February 2007

Digital Literacy

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Based on the aspirations tobecome an industrialised nation, Malaysia has made many conscious efforts to improve and develop literacy. By the Year 2020, it is aiming to achieve a literacy rate of 100%. Today, the country’s population is close to 20 million, the Malaysian literacy is 85%. It is estimated that 20% of the 4.2 million school children in Malaysia have some understanding of computer applications. However, as would be expected in developing countries, the school children in the urban areas are more computer literate than their counterparts in the rural areas

THE ABILITY TO USE ICT and the Internet becomes a new form of literacy, as what it is called ‘Digital Literacy’. Digital Literacy is fast becoming a prerequisite for creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship and without it citizens can neither participate fully in society nor acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to live in the 21st century. Further, as Malaysia is facing globalisation, the era of “Digital Age” is important and needed. With the development of Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC), the importance of ICT literacy or digital literacy becomes wider. Some of the key issues of digital literacy in Malaysia are being discussed. This pertains to the level of literacy between the residents in the urban and rural areas in Malaysia, the accessibility to ICT and the Internet, and to bridge the gap on the digital divide. Malaysia has formulated Vision 2020, which envisages the transition of Malaysia from a modern economy to the digital economy. The vision is essentially to evolve a completely holistic modern society that is authentically Malaysian– a caring, civilised, and a well-informed society.

DIGITAL LITERACY DEFINED

In defi ning Digital Literacy, Allan Martin [Journal of eLiteracy, Vol 2 (2005)] proposed that  the concept of digital literacy should include several key elements. He stated thus: “Digital  Literacy involves being able to carry out successful digital actions embedded within life  situations, which may include work, learning, leisure, and other aspects of everyday life;  digital literacy, for the individual, will therefore vary according to his/her particular life  situation, and also be an ongoing lifelong process developing as the individual’s life situation  evolves; digital literacy is broader than ICT literacy and will include elements drawn from  several related “Literacy”, such as information literacy, media literacy and visual literacy;  digital literacy will involve acquiring and using knowledge, techniques, attitudes and  personal qualities, and will include the ability to plan, execute and evaluate digital actions in the solution of life tasks, and the ability to refl ect on one’s own digital literacy development”.  In brief, digital literacy is the awareness, attitude and ability of individuals to appropriately  use digital tools and facilities to identify, access, manage, integrate, evaluate, analyse and synthesise digital resources, construct  new knowledge, create media expressions, and communicate with others, in the context of specifi c life situations, in order to enable constructive social action; and to refl ect upon this process.

Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, outlined the Ninth Malaysia  Plan – it priorities and strategies. The stress was to “build a knowledge based economy with  focus on the software elements that touch on human development.” Besides, the program for  Bridging Digital Divide was allocated about MYR153 million (US$40.5 million), which was  reported under the Eighth Malaysia Plan. On the advancement towards bridging the digital  divide, the National IT Council (NITC) together with several ministries and agencies were  tasked to advance the National Policy on this matter. Furthermore, the Demonstrator  Application Grant Scheme (DAGS) was intended to facilitate social and economic progress through the innovative use of ICT. There are some 100 projects ‘piloted’ under this  programme. Seven ICT disadvantaged groups were identifi ed under the programme – urban poor, rural, disabled, seniors, SMEs, women and youth. Currently, there is no publicly  available formal report on the learnings from 100 pilots and/or the MYR153 million.

