22 February 2021

BATTLE OF THE COVID-19 CONTACT TRACING APPS

Malaysians love politischeissing everything, even something as basic as two popular brands of bread as being "Pakatan Harapan" bread and "Barisan Nasional" bread, based upon who owns the bread company.

Since early last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic became serious in Malaysia, apart from running from pillar to post looking to buy facemasks and gloves, Malaysians also began to politischeisse the two COVID-19 contact tracing apps - i.e. MySejahtera deployed by the Federal Government which had just fallen to the Perikatan Nasional and the SELankah deployed by the Selangor state government controlled by the Pakatan Harapan, which had lost control of the federal government due to infighting which led to the pact's fracture and its government's collapse.



As any data scientist worth his or her salt will tell you, computing and information systems work best when there is a single centralised database for applications such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics and so forth to work on, rather than having multiple databases and systems which tend to become separate silos of data and information.

To overcome this problem, the federal government mandated that all establishments in Malaysia use the MySejahtera app for contact tracing, which would centralise all the data, so their processing tools can produce the clearest picture of the COVID-19 situation.

More recently, there were some problems with SELankah and it was taken down for a while and it was recently relaunched with features which make it more like MySejahtera.

However, according to Malaysia Now of 22 February 2021, there have been complaints about the revamped SELankah app:-

Frustrated users, no answers: Selangor's SELangkah contrasts with MySejahtera amid low ratings, downloads

The app has had fewer than 6,000 downloads on Google Play, and unlike MySejahtera, users' concerns do not receive a direct response.

MalaysiaNow Feb 22, 2021 12:18 PM 

Selangor's SELangkah app, which the state government relaunched on the back of controversy over its ability to carry out the same functions as Putrajaya's MySejahtera, appears to be dogged with problems as users of its Android version highlight bugs and weaknesses without any reply from its developers.

Checks by MalaysiaNow on Google Play, the official app store for devices running on the Android operating system, showed that SELangkah is listed under the "Lifestyle" category, with fewer than 6,000 downloads since it was relaunched by Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari with a special appearance by a television personality two weeks ago.

At press time, there were about 60 reviews from users, most of whom complained about incomplete features, cumbersome form-filling and an absence of critical contact tracing needs such as registering on behalf of dependents.

The complaints had received no response from SELangkah, other than one self-review by the app's developer Dr Helmi Zakariah who hailed his software as an effort to "bring an integrated, holistic pandemic response in Malaysia", adding that "we thought this will help tremendously".

Checks also found that some users who gave the app a good rating had also noted problems they faced when using SELangkah.

"The longer you delay the feature to add dependents into this app, not many people will be using this to scan the qr code. Update 22/2/21: No response from app developer. Like not bothered," said one user, referring to the absence of interaction from the app's developer.

Another user, who gave a four-star rating, complained that users are forced to fill up forms each time they use SELangkah's newly added feature to scan MySejahtera as well.

"You should not release a section if the section is not ready. The home tab has so many ads and buttons which are not ready. Plus I think as of now, we do not need the first bottom tab as it just says coming soon when we click on it. I think this is messy," said a user.

"Not as much useful functions as MySejahtera despite the re-launch," said Lyn Chan, who added that unlike Putrajaya's app, SELangkah would not allow users to register a disabled family.

"This is very important as the person under my care is of a high risk classification. Please look into improving the app for its core intended purpose. Prove it in the application!" she wrote.

In contrast, checks found that MySejahtera has been constantly interacting with users on Google Play, attending to their complaints.

Replies to feedback are given by "Government of Malaysia", with frequent apologies for any inconvenience caused to users and a promise of a solution to come.

Unlike SELangkah, MySejahtera is grouped under the "Health and Fitness" category, and in the number one spot for free apps in the same genre.

With more than 420,000 reviews, MySejahtera has a rating of 4.6 stars compared to SELangkah's 3.8 stars despite only a little more than 60 reviews.

MalaysiaNow had earlier reported that the app lacked basic functionalities needed for any Covid-19 contact tracing, and was found to be inferior compared to MySejahtera.

This was followed by a discovery that SELangkah permits the use of personal data for uses other than contact tracing, despite assurances of data safety from the state's Covid-19 task force chief Dzulkefly Ahmad.

Dzulkefly had angrily scoffed at suggestions that the SELangkah app is inferior, and even claimed that Putrajaya had lagged behind the state in automatic contact tracing.

SELangkah came under scrutiny following a spike in Covid-19 cases in the state, proportionately much higher than neighbouring Kuala Lumpur which dwarfs Selangor in terms of population density.

Repeated attempts in the past by MalaysiaNow to obtain a response about problems encountered in the app from its developer Helmi had fallen on deaf ears.

When MalaysiaNow turned to Dzulkefly for answers, he said he had instructed that all queries on SELangkah should be directed to Helmi.


The bottom line, folks, is that politischeiss cannot beat objective reality.

So keep your politischeissing to preaching to the converted in echo-chambers such as WhatsApp groups, comments sections, hours of useless, idle chatter over teh tarik or beers.

