to score brownie points, but teachers and students are often left confused,” the teacher said.

“My school had no problems with 1BestariNet but I have heard complaints about slow Internet connection at other schools. I’ve benefited from using Frog VLE and so have my students.

“We now have to migrate to Google Classroom but I’ve been told we Will still be able to access Frog VLE. I hope I will have enough time to transfer my content to the new system.”

Another teacher said it boiled down to equipment and acceptance.

“What’s the use of having Internet service when notebooks and Chromebooks supplied to schools have not been serviced or maintained since the start of the programme?” he asked.

“Some teachers are not tech-savvy and view the exercise as a burden. As such, the acceptance level is rather low.”

A school teacher from Kuala Kubu Baru said the government’s initiatives were good but teachers were often left to their own devices.

“Schools can have 5G network and the best tools but if teachers and students aren’t embracing them, then it will not work,” the teacher added.