Malaysia to make coding part of school syllabus … 25+ years later

  • There was a plan to make computers part of the syllabus … by 1990!
  • The Malaysian school system’s track record doesn’t give one much hope

Malaysia to make coding part of school syllabus … 25+ years laterMY Facebook feed yesterday was peppered with The Malay Mail Online story that Malaysia would make coding part of the syllabus in national schools starting next year.
 
The revelation came via Yasmin Mahmood, chief executive officer of national ICT custodian Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), previously Multimedia Development Corp, who said an official announcement would be made in August.
 
At a forum on the digital economy organised by Google Inc, she said computer coding will not only be taught as part of a computer science subject, but will also be incorporated into