Call me anti-social but thanks to COVID-19, I've not had to suffer being dragged to join people in these idle chatter sessions in 24-hour eateries until the early hours of the morning.

Yours truly

IT Scheiss

21 February 2021

WHY NOT ALLOW SCHOOLS TO OPEN ONLY IN AREAS WITH LOW DAILY NEW COVID-19 CASES ?

According to this Free Malaysia Today article, several parents' groups wonder what is the rationale is behind the government's announcement that all schools across the country will open from 1 March 2021, starting with students in years 1 and 2, followed shortly after those in higher years.

The government had ordered all schools to close from 9 November 2020, due to a rising number of daily new COVID-19 cases which had risen to 972 nationwide that day, and the parents' groups wonder why the government is opening schools when the number of daily new cases was at 2,936 nationwide on 19 February 2021.

Well, the answer is pretty obvious from my earlier IT.Scheiss blog posts on the issue of e-education and online learning and in several media articles about problems with availability of broadband Internet access at home, of availability and affordability of smartphones, tablets, notebook or desktop PCs for children to use for online learning faced especially by parents in the smaller towns and villages, as well as urban, lower-income parents.

Also, from my own direct experience this year itself, even more affluent parents for whom money is no object when it comes to buying whatever devices and accessories their children need for online learning, however some of these parents still lack the tech-savviness to know how to operate and operate online learning platforms and services such as Google Meet, Google Classroom and their children's unique Ministry of Education-assigned e-mail account to receive the notices, assignments and so forth submitted by the teachers.  Some of these parents don't even know how to download a PDF copy of lesson submitted by teachers, how to access a PowerPoint slide and so forth, whilst some have problems guiding their children to operate the objective question and answer form online and I have noticed that relatively few children in the class my neighbour's son is in had submitted their answers to questions online.

This may not be much of a problem for children in more senior years or in secondary school who should have acquired sufficient skills to intuitively navigate and operate online learning applications, but this has proven to be a problem for children in more junior years, as I have highlighted in an excerpt in the article below.     

From a health perspective, Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, said it made sense for younger students to return earlier as they have the "lowest risk" of catching Covid-19 and are also "seriously challenged" when it comes to remote learning – which they find harder to adapt to.

"We don't have local studies to show what has been the impact of the movement control measures imposed as an effort to control the spread of Covid-19, but what we have heard is that some students have lost basic skills such as reading and writing," he said.

"Children learn and retain better when they're in school and when they're face-to-face. I can only imagine that for exam-age students, in particular, this must have been a difficult and distressing year of disruption and lost learning."

So the answer to the question these parents' groups have raised is pretty obvious - i.e. ONLINE LEARNING HAS PROVEN TO BE INFERIOR TO CLASSROOM LEARNING - FULL STOP.

I wrote several cover features about online learning, distance learning and computers in education during my early years with In.Tech, the now defunct weekly ICT pullout of The Star, way back in the late 1990s.

Back then, the concept of online learning was very new, especially in Malaysia, and all I could rely on as material for my articles was what I was told by vendors of online and distance learning systems and the opinions of academics who were advocates of online learning.

However, now that I can look back with a perspective of over 20 years, when I read my cover features about online learning which I wrote back then, I realise what rubbish I wrote. 

Moreover, academics worldwide now admit that after 30 years of its promotion, the benefits of computer-based and online learning have shown mixed results as to claims of their superiority over traditional physical attendance in classroom learning.

Well, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the limitations of computer-based and online learning over physical classroom learning have been further exposed.

So reality trumps the hype, hoohah, BS and ballyhoo of the computers in education and online learning system vendors and its starry-eyed proponents in academia.

However, a dilemma still haunts parents with schoolgoing children - i.e. keep them safe from COVID-19 at the expense of the quality of their education or attend classroom learning and risk being infected with COVID-19, with the added risk that infected children, who may be mildly affected or asymptomatic, however infecting more vulnerable adults at home. A tough decision for parents to make.

Perhaps the government could have allowed schools in areas with low daily new COVID-19 numbers to open, whilst those in areas still with high new daily COVID-19 numbers remain closed and students continue to learn online, until when the daily new COVID-19 cases have dropped sufficiently for schools to be reopened.


    
The Free Malaysia Today article referred to follows in full below:-

What's the rationale for reopening schools, ask parents' groups
Jason Thomas - February 21, 2021 11:15 AM

PETALING JAYA: The government's announcement that schools across the country will reopen from March 1 has not exactly been welcomed with open arms by two parents' groups.

When all schools were ordered to close on Nov 9, the daily number of fresh Covid-19 cases was 972. By comparison, there were 2,936 new cases yesterday – a fact which a parent from Penang said topped most parents' minds.

"The number of cases is very high and worrying. It makes no logical sense to send kids to school," said Rowen Tan, whose son is in Standard 1.

Melaka Action Group for Parents in Education chairman Mak Chee Kin said he was unsure about the rationale behind the move.

"Parents need more than just the announcements of opening," he said. "Please tell us why schools are reopening and why Standard 1 and 2 will be the first?," he asked.

