Digital divide: Rural students struggle with online learning
Published on: Monday, June 29, 2020
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Olivia with her teacher.
Kota Kinabalu: Students expressed joy last week when mainly fifth and sixth formers resumed classes nationwide, including some 40,000 in Sabah, while complying with the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) set by the Education Ministry to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

This included practising one-metre social distancing, body temperature checks, wearing facemask and hand washing, using hand sanitiser and involved teachers, school staff and parents as well.

However, they had mixed feelings when it came to the Teaching and Learning Process (PdP) observed through the Internet during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period, as is still applied to other non-examination year students currently which involved learning without meeting teachers face-to-face.

“I was not able to access the virtual learning due to internet access constraints,” said Olivia Jann Jimmy Chia, a Form 5 student in SMK Mat Salleh Ranau.

Another student at the same school, Danny Oswold Florentius, said face-to-face learning with teachers is more effective than online because it allows students to ask questions directly to teachers while other students are watching.


For two Form 5 students at SMK Ranau, Joshua M Yahya and Siti Syafizah binti Jamaluddin, learning face-to-face with teachers was more effective than online.

“In our village the internet channels are not so good that my learning is not fully accessible,” Siti Syafizah said.

One of the teachers of SMK Mat Salleh, Baita binti Gadana, described PdP online as being good but there were disadvantages especially for students living in remote areas outside of the internet coverage, leaving them unable to access the internet completely.

In Keningau, when Ryverra Wiviani Rinus googled “digital divide” using her mother’s phone in their home at Kampung Bomboi, she couldn’t download a page.

“Confirm I can’t open Google as the Internet connection in my house is like a snail,” said the 15-year-old Kadazandusun student from SMK Keningau.

To get a better Internet connection, Ryverra Wiviani’s five-year-old brother Reyxxter Wivincearthur would put a wifi modem into a plastic bottle and pull it upward to the roof. 

With the innovation, it would take about one minute to perform a Google search via 3G connection.

But the speed was not fast enough for the six siblings, aged between five and 17, to do e-learning during the Movement Control Order (MCO).

To access 4G connection in late April, their 36-year-old uncle Nick built a wooden makeshift “classroom” at the edge of their village, about 8km from Keningau town.

The siblings had to walk about 600m from their home through the jungle to reach the hut which they called Puru Online (Puru in Kadazandusun means “jungle”).

The six siblings have to share their mother’s phone and an outdated laptop for e-learning.

“It depends on luck who holds the phone first. 


“That person is lucky as she can use the phone first until she is finished with her homework. 

“That also depends on whether she has a lot of homework to do,” Ryverra Wiviani said.

“But my elder sister has the clout among us, so it is easy for her to take the phone while we are using it.”

The siblings, whose 45-year-old dad is a pre-school teacher and 39-year-old mother is a rubber tapper, also have to manage the free daily 1GB Internet data.

“If we are thrifty in using the Internet, 1GB is enough,” said the Form Three student, adding that they need about 3GB to 4GB a day for e-learning.

Studying online, according to her, would be less frustrating and more rewarding if the Internet connection was as fast as lightning.

If Ryverra Wiviani googled “digital divide”, she would get: “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.”

The online teaching and learning method during the time of Covid-19 highlighted the digital gulf in Malaysia.

The internet speed for students from a middle-class family in Kuala Lumpur is as fast as lightning. Most own a tablet or/and a smartphone.

Their First World problem is whether they should switch on the air-conditioner in their room during e-learning.

In contrast, students like Ryverra Wiviani have to worry whether the plastic sacks in the makeshift classroom will provide enough shelter from the blazing sun.

The Star reported on April 27 that according to a study involving more than 670,000 parents and up to 900,000 students in Malaysia, 6pc have a personal computer, 5.76pc have a tablet, 9pc have a laptop and 46pc have a smartphone. More than one third or 36.7pc don’t own a device.

To help students like Ryverra Wiviani plug the digital divide, Beyond Pitas (a group that highlights the plight of the underprivileged) and social activists like Angie Chin-Tan have kickstarted a crowdfunding campaign.

“It is depressing to learn how backwards we are still in terms of access to technology.

“I cannot imagine how unfair it is for these kids to be deprived of access to education just because they have no access to the Internet and cannot afford the proper gadgets to access knowledge,” Chin-Tan said.

“In fact, in this age and time, no children should be left behind when it comes to access to knowledge.”

Chin-Tan believes the campaign would have a positive impact.

“There are more affected students out there that are waiting to get help. And by kickstarting this campaign, we hope to create awareness of #DigitalForAll and #DigitalUntukSemua to address this digital divide,” she said.

For those who wish to support the campaign, they can go to https://bit.ly/2NmFBnK or email to [email protected]

To highlight their plight, Ryverra Wiviani and her older sister Rechellyna Wivian, 17, produced a YouTube video.

It shows Puru Online which is a wooden hut covered with plastic sacks to protect them from the sun, rain and animals that may fall from the trees. 

They also have a portable cooking stove to cook a simple meal. 

They even burn egg cartons to keep mosquitoes away.

Today, Form Five student Rechellyna Wivian returns to school at SMK Keningau as school is opened for SPM and STPM students.

Ryverra Wiviani prefers to be back in school. She doesn’t want her education to be hampered by Internet speed that can be as slow as a snail.

Many students in Malaysia face the same plight as the siblings from Keningau. We need to bridge the digital divide.


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