ISSUES AND CHALLENGES

However, digital literacy doesn’t end with the purchase of PCs. While affordability is a key  component in ensuring computer ubiquity, national computer ownership programs run by  both the government and PC vendors has barely moved the needle on the PC penetration rate  in the country (still under 20%). TMNet and Intel are in the game for providing ICT for all,  and Microsoft’s partnership with Courts Mammoth to provide MYR30 a month payment  modes for beginner users to own a localised, customised Windows XP Starter Edition PC all  seem to have made just a very small dent in the 5.5 million households. Compare this to Hong  Kong or Singapore, which have already attained over 50% penetration. Malaysia’s relatively  low level of IT use and penetration rate puts at a disadvantage in this rapid information and  technology age. The beauty of it not so much as the cost of the computer (where the average  household income is around MYR1500 a month), but the value it provides to the buyer at the  end of the day. The plans of ICT for digital literacy comes to nothing if the public cannot  directly benefi t from these projects and that means bringing about a change in lifestyle and  improving the economic well-being of the community. The easiest way of making digital  literacy pervasive is taking bold moves on being forward or else we are bound to suffer with  bigger gaps in achieving greater competitiveness.  First, strong political will with big bold  goals are required that would allow us to quantum leap our digital inclusion progress. For  instance, the National Broadband Plan, while noble in its goals, has set a 10% high-speed  Internet access by 2010. This is indeed a bold step that would drive the vendors to push  incumbents to get out of laurels and put national  interest ahead of immediate commercial gains. Second, we need a tipping point. Malaysians are relatively, a comfortable nation. An  undesired outcome from the success of our previous economic genius has made the country  generally less competitive than others. The sliding ranking on the Global Competitive Index is  an indicator towards this. We need something to jolt us out of our state of complacency.

We need a strong government policy mandating digital literacy, similar to that of the formal  education system today. When the Education Ordinance 1957 resulting from the 1956 Razak  Report was promulgated, it became mandatory for children to attend formal schooling under  the single system of national education. Thus, the village head or champion also played a key  role in exciting grassroots masses – and something we should defi nitely look to cultivating in a national digital literacy plan. The Ministry of Education is encouraging this programme as  beyond increasing digital literacy, it will also tackle issues on reducing the cost of  maintaining PCs in schools and to provide a software application to monitor schools computer  maintenance activities. Further, this program will also catapult existing in-school initiatives like “cyber brigade” or for some, ‘the computer club’ whereby, students can integrate skills learnt into existing frameworks.

LITERACY RATE IN MALAYSIA

Based on the aspirations to become an industrialised nation, Malaysia has made many  conscious efforts to improve and develop literacy so that it will achieve a literacy rate of 100% by the year 2020. The country still has a long way to go but there are positive indications  that the literacy rate is increasing. The World Education Report (1993) stated that Malaysia had one of the lowest literacy rates (78.4%) compared to the other Southeast Asian  neighbours, like Singapore (100%), Indonesia (81.6%), Thailand (93%), and the Philippines (89.7%), respectively. Today, the country’s population is close to 20 million, the Malaysian  literacy rate is now 85%. However, it is possible that the rate is higher because comprehensive research on the literacy profi le of the population has not been undertaken for many years.

“Malaysia’s relatively low level of IT use and penetration rate puts at a  disadvantage in this rapid information and technology age. Today, the attendance at most telecentres and Internet hubs set up by various agencies under the 8th Malaysia Plan is only for email and chat, for which, of course, the government is not at fault or responsible. The easiest way of making digital literacy pervasive is taking bold moves on being forward or else we are bound to suffer with bigger gaps in achieving greater competitiveness

In Malaysia, it is estimated that 20% of the 4.2 million school children have some understanding of computer applications, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, and using some educational courseware. As would be expected in developing countries, the school  children in the urban areas are more computer literate than their counterparts in the rural  areas. This rate is increasing steadily as more and more schools form their own computer  clubs and provide computer literacy through their own initiatives. Currently, 35% of the  schools in Malaysia have computer clubs and conduct computer literacy programs. The  present government also has plans to use computers to disseminate knowledge in schools to  enhance teaching and learning. In 1992, a ‘Computer in Education’ project was launched.  About 20 rural schools in the state of Selangor were chosen as pilot schools to use computers in  the teaching and learning process. Both teachers and students were trained in computer  literacy. Each school was also equipped with 20 computers in its computer lab. Presently,  more than 100 schools are involved in the project. In fact, a new subject called Reka Cipta, or  Creative Design, has been introduced to the secondary school students. The subject involves  teaching students how to use Computer- Aided Design. The Malaysian government has also  developed the “smart school” concept in the country and plans are being geared into this by  various organisations (for example, universities, private companies, and the Ministry of  Education). The collaboration among these organisations, termed a consortium, is aimed at  developing the delivery concept (i.e., the architectural concept on how the lessons will be  delivered) and the development of the content or the courseware itself. Soon, all primary and  secondary school teachers would be computer literate, which would also mean that more  schools would conduct computer literacy programmes and lessons would begin to be  introduced through courseware via the Internet. It is anticipated that network computers  would be used in schools instead of personal computers because of their less expensive cost. The  courseware will be put in a regional or local server and students can then download them  to their computers and run the programmes. Besides, in higher institutions the  computer literacy rates among lecturers and students are very promising, and one can safely conclude that the degree of computer literacy among the university and college population is  above  80%.