Mak added it would be better if classes were held on a rotational basis so as to prevent overcrowding in schools, a view shared by Tunku Munawirah Putra, secretary of the Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE).

While the group agreed with the re-opening of schools, Munawirah said there are several issues that need to be addressed to ensure classes can be conducted safely to prevent outbreaks within schools.

Apart from the appropriate preventive and protective health measures, she hoped to see classes scheduled to ensure schools are not overcrowded.

Among the other issues to be considered include ensuring adequate teaching staff for Form 4 and 5, considering that the same teachers will be teaching three cohorts since there are currently two SPM cohorts (2020 and 2021).

She also stressed that the mental well-being of students and those falling behind in their learning must be taken care of, with adequate support and guidance from teachers and schools to cope with the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

At a press conference earlier, education minister Radzi Jidin said Year 1 and Year 2 pupils will be back to school on March 1 while those in Years 3 to 6 can return on March 8.

Secondary schools will be opened in two groups on April 4 and 5 according to the school calendar in respective states.

Thousands of Form 5 students returned to school on Jan 20 ahead of the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination which starts tomorrow.

From a health perspective, Azrul Mohd Khalib, chief executive of the Galen Centre for Health and Social Policy, said it made sense for younger students to return earlier as they have the "lowest risk" of catching Covid-19 and are also "seriously challenged" when it comes to remote learning – which they find harder to adapt to.

"We don't have local studies to show what has been the impact of the movement control measures imposed as an effort to control the spread of Covid-19, but what we have heard is that some students have lost basic skills such as reading and writing," he said.

"Children learn and retain better when they're in school and when they're face-to-face. I can only imagine that for exam-age students, in particular, this must have been a difficult and distressing year of disruption and lost learning."

While reinforcement of health control measures and reasonable physical distancing are necessary, he also pointed out there is a need to also look at proper ventilation in schools.

Stating it is crucial that students are able to return to school in a way that is safe and sustainable, he said it also has to be done in a way that "inspires the confidence" of educators, school staff and the public.

"Therefore, the education ministry must be able to communicate continuously on this issue, giving as much information as possible to address concerns and anxiety among students, parents and guardians."


Yours truly

IT.SCHEISS


16 February 2021

GLORY TO KPIs AND PROMOTIONS ! STUDENTS BE DAMNED.

This is what happens when we adopt American-style management practices such as KPI (key performance indicator).

Lecturers at graduate factories pay more attention to publishing in journals to make their KPIs than teaching students well.

I know a young person who graduated with an first class honours degree in Chemical engineering from a university in the UK and continued to obtain a masters degree in chemical engineering from the same university before he returned to Malaysia.

However, from his Linked-IN profile, he does not mention any work expereince in chemical engineering but instead, he joined an international management consultancy firm, or might I say an international management CON-sultancy firm.

Why does a highly qualified chemical engineering graduate not practice chemical engineering?

And, the government tells us that Malaysia needs more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) graduates.

Are there enough work opportunities in STEM graduates in Malaysia?

Do STEM jobs pay well enough in Malaysia?

Are STEM professionals valued enough by Malaysian industry?

Well, it seems that arty-farty management types are valued more highly than hands-on STEM practitioners and professionals. I suppose that is what they mean when they say "upskill to be more relevant to employers".

MBA = Masters of Nothing Better, though you need one to advance in your career these days.

And, this is how Malaysia will become a "knowledge-based", "information-rich", "high-income", "developed" nation by the Year 2020 - oops! Pardon me. That was by last year. Vision 2020 has since been postponed to Shared Prosperity Vision 2030.

At the rate we are going, I don't think we will make it even by 2100, yet all this kok-talk will continue long after all of us here are dead and gone.

A very revealing article follows. However, will the relevant authorities and parties act on the suggestions by practicing academics thmselves?
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'Publish or perish' mentality driving academicians to questionable journals

Some Malaysian professors and lecturers are publishing their research in questionable scholarly journals that allow them to pay to be published and over time this will weaken the overall reputation of our universities, academicians say.

Malaysia was ranked as among the fifth-highest contributors in the world of countries surveyed by two Czech Republic economists Vit Machacek and Martin Srholec, who mapped the infiltration of so-called "predatory" scholarly journals into the citation database Scopus over a period of three years from 2015 to 2017.

The data was obtained from research involving 172 countries in four fields, namely health sciences, life sciences, physical sciences and social sciences and indicated that some academicians who are seeking 'shortcuts' to be promoted to associate professor and professor.

"This is not new and we have to look at the root cause," Dr Mohamad Hussain Habil (above) of Mahsa Universiti told Malaysiakini.

"The pressure on professors and lecturers to publish in order to get promotions is quite large. When I was in Universiti Malaya, the mantra was 'to publish or perish'.

"The problem is that to be republished in a reputable journal – and these journals require high standards – your work must be groundbreaking.

"So, there is stiff competition and when people are under pressure, they look for loopholes," Mohamad Hussain said.

He said that the proliferation of unscholarly academic journals rose to meet the demand.

