Given relatively low levels of performance on recent international tests, the Malaysian education system is rarely a focus for international comparisons. Nonetheless, on my visit last fall to Kuala Lumpur, I was struck by some of the stark differences between education in Malaysia and in neighboring Singapore, generally regarded as one of the highest performing education systems in they world. While both countries have demonstrated considerable economic development since they split apart in the late 1950’s, only Singapore coupled that economic growth with rapid development of a comprehensive education system. In fact, although a new law in Malaysia will increase compulsory schooling to eleven years, right now Malaysian children are still only required to attend school through sixth grade. Furthermore, according to a recent Unicef report, over 200,000 primary-school age children in Malaysia are not attending school. These include children from several different groups – among them refugees, migrant workers in the palm oil plantations, nomadic groups living in coastal areas of East Malaysia, and homeless and street children. Many are undocumented, and, therefore are not treated as citizens, or given access to free primary education (for more on refugee education in general see the latest post from internationalednews.com).
The growth of a host of for-profit and not-for-profit private schools in Malaysia reflects the continuing dissatisfaction with the public education system. Beyond concerns about the quality of schools, restrictions on access and scholarships to some of the highest-performing public schools and universities for those who are not native Malaysian has also encouraged many students to seek out these alternatives. The alternatives to government-run public schools include private schools often connected to international schools operating in the US and elsewhere, and some newer schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University. There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement. The growth of these schooling options outside the government-funded public system reflects the lifting of restrictions that had previously limited access to international schools largely to the children of expatriate; but in 2006 the Malaysian government allowed international schools to form student populations with up to 40% of native Malaysian students, and then in 2012, the quotas were eliminated entirely, enabling Malaysian students to enroll in a school of their choice (as long as they could pay for it; as long as they received language instruction in the national language, Bahasa Malaysia; and as long as Muslim students took Islamic studies).
The level of concern with the Malaysian education system is also evident in the development of a variety of efforts to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day. A number of these new efforts take advantage of the emergence of digital media to provide support for students learning in school and out. In particular, organizations and collaboratives like Edunation, EnglishJer, and Tandemic have sprouted to address what their members identify as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system. All three of the leaders of these organizations, Edmond Yap, Abdul Qayyum, and Kal Joffres, see tremendous potential to address social and educational problems and to create new learning opportunities in Malaysia. My conversations with them were particularly intriguing to me because I learned both how they responded to local issues and opportunities in education Malaysia and how they struggle with some of the same challenges of developing more innovative and effective learning opportunities that those in more developed systems like the US and Singapore face.
Edunation: Free online tutoring for all
“I smile a lot, but I’m actually quite angry with what’s happening all around me,” Edmond Yap, told me as he described the levels of corruption he encountered in his previous work in Malaysia in engineering and construction. But he locates the source of his effort to create Edunation – which has produced over 4000 hours of translations of Khan Academy videos as well as their own videos of topics central to the Malaysian curriculum – to his work with John, a 15-year old orphan he was tutoring. When Yap met him, John was one month away from taking the national math exam at the end of ninth grade (the PMR exam, which has now been replaced). Yap realized that even after years of schooling, John was still unclear about some of the simplest problems. When asked to add ½ to ½, John responded, after a pause, ¼. Yap knew, even with his help and with John’s willingness and motivation to come to school every day and go to tutoring, there was no way that John could pass the exam. The system had failed him. Yap realized, as he put it, “I can’t even help one kid let alone address the larger problems we have in our country.” Deeply frustrated, Yap quit tutoring, and after some soul searching, quit his job as an engineer as well.
Seeing the Khan Academy videos for the first time in 2011, however, gave him hope again. “This is it,” Yap said “this is the way we can make free help available to every Malaysian child.” The Khan Academy offers access to hours and hours of video that students can use as a resource to get help on many school subjects, but none of those videos were available in Malaysian. With Khan Academy’s permission, Yap joked that he became Khan Academy’s “unofficial translator” for Malaysia as he and then a number of volunteers began translating hundreds of videos from English into Malaysian. Initially, their goal was to provide what was essentially free tutoring (or “tuition” as it is labeled in Malaysia and many other Asian countries like Singapore) and they looked for videos from Khan Academy or elsewhere on the web that would enable students to get assistance with any of the key topics in the Malaysian national curriculum. When they started mapping the topics of the Khan Academy videos onto the Malaysian curriculum, however, resources for many key topics were missing. In order to address the gaps, Yap and his colleagues started producing their own videos, and “Edunation was born.”