DIGITAL LITERACY IN MALAYSIA

Like in many other countries, both developing and developed, Malaysia’s Digital/ICT  infrastructure development has been concentrated primarily in its cities and towns. Digital infrastructure distribution on a geographical basis has largely refl ected regional inferences in  economic development and population density with the predominantly rural states of Sabah and Sarawak falling far short of the national average. Out of 136 districts that make  up the country, 89 have been identifi ed as underserved areas (i.e. with a teledensity of 20% below the national average). Most of these districts come overwhelmingly from the East  Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak states, which have the lowest population densities in the country. While districts vary in terms of size and population, underserved areas are  designated on a district level as they from the main administrative unit. According to an Internet subscriber study in 2002, more than 90% of the subscribers of the largest ISP, TM  Net, were located in the Klang Valley area and cities such as Johor Baru, Penang, Kuantan, Kota Kinabalu and Ipoh. Similarly, around 73% of the subscribers of Malaysia’s second largest  ISP, Jaring, came from the capital and the more urbanised states of Selangor, Johor and Pulau  Pinang. In addition to this urban-rural divide, it is important to note that the pace of  infrastructure development has also not been uniform across all urban areas. Among the country’s cities and towns, infrastructure providers have also favoured particular areas.  These areas include, in particular, the Klang Valley region, the town of Penang in the North and the town of Johor Baru in the South.

In terms of distribution of Personal Computers (PCs) in the urban and rural areas, the  concentration is in the urban areas, primarily Selangor, Federal Territories and Penang, which contribute to more than 65% of computer density in Malaysia. However, the rate of PC  penetration per household is still very low, ie. at 5%. As for Internet access, the 1998 statistics  showed Internet penetration at 6% for every 100 population and 11.9% for every household.  While Malaysia recorded a growth rate of 182% in Internet subscription, once again growth  concentration is more on the Klang Valley area, Selangor and major towns in the country.  These statistics clearly shows the overwhelming difference of PC and Internet availability  between the urban and rural areas. Among the most important steps to enhance digital  literacy are to create awareness among the rural population and to provide the infrastructure  to the rural areas. The Malaysian government and the private sectors especially in providing infrastructure have already carried out many efforts.

“There is apparent gap in digital literacy. There exists a disparity between the    digital/information rich and the digital/information poor among various groups in Malaysia. Coincidently, the pattern is that the former is located in urban areas whilst the latter in rural, as similar scenario as in the case of poverty.

To boost the development, a few awareness campaigns through Internet and other medium    have been launched. Malaysia’s latest effort in creating Digital / ICT awareness is an   integrated campaign through a monthly bulletin, a web portal and a video commercial/montage promoting Digital / ICT to the rural population. The Ministry of Electricity, Water and Communication (MEWC) and its predecessor ministry, the Ministry of Electricity, Communication and Multimedia (MECM), have embarked on numerous digital inclusion initiatives aimed at fulfi lling the national objective of ensuring equitable provision of affordable ICT and digital services in pursuance of the Malaysian Government’s initiatives to improve digital literacy, primarily, to correct the digital imbalance.

BARRIERS IN DIGITAL LITERACY RATE IMPROVEMENT

There is apparent gap in digital literacy. There exists a disparity between the digital/information rich and the digital/information poor among various groups in Malaysia. Coincidently, the pattern is that the former is located in urban areas whilst the latter in rural, as similar scenario as in the case of poverty. The high cost of installing and maintaining these services in remote and sparsely populated areas, however, make it diffi -cult for commercial operators to provide telecommunications services in such areas at urban prices even though there is considerable demand.

A host of obstacles stand in the way of cheap deployment costs. In terms of geography, parts of Malaysia’s rural population, particularly in Sabah and Sarawak, live scattered in the midst of dense rainforest, often in hilly terrain that obscure line of sight. Severe weather conditions that can alternate between fl ooding and drought further complicate telecommunications infrastructure deployment and the maintenance of equipment. There are some issues  pertaining to the level of acceptance and awareness of ICT/digital technologies between residents in urban and rural areas due to level of formal education, occupation, accessibility, affordability and affi nity.