"It's simple capitalism – they are businesspeople and they spot the demand for this. They can charge up to US$1,000 to publish the article, it's not cheap also. Another factor is that in reputable journals you also have to wait. When you wait too long, you might not be getting your promotion, or someone else publishes the paper.

"Apparently not only junior lecturers but senior professor are doing this," he added.

"When they find out that there are predatory journals, for them it's an opportunity. But after some time, articles from cooked-up data get exposed in the industry. The objective of the research is to improve our scientific understanding, but an article that is full of mistakes – statistics skewed for a false conclusion – it serves no purpose.

These days, with social media, you can't hide if someone exposes it, Mohamad Hussain said.

"It's not difficult to expose, go to Google Scholar and it can be found," he said.

"When I first started, we never had these predatory journals. They only came out when universities became so worried about rankings, not more than 15 years ago."

In the Czech survey, a total of 324 predatory journals were found to have infiltrated Scopus, a Netherlands-based global citation database made up of more than 30,000 journals covering life sciences, social sciences, physical sciences and health sciences.

Kazakhstan is the most culpable, with 17 percent of such articles, followed by Indonesia, Iraq, Albania and Malaysia.

Former deputy education minister P Kamalanathan served from 2013 to 2018, which is the period covered by the study.

Kamalanathan said that while the government consistently focused on academicians achieving higher recognition and and came up with hundreds or millions of ringgit of quality spending towards this aspiration, the Ministry of Higher Education would have to investigate the claims of predatory research papers.

"They should verify its authenticity and if culpability exists, then I'm sure they will take stern action to protect the integrity and the reputation of Malaysian academicians," he told Malaysiakini in a text message.

Reflection of a corrupt system

Prof Zaharom Nain, chairperson of the Malaysian Academic Movement (Gerak) didn't pull his punches when discussing the matter.

"It's a sad consequence and reflection of a corrupt system, both nationally and globally. Much of higher education and much of research in higher education – in Malaysia and elsewhere – have become exercises in gaming a system that emphasises rankings and ratings (national, regional and global).

"The higher your university goes up the rankings or is rated – the more attractive and prestigious will be your university. There'll be higher student intake and quality faculty and, hence, more income to succeed in a wider neo-liberal system," Zaharom said.

He said that are many good, honest and hardworking academicians in contemporary Malaysian universities, some of them even world-class.

"But there are also those who are pressured to meet uncompromising KPIs often set by pen-pushing university administrators hell-bent on playing a system that seeks to quantify scholarly output, often at the expense of quality."

Zaharom said there are also those really not qualified to teach or research in universities.

"They get into the public universities through a system of, say, 'kulitocracy', given our quota system. And, let's not forget, the same system brings in the administrators, whose idea of administrating is to openly and uncritically receive ideas from the top.

"Combine these – a leadership that is more politicised than wise, an administrative class that believes that it must menurut perintah (follow orders) and largely-clueless academicians bereft of a public service ethos, and only wishing to get to the top of the university ladder – and you get the sad state we are in now," he said.

Malachi Edwin Vethamani, a former professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia, urged academicians to be careful where they publish their work.

"It has been a steep learning curve for many academicians. There is certainly a lot of pressure on meeting publishing KPIs.

"Over the last few years, there have been a lot of information on predatory academic journals and academicians should do the due diligence on a publisher before they submit their work. You cannot plead ignorance," Malachi said.

UMT vice-chancellor denies emphasis on publishing

In contrast, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) vice-chancellor Prof Nor Aieni Mokhtar responded to the recent study, saying that journal publication is not the main criteria for a lecturer to be promoted to associate professor or professor.

In a statement yesterday, Nor Aieni said other criteria for promotion as a professor at UMT include teaching trust, supervision, research, publication of indexed journal books and articles, knowledge transfer as well as academic and management leadership.

She said every promotion application submitted by UMT academicians must go through various strict vetting processes to meet the academic excellence requirements set by the Senate, as the highest academic body at the university, and approved by the University Board of Directors as the university's highest authority body.

"Candidates must submit an application through the dean, the director of their respective institute or centre and if it is supported by the head of the department, a committee consisting of professors at the faculty, centre or institute will screen and evaluate the application.

"If a candidate fails to pass this internal screening, the application will not be extended to the censorship committee at the university level. However, when the application is brought to the censorship committee, it will be screened and evaluated by a committee composed of professors," Nor Aieni said.

Her views appeared to be firmly in the minority, with another former UM lecturer telling Malaysiakini that the predatory journal phenomenon was not surprising considering the university's obsession with rankings.

This academician cited other dubious practices, like forcing PhD students to put the names of their supervisor on their journal articles as co-writers.

"This may be normal in pure sciences, but in social sciences, it can be highly unethical," said the lecturer, who did not want to be named.

Zaharom concurred: "Academic dishonesty – in the form of plagiarism, supervisors (and now even universities) pressuring post-graduate students to put them as the main authors of the students' publications, and, yes, universities coming up with their journals of questionable quality – is the end result.

He called for serious and sincere academic reform.

"But such reform won't come about when the system – nationally and internationally - is headed by clueless and self-serving individuals and institutions, like our current Ministry of Higher Education," Zaharom added.