By the end of 2016, Edunation had produced over 4700 videos, including videos at the primary level in Chinese and Tamil. But as their stockpile of videos grew so did d their ambitions. Yap and his colleagues realized that the online content could help many children, but it still might not reach those who lack access to the internet or who might lack the support or motivation to take advantage of the online resources. With particular concern for those students who have spent years in schools failing and may have lost all motivation to learn, Edunation expanded its goals to focus on providing free tutoring offline as well. “How do you provide not just free tuition online to all Malaysian children, but offline tutoring as well?” Yap wondered. Their conclusion: peer pressure. “You create a culture and community where students help one another. When you do that, it’s free tutoring by every Malaysian child, for every Malaysian child,” Yap explained.
Developing such a community for peer tutoring and academic support, however, has not been easy. At first, Yap thought they would be able to create teacher learning communities – bringing teachers with different experiences together to provide tutoring after school. After a year, however, he abandoned that plan because of the difficulty of recruiting teachers. Unable to rely on teachers, he developed a pilot program to work directly with students in two schools to establish a community in which they support one another. As Yap describes it, the vision was like a mix between a typical tutoring center, toastmasters (a popular international public speaking and leadership program) and the Lions Club (an international service organization). Small groups of students met once a week to help one another access videos and other free resources that they could use to prepare for upcoming exams and complete other academic work. Every two weeks, students also participated in self-directed leadership activities designed to develop skills like empathy and openness. Edunation staff and volunteers helped to get the programs running, assisted students in developing tutoring plans, and provided materials and resources.
Ultimately, however, Yap’s goal is to find ways to influence and improve the education offered during the regular school day as well. In Malaysia, that means facing the significant challenge of trying to work with the government and in government public schools and dealing with all of the red tape and constraints that come with it; or it means developing a private school, which has more flexibility, but which is then disconnected from, and less likely to influence, the public system. There are basically walls around us,” Yap explained, “and we are trying to find a path through.” The path he has selected at this point is to work with a long-time mentor, Dr. Tee Meng Yew, from the University of Malaya, on a project separate from his work on Edunation to design a low-cost private school. They envision a school that “works for the students,” providing more opportunities for them to choose their educational path (whether that involves taking the national exams, preparing for the International Baccalaureate, or preparing for a specific career). From Yap’s point of view, they are “trying to set an example of what a school could be in a local context” and to make their design and resources freely available (like the Edunation videos) so that they might have an impact on the wider system as well.
@EnglishJer: Social media as a platform for learning
Like Yap, Abdul Qayyum never planned to work in education. His college degree was in Law, but throughout his university studies, he also served as a digital media consultant for a number of companies and clients. In that work, he uncovered what seemed to be a promising opportunity. “Social media is littered with the young, the opinionated, people with power,” Qayyum explained, “but there’s not much attention to education.” From his perspective, those who were using social media for education were mostly using it to publicize and promote what they were doing offline, outside of social media, rather than using social media as an educational tool. In contrast, Qayyum has decided to take educational activities that might take place offline and try to bring them online. In the process, he sees his role as using social media to create engaging opportunities for young Malaysians to develop their language and communication skills, to use English, and to find ways to express themselves in English. To accomplish these goals, he created a twitter account @EnglishJer, and leveraged his knowledge of social media to start twitter conversations about issues like the weak English skills of Malaysian youth, the problems with the Malaysian exam system, and general issues in the teaching and learning of English.
At first, he just saw @EnglishJer as an experiment, a way for Malaysians to connect and come together on a familiar platform to talk about the challenges and possibilities for learning English. As Qayyam described it, “’jer’ is a colloquial form of the Malay ‘sahaja’ which means ‘just’, as in ‘it’s just English (you don’t have to worry).’” But even Qayyum was surprised at how quickly the twitter conversations took off after the launch in January of 2015. Within three months, @EnglishJer had almost 6000 followers. A few months after that, Malaysian educators started to take notice, and he began to get requests to come to talk to students and to provide workshops on topics like public speaking and creative writing. At the same time, Qayyum also started getting inquiries from followers who wanted to help share the work with others. “It started as a twitter account, but I didn’t know where it was going to go from there,” Qayyum said, “So when people started asking me, ‘are you an NGO or a private company?’ I said ‘I don’t know’, but if you want to join us just tag along.”
After about 15 months, he got an offer from a local foundation to create a “camp” to bring fifty Malaysian students together to develop leadership and communication skills. When over 200 people applied, he knew they were on to something. Soon Qayyum and a growing group of volunteers found themselves developing more camps and holding events like poetry slams and live “quizzes.” They got requests to create curriculum modules and, at the request of a local media company, they created a series of videos. Building on the success so far, they will be launching a nationwide tour to take the workshops, camps and other events to every state in Malaysia over the next year.
In each case, the work has been driven more by the growing demands from followers than by a particular vision. For example, the quizzes came about through an invitation to participate in a literary festival. The organizers asked them to do a workshop, but Qayyum told them “Everyone else is doing that, so why don’t we do something different and try out a quiz show?” That show became a model for a series of interactive events that Qayyum sees as a kind of combination of improv shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and game shows like “Jeopardy”. The shows include teams vying to answer questions like “Can you guess which words have Greek origins?” and then participating in challenge rounds such as a water gun spelling bee. “We’re innovative in terms of method, rather than content.” Qayyum explains. “There’s still a stigma about speaking English here, so we first convince people that it’s okay to learn English, and then encourage them to use it.”
In order to make the work possible, Qayyum and his colleagues are all volunteers. As he said, “no one works on this full-time,” and they rely to a large extent on small donations and in-kind contributions (for prizes, spaces, etc.) as well as occasional support from a private foundation. They also work with a number of partners, like Project Ihsan, which provides free tuition for students, and they draw on both the enthusiasm of their followers and the power of EnglishJer’s social media presence, which helps to attract support from celebrities and local educators and merchants alike.
While Qayyum admitted he felt like they are often “winging it,” he and his colleagues are also constantly engaged in surveying and researching the needs and interests of the youth they hope to reach. “What’s actually your problem with communicating in English? What annoys you about learning English? Why are you still having problems with English after so many years studying it in schools?” In fact, in addition to providing workshops and helping to train locals to offer their own camps and workshops, the tour is designed to enable them to talk to followers from all regions of the country and get their input. With all this input, Qayyum and his followers then try to identify those issues that are not addressed in Malaysian schools and that they feel their followers will respond to. But they see another need for that information as well: Following the nationwide tour, they plan to use that knowledge in talks with policymakers and education stakeholders to improve the system. “If we do this properly, maybe people will take notice,” Qayyum said.
Tandemic: Social Innovation as an Opportunity for Learning
Kal Joffres started Tandemic to provide consulting to help companies develop their social media strategy, but almost immediately he saw opportunities to use social media to advance social causes. In particular, he saw the success of start-up weekend in the US and adapted it for Malaysia. Instead of helping participants to start their own companies, however, Tandemic created a series of “make-a-thon’s” where the goal was to bring teams together to identify social challenges and design and proto-type possible solutions. The make-a-thon’s were “less focused on the pitch at the end and on the business model,” Joffres explained. “And more on the solution, and designed to have a broader appeal.”
The make-a-thon’s took off almost immediately, and Tandemic developed a series of what they now call “Makeweekends” that they have taken to a variety of different locations, particularly local universities. Right from the beginning, Joffres felt that the participants found the freedom and encouragement to design “anything” particularly powerful. “Participants would come to our Makeweekends, and they would ask ‘you mean we can build anything we want?’ It was almost like it was a freedom that they had never had.” As he put it, “For 13 years people have gone through a system where they have created only one kind of product – the essay/paper/report – and they finally create something tangible, and I think that light bulb goes off.”
With growing interest from participants as well as from the government and other funders, Joffres and his colleagues at Tandemic developed a wide range of Makeweekends and “hack-a-thon’s” over the next four years, primarily for 16-24 year olds in Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. For this work, the focus was on social causes of all kinds, but the experience also gave Joffres and his colleagues ample opportunity to develop their own educational approach to design thinking. In particular, they sought to deepen and extend the Makeweekends to encourage participants to go beyond the design stage and to try to put their ideas into practice.
Not everything Tandemic tried worked at first, however. One change to the make-weekend design was to focus on what Joffres and his colleagues called “ideation” workshops. In this approach, participants came to the design workshop for two weekends in a row – spending the first weekend developing their idea and the second focusing on design. That approach foundered as they found it was hard for participants to block off the time and make a commitment to both weekends. They even tried adding a Friday night session to give participants more time to develop their ideas, but, ultimately, they settled on a two-day (Saturday-Sunday) structure, because as Joffres explained “Each time the participants have to leave the venue and come back, there’s attrition.”