SIGNIFICANCE OF BUILDING UP DIGITAL LITERACY

Improving the digital literacy is essentially about empowerment, in which, it is about using new technologies and the medium to empower the poor (those who are located in rural areas) just as they now empower the rich. When the ICT industries talk about providing “end to end  solutions” to users they are talking about fulfi lling aspirations of users that is empowering them. Thus, uplifting the digital literacy must necessarily involve empowering the poor by  studying their circumstances and then fi nding ways to shift the context that reinforces their poverty and make them part of K-based economy.

“Last but not least, as a developing nation, Malaysia needs to develop its local content on most ICT/digital application such as in the websites, online transactions and so forth.

Enhancing digital literacy is a good way to sustain the growth of our national market.  Without extending ICTs/Digital Technologies to the other population of consumers (those in  rural areas, low-income earners and less educated), our national markets will be restricted to  only a small group of users (especially those in urban areas) who have already saturated markets for the major ICT markets, e.g. for cell phones, computers and software. As prices  drop, the private sector will face dropping prices, devaluation and overcapacity unless new customers emerge. The only places new customers exist are among the low-income and those  in remote areas. The only way to reach them affordably and profi tably is through ICTs.

RESEARCH ON LITERACY AND INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY

There is research on the development of a multimedia literacy program to encourage reading  that was undertaken by UKM under the IRPA (Intensifi ed Research Priority Areas) grant given to priority areas of research in the country. This research has been targeted at the  young population of the country to prepare for the information-rich society. Computer- Assisted Learning (CAL) and Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) have been proven in  various researches to be able to motivate learning, particularly in the subject areas of  mathematics and English. For this particular research, the courseware for motivating  literacy is in the vernacular language (the national language). A multimedia approach was  felt to be most suitable because a variety of media graphics, text, sound, voice, animation, and  video – can be integrated in one digital environment. Another advantage is that it is  interactive and children can learn at their own pace.

Another related research project that would be carried out is a MY3mn (US$1.5mn)    multimedia research project to develop educational courseware to enhance teaching in schools conducted by UKM and sponsored by an established local information technology company. Initially, the research would study the best method of delivering mathematical knowledge through the computer, and eventually it would also cover other subjects in schools like reading in English and the national language. Although the research is not directly related to literacy, the development of courseware would help to encourage children not to be afraid of the computers and to develop computer literacy skills indirectly. This is what the government hopes to aspire in the year 2020. In fact, the Ministry of Education had proposed four subjects – Science, Mathematics, English, and Bahasa Malaysia – would be taught using computers based on the smart school concept. This is a step toward developing an information society in a truly information environment.

CONCLUSION

The world is now entering the digital economic era, and Malaysians would have to be prepared for this information environment in order to be a true information-rich society by the year 2020. This means that proper strategies needs to be undertaken to create a fully  literate society with a 100% literacy rate. Not only the society be an information-rich society  that possess characteristics such as a high literacy rate, ability to read and write fl uently in  the vernacular as well as the second language of the country as well as possibly a third  language, citizens who are motivated to read, and citizens who seek knowledge, but they must  also possess the information technology skills (at least, computer literacy skills) because  more and more information would be available in electronic form and the citizens will have to  equip themselves with the necessary technology skills in an information environment.

Malaysia’s effort to raise the level of digital literacy has been creditable. Through its Ministries and its agencies the Malaysian Government has clearly taken a proactive role in achieving its goal of universal access to ICTs by channelling signifi cant amounts of resources in terms of fi nancial and administrative support into initiatives designed to meet that objective.

The Malaysian government has shown itself to be aware of the problem and has taken a   number of steps to remedy the situation. Looking at what it has done and what it intends to do, Malaysia’s commitment to improve digital literacy is clear. Last but not least, as a developing nation, Malaysia needs to develop its local content on most ICT/digital application such as in the websites, online transactions and so forth. Most of the ICT/digital applications are using English language interface, therefore, it would be diffi cult for most of residents especially in rural areas who literate in mother tongue to use ICT widely. It is imperative to develop local content by focusing on the language used as the medium to promote ICT.

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