Mohamad Hussain said that if the problem was left unchecked, it would undoubtedly bring down the reputation of the country's higher learning institutions.

"Universiti Malaya was recently ranked number 59 in the world according to the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, and we have other good universities, so there is a lot of good work that could be undone.

"If there is any reason to suspect the publications of academicians, the authorities must order an investigation and not sweep it under the carpet," Mohamad Hussain said. - Mkini


Yours Truly

IT.Scheiss

23 January 2021

A VIABLE COUNTER PROPOSAL TO E-LEARNING ?


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced students in Malaysia and worldwide to close their schools and for students to attend their classes online through Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and other free of charge of paid videoconferencing services.

However, ample evidence from the field in Malaysia and abroad shows that such forms of computer-mediated, Internet based online learning have their limitations, especially for school students, due to inability of many parents to afford to buy the devices for several of their children to attend class virtually on; lack of fixed or wireless broadband of their homes or lack of sufficiently reliable coverage; their inability to afford the cost of broadband access, even if it is available in their area; not knowing how to operate the relevant applications on these devices even if they can afford them and so forth.

According to The Vibes of 22 January 2021, based upon the real-world experience of students and parents in her state, Sabah DAP Wanita chief Jannie Lasimbang proposed that the government use older, proven educational channels such as educational TV and radio, whether via satellite, fibre or free-to-air, which are relatively easy for most people to use compared to having to set up and operate applications for e-learning on a computer, tablet device or smartphone with its links to click on, logins, passwords and so forth.

She cited problems parents face, such as lack of affordability to purchase enough devices for their school-going children in her state; that according to the Sabah Education Department,  some 52% of students in the state do not have smart devices and internet access; that parents with several children had complained to her that they had difficulty finding the money to buy sufficient access devices for their children to learn on; that many parents were unable to help their children access learning platforms as they lack the knowledge to do so; and that the instructions given to them were insufficient.

After all, before mass Internet access became widely enough available in Britain in the mid-1990s, Britain's Open University broadcast its courses to regular TV sets throughout the country and despite the lack of on-air interactivity between students and lecturers, it worked well enough, so why should Malaysia insist on Internet-based e-learning when students, teachers and parents face so many practical problems?

On the other hand though, parents with several school-going children will most likely have to get a TV set for each one, especially if the courses for their different standards and forms are conducted concurrently, as would be the case with physical classroom attendance.

Then again, there is a difference between a university-aged student pursuing an Open University degree through the TV who we can expect will have the self-discipline to remain focused on the lecture, and the other hand, especially primary school students who would prefer to view something more entertaining on the TV, besides whatever other distractions there are in the home. So there are pros and cons either way.

Malaysia's national and national-type schools began classes on 20 January 2021, for all students starting from Standard 1 to Form 6, with Form 5 and Form 6 students who will be sitting for public examinations allowed to attend class physically during the COVID-19 crisis afflicting Malaysia and the whole world right now, whilst the rest of the students have to attend online via e-learning using video communication services such as Google Meet.

All well and good it may seem, but past experience in 2020 has revealed major barriers to online leaning being lack of devices such as PCs, tablet devices and smartphones for students to learning on, lack of widespread enough coverage of fixed and wireless broadband Internet infrastructure to enable those with e-learning devices to access lessons online - these being the two main problems students face in attending lessons from their school teachers online, according to Malaysia Now of 20 January 2021.

Besides that, Malaysia Now cited a study by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's (UKM) Faculty of Education which found that student attendance was below 80% and many were unable to focus on their lessons due to an inconducive atmosphere at home. The study also found that about half of teachers are not comfortable conducting online classes, with only 50-60% of teachers with the IT skills needed to do so.

Malaysia Now went on to say:-

Azlin Norhaini Mansor, who heads UKM's Centre of Education Leadership and Policy and who also led the study told Bernama (Malaysia's National News Agency) that the online teaching method was less effective as it did not correspond with the competency and learning levels of the students.

She said even with sufficient devices and good internet access, teachers, students and parents face constraints and difficulties in implementing online learning.

"The students find it difficult to understand what is taught to them online due to the one-way communication… they can't ask questions or seek clarification. "In such instances, their parents have to tutor them and help them to complete their exercises," she told Bernama.


On 22 January 2021, the Malay Mail reported that whilst students on Pulau Aman, a small island of 250 people off Batu Kawan on mainland Penang had the equipment to access online lessons but wireless broadband connectivity was a problem:-

On tiny island off Penang, students struggle with virtual lessons as internet line often on the blink

Distance learning, smart schools, e-learning and so forth was one of the "Flagship Applications" of Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor (now known as MSC Malaysia) initiative to develop Malaysia's information and communications technology (ICT) and multimedia content industry, inaugurated by then Malaysian Prime Minister, then Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in 12 February 1996 and the Multimedia Super Corridor itself is special economic zone and high-technology business district between Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

On 17th May 1997, which coincides with World Telecommunications Day, amidst much pomp and fanfare, Dr. Mahathir officiated at the groundbreaking ceremony of Cyberjaya, Malaysia's first intelligent cybercity and the headquarters of the 6,960 acre Multimedia Super Corridor. I was at this cleared portion of an old palm oil plantation to cover the groundbreaking for In.Tech, then the weekly ICT pullout of The Star.

However, looking back over the years, how did all this distance learning, online leaning, e-learning, smart schools and so forth work out? I don't see much evidence of the computers on every desk in Malaysian schools, knowledgeable, tech-savvy, well informed students. Whenever I visit my old school, the most I see in some classrooms is an overhead projector and I understand that there are not enough working PCs in the ICT lab for the students do do their computing practical.

When I stepped into my old school's science lab for the first time after 50 years. apart from an overhead projector, everything else, including the lab benches and lab equipment was exactly the same as when I was last in the lab in 1969. 

In late 2012, I covered a media event by YTL Communications and YTL company Frog Asia to announce their winning of Phase 1 of the Ministry of Education's 1Bestarinet contract to provide the then 10,000 schools across Malaysia with wireless broadband access using their then WiMAX (Worldwide Interoprability for Microwave Access) technology and provision of their Frog Virtual Learning Environment (Frog VLE) for students to study, do their homework, interact with their peers online, form collaborative teams with fellow students to work on joint projects and assignments online, for students to interact with their teachers online, for parents interact with their teachers online and to check up on their children's progress and performance and so forth, all online.

Wow great! it may seem but how many parents across Malaysia can afford to provide each school-going child with a desktop or notebook PC, a tablet device or a smartphone to access Frog VLE and use it to the full. Also, even if parents can afford to provide each of their school-going children with such devices which they can use within the WiMAX coverage of their school, however how many parents would be able to afford the fixed or wireless broadband connectivity for their children to access the Frog VLE at home. Moreover, would there be fixed or wireless broadband coverage of their homes, especially homes in the smaller towns and villages?

An answer came in October 2015 when Malaysia was blanketed with a thick smoky haze blown over from Indonesia and the air quality was so bad that schools were closed and students expected to learn from home using Frog VLE but it did not work out well as you can see below:-

Teachers' union says 1BestariNet useless for online learning from home

The issue here was not that YTL Communications was only able to connect 89% of schools with its WiMAX broadband due to a variety of reasons including inability to obtain approval from the relevant local authorities to install their radio base stations amongst other limitations. However, this was not much of an issue, since YTL Communications could lease either fixed or wireless broadband connectivity from other communication service providers to serve these schools.

However, the main issue, was that Frog VLE use by teachers, students and parents was very low  at between 0.01% and 4.69%", according to findings revealed by the third series of the 2013 Auditor-General's report, which said that it had been monitoring the contractors' performances and status of the project's implementation in all states and had found that the project was implemented before teachers and students were fully trained to utilise the VLE, according to The Star of 11 November 2014.

Ministry: 1BestariNet project failed due to delays

YTL Communications won Phase 2 of the 1Bestarinet contract which ended on 30 June 2019 and was not renewed, and schools in Malaysia turned to other broadband Internet providers and learning environments such as the Google Classroom learning management system (LMS), which still requires knowledge of how to log in with a Google ID and password and so forth and it works across multiple devices.

Now I have recently seen some real world problems parents and their children face.

A neighbour's son started Standard 1 at a Chinese medium vernacular school on 20 January 2021 and under normal circumstances, the parents would go to the school and collect the relevant physical text books and workbooks for the subjects to be studied throughout the year but due to COVID-19 containment restrictions, a list of PDF softcopies of the books were sent out and in the evening of 18th January 2021, I received the list with the links below forwarded by this parent via WhatsApp with the request that I download them for him from the Pandai.org e-book portal. 

  

Thankfully, the list does not require one to log in with their Google ID and password to download the books for all subjects from Standards 1 to 6 and Forms 1 to 5 and these e-books are available in Malay, Chinese and Tamil for all languages and also in English for relevant subjects such as Science and Mathematics.

I was visiting my aunt at the time, so had no time to download the relevant e-books required and then nine PDF e-books were forwarded to me via WhatsApp, with the request to print them out. These e-books had been posted via WhatsApp to the relevant parents' WhatsApp group which also served as a parents' support group.

Based upon advice from the parents' group, my neighbour's wife had managed to install the Google Meet app on it and she would copy the relevant meeting IDs from WhatsApp on her smartphone into Google Meet in the iPad. It would have been simpler if it was an Android tablet. 

I downloaded the books to my phone and tried to e-mail them to the iCloud e-mail of his son's iPad which he would use to virtually attend his classes but each of these books was between 99 and 148 pages long and their file sizes ranged from 22 to 44 megabytes which was too big to send as an e-mail attachment. Gmail's attachment limit is around 25 megabytes.

When I got home, I connected my phone to a PC via its USB charger cable and copied all the books out from the WhatsApp>Media>Documents folder to the PC's hard disk.


Another way would be to log into WhatsApp Web in a browser on the PC and download the nine books one by one directly to the PC's hard drive.

However, each of the e-books was too big to print out on a home printer, so I wrote them to a CD, intending to pass it to my neighbour the next day for him to take to the print shop.

Thankfully, some of the more tech-savvy parents in the group found a print shop to print them out and my neighbour went over to the print shop to buy printouts of the nine text books and the related workbooks all nicely bound, so it seemed that the problem was solved.

Then yesterday 22 Jan 2021 I got this request forwarded to me by WhatsApp. To which I replied in light green.



The message was sent by a teacher in another class and it clearly shows that parents of children at this school in a fairly vibrant, middle class residential and commercial area of "sophisticated" and "affluent" Petaling Jaya face such problems of "without gadget", what more parents in the smaller towns and villages of Malaysia, such as in Sabah or even the remoter areas of Selangor, said to be the "most developed", "most sophisticated" and "most affluent" state in Malaysia with the highest level of Internet penetration.

Now many parents of children starting Standard One must be pretty young and supposedly more "tech savvy" than senior citizens but from the looks of it, even they face problems with using smartphones, tablets or PCs for more productive uses than for messaging and for social media.


Whilst admittedly, today's PCs, smartphones and tablets with a graphical user interface are easier and more intuitive for people to use compared to their text-based command line predecessors of my time, however they are still not that simple for most users to operate beyond simple messaging and social media functions, and this is true, even of young users.




So that being the case with e-learning which many students, teachers and parents have problems operating, proposals such as to instead deliver lessons by TV or radio, such as made by Jannie Lasimbang, would likely be a more viable, though a less "sexy" solution for a real-world problem on the ground.

But then again, as stated at the beginning of this post, parents may need to buy a TV for each of their school-going children to attend TV learning concurrently, so which would be more affordable? That's a tough question to answer.

With the COVID-19 crisis still raging in Malaysia, I suppose students, teachers and parents are faced with a situation similar of having to eat canned and packaged food to survive when fresh food is not available. It's not an ideal solution but perhaps the best substitute.

Yours truly


















IT.Scheiss

01 November 2020

HAVEN'T I SAID THIS MANY TIMES BEFORE?

Ladies and Gentlemen,

About a week or two ago, I had a debate on a WhatsApp group about whether especially the lower end of small and medium industries, as well as micro enterprises are financially, technically and have the conceptual appreciation to be able to adopt information and communications technology (ICT) based business applications and solutions such as point of sale and inventory management, order processing and invoicing systems, supply chain management systems, enterprise resource planing and management systems and so forth, whether installed on their computer or cloud-based and operated through a web browser or a client application on their computer over the Internet.

Malaysia's government agency, the Small and Medium Industries Development Corporation (SME Corp or SMIDEC) defines micro-enterprises, small and medium manufacturers, services and in other sectors by annual turnover or number of employee in the infographic below:-




The members of this WhatsApp group are mostly comprised of well educated and highly experienced professionals, senior management and business owners, including some who provide such systems and cloud-based services to their client.

Having looked at the website of one of these person's company which provides such systems and services, I see that most of its customers are either the Malaysian units of multinationals, large Malaysian corporations or large retail, convenience store chains, pharmacy chains and so forth but includes no small businesses such as sundry shops, independent hardware stores, minimarkets, kopitiams, Mamak restaurants, banana leaf restaurants and so forth, even though almost all of these now have a point of sale terminal cum cash register on their counters, especially after these were required for GST (Goods and Services Tax) recording and reporting when GST went into effect on 1 April 2015 and was replaced with the SST (Sales and Services Tax) from 1 September 2018, after GST was repealed.

I have oftentimes asked, multinational suppliers of business and enterprise management software such as SAP and Oracle which industry sectors are their major customers in Malaysia and from their replies, almost all of them are Malaysian units of multinationals, large Malaysian corporations, utilities companies, telecommunications companies, large retail chains, banks and financial services companies, government bodies and so forth but no small businesses, and this supplier's customer base is consistent with what others have told me.   

The owner of that company argued that instead of the old notion that ICT being an enabler of business, instead ICT is the business today, and this philosophy applies to all businesses from multinational and corporate giants down to food hawkers and stall owners in pasar malam (flea markets). 

From my own personal experience of a small business, its owner does not even know how to check the company's own e-mail or track a courier shipment online, fill in a survey form, check its phone bill online on a smartphone, let alone understand, appreciate, or operate slightly more complex ICT applications and systems related to the business.

Admittedly, some kopitiams, Mamak and banana leaf restaurants, as well as some food hawkers have taken advantage of food delivery services such as Foodpanda, Grab Food and so forth and I have seen one of them in my neighbourhood which operates a hand-held terminal provided them by Foodpanda which prints out the orders as they are received, however whilst I believe that medium sized industries have the capacity and capability to take advantage of ICT in their business, however I believe that many small industries and micro-enterprises will not be able to, especially those in the smaller cities,towns and villages across Malaysia.

Then on 31 October 2020, Malaysia Now published an article, Time to go digital, SMEs told, which quoted Emir Research research analyst Sofea Azahar thus:-

"As long as businesses fully utilise these incentives that are driven by technology, alternatives for SMEs' survival remain present," Sofea told MalaysiaNow.

But such a journey is easier said than done.

Among the obstacles to going digital is a lack of what Sofea refers to as "digital-savvy talents".

She also spoke of a lack of motivation for companies to automate their business processes.

My comment: Precisely what I have argued in my IT Scheiss blog many times before.

The article goes on:-

But there are other factors beyond a company's control such as digital infrastructure gaps between states and a difference in awareness about embracing the digital economy.

Crossing these hurdles may be difficult, especially given that the country's skilled workforce accounts for just 27.5% with semi-skilled workers comprising the bulk at 60.1%.

However, it is not impossible.

"To fully embrace digitalisation, these indicators call for the upskilling and reskilling of talents through education," Sofea said, noting a drop in the number of students choosing science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in schools."


My comment: With all due respect to Sofea and Emir Research. I've heard the words "upskilling" and "reskilling" mentioned countless times before from government ministers, government officials, senior corporate managers, management consultants and so forth during my 26 years career if writing about the ICT industry and in perspective, I have seen very little evidence of that in reality after all these years.

Instead I see more and more people, both young and old being increasingly savvy at using their smartphones for frivolous activities such as casual messaging, posting and forwarding useless political crap, for casual social media access and other unproductive activities, yet have difficulty or unable to write a simple letter using a word processor on a PC or even a manual typewriter if it would save their lives.

Well now with the survival of businesses due to this business and economy-crippling COVID-19 pandemic which as seen airlines, department stores and businesses close down, I am afraid that many especially small businesses and micro-enterprises which cannot make use of alternative business channels online such as e-commerce have a bleak future.

On the other hand, this does not mean that those businesses which have survived the pandemic by going online, will not revert to more traditional business channels once the pandemic has passed but that is a topic for another blog post.

Also, why are fewer Malaysian students opting for the tougher science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses?

Meanwhile, reproduced in full below is the full Malaysia Now article:-
 
Time to go digital, SMEs told

It may be difficult but it will be worth it, struggling businesses told.
Amanda Suriya

Oct 31, 2020 9:00 AM

While Malaysians have been quick to embrace technology and all things digital from internet banking to online grocery shopping in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, moving entire businesses in the same direction is proving to be more difficult, even for small-scale entities like SMEs.

Office life has gone remote with #WorkFromHome now part of the new norm, yet the shift has only highlighted how some SMEs were ill-equipped for the plunge from the physical to the virtual. Close to 70% of SMEs reported a 50% drop in business during the first movement control order (MCO).

Some had existing digital channels in place to support their brick-and-mortar presence.

But not all were able to pivot as quickly as they needed to, especially given the sporadic nature of subsequent MCOs.

For some, this was due to a lack of funds. Unlike larger corporations which often have financial buffers in place, many SMEs have cash flow reserves that will not see them past three months.

Others such as furniture shops, barbers, and spas depend on in-store customers.

Whatever the reason, the onset of the pandemic has shown all too clearly the difference that going digital makes for SMEs.

"Consumer behaviour is impacting local businesses as people opt for simpler and faster processes via e-commerce," Azlan Zainal Abidin, the chief enterprise business officer at a mobile telecommunications conglomerate, told MalaysiaNow.

"At this juncture, going digital isn't just about growth anymore – it's also about survivability and the sustainability of the business."

Small but powerful

At 98.5%, SMEs form the bulk of business establishments in the country, according to Emir Research research analyst Sofea Azahar.

"SMEs contribute 38.3% to the national GDP," she added.

"The survivability of these businesses is crucial to economic recovery, in order to maintain the expansion shown in previous years."

This is something the government has been mindful of since the pandemic hit Malaysian shores early this year. In the months following the first lockdown which saw nearly all business activity suspended to curb the spread of Covid-19, billions were channelled under the Penjana economic rescue package to help SMEs recover.

With financial support in place, Azlan and Sofea said, SMEs would benefit from adopting tools such as cloud-based electronic point-of-sale systems or digital marketing solutions, especially as restrictions on movements continue in areas across the country.

"As long as businesses fully utilise these incentives that are driven by technology, alternatives for SMEs' survival remain present," Sofea told MalaysiaNow.

But such a journey is easier said than done.

Among the obstacles to going digital is a lack of what Sofea refers to as "digital-savvy talents".

She also spoke of a lack of motivation for companies to automate their business processes.

But there are other factors beyond a company's control such as digital infrastructure gaps between states and a difference in awareness about embracing the digital economy.

Crossing these hurdles may be difficult, especially given that the country's skilled workforce accounts for just 27.5% with semi-skilled workers comprising the bulk at 60.1%.

However, it is not impossible.

"To fully embrace digitalisation, these indicators call for the upskilling and reskilling of talents through education," Sofea said, noting a drop in the number of students choosing science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects in schools.

Will it be worth it? She says yes, and not just for SMEs.

"Leveraging technology will create opportunities for Malaysians in general," she said – as long as they are equipped with the skill sets needed to ensure a smooth digital transition.

Thanks to Malaysia Now and Emir Research, I can confidently say that I have been vindicated.

Yours trully

IT SCHEISS