Tandemic has also worked on strengthening the impact of the makeweekends by building in more support for the participants to test out their ideas. As Joffres explained “We want participants to go out and find out ‘is this thing that we’ve created something that people really want? Or is it just something we’ve fallen in love with?’” To that end, Tandemic has developed an approach in which they ask participants to establish “home” and “away” teams. While the “home” team comes to the workshop, the “away” team stays in their local neighborhood to help gather information and pilot ideas as the “home” team continues to refine their ideas. For example, one “home team” wanted to help address problems of infant malnutrition back in their village in Nepal. They had already found that although food was available, many babies were being fed the wrong foods at the wrong time.
To address the problem, the home team developed a bracelet with color-coded beads that the new mothers could wear. The bracelet served as a memory aid by linking the colored beads to different developmental periods and to the appropriate foods. The success of the bracelet, however, depended on developing effective training. Over a four-hour period, the home team stayed in touch with the away team back in Nepal as they interviewed a few young mothers and looked for potential trainers. In the process, the teams learned that the best time for the training would be while the mothers were at appointments at the local health clinic. However, they also learned that the group of medical professionals they expected to provide the training were only available on Saturdays, but on Saturday the health clinic was closed. In the end, the away team was able to identify a group of nursing students who were required to do volunteer work and could do the training during the week. From Joffres’ perspective, the home and away teams provide a structure to help people examine their core assumptions – “walk people back” from their initial ideas and then “walk them forward again.” As Joffres explained, “You can’t just have ‘experts’ come in and tell people their ideas are problematic. They have to find it out for themselves.”
Joffres describes Tandemic’s work on the Unicef Youth Innovation Challenge as the culmination of all their work on using design thinking to address social problems. The Challenge, held at the end of 2016, invited young people from all over Southeast Asia to submit applications to address a pressing social issue in their community. From 660 applications, 77 were chosen to participate in a 6 week mentorship program focused on design thinking; 43 came to a three-day “boot camp” in Kuala Lumpur; and three finalists were chosen to get continued mentorship to help them to take their ideas to the next stage, and, ideally, get funding.
Looking ahead, Joffres is seeking ways to have a more direct impact on the Malaysian education system as well. The creation of a donor’s choose-type website for Malaysia took one step in that direction. That initiative raised over 300,000 Malaysian Ringit in crowd-sourced donations for projects that teachers proposed. But Joffres worried about the challenges of tracking the impact of those donations and is now changing focus to take Tandemic’s design thinking experience directly into schools by creating what he’s calling “innovation labs.” That work would involve teachers in identifying key problems that they face; Tandemic is looking for funders to support a small group of teachers who want to collaborate to try to solve those problems; and then Tandemic will provide the mentorship and structure to help those teachers to collect data, develop prototypes, and test them out. Joffres envisions this innovation lab as producing tools and resources that are relevant for many teachers and capable of spreading throughout the system with appropriate funding and support.
The challenges of influencing education systems from the “outside in”
All three of these endeavors draw on ideas and resources that cross boundaries, like digital videos, social media, and design thinking, to create new kinds of educational activities that fit the Malaysian context. While unique to Malaysia, these initiatives also share some of the goals and concerns of “bottom-up” efforts to build on the ideas and experiences of educators (such as the iZone in the US and eduLab in Singapore); of peer-learning education models that have taken off in countries like Mexico and Columbia; and of the work on improvement science in education and health.
Furthermore, despite the differences among the three initiatives, all three have spent the bulk of their time developing their initiatives outside the public education system in Malaysia, but all three are becoming more and more concerned with exploring ways to influence the government-run school system as well. While they have to contend with a highly centralized and regulated system with relatively limited capacity, they also face some of the same basic challenges that confront those who want to create new kinds of learning experiences in the US and Singapore. Most importantly, like those who create charter schools and afterschool programs in the US outside the regular public schools, they gain some freedom from government regulations to develop their ideas, but then they also have to figure out how their work on the “outside” can find a way into the regular system to influence the day-to-day education of most Malaysian students.
At the same time, even efforts to provide educational alternatives “outside” government schools still cannot escape the system entirely. All of these organizations still have to deal with the facts that attending university and participating in many careers in Malaysia means passing national exams and meeting national curriculum requirements (even those with law degrees from other countries have to take a course and get credit in Bahasa Malaysia in order to practice law in Malaysia for example). That means trying to “innovate” and develop alternative educational opportunities while still conforming to many of the existing constraints on conventional schools.
— Thomas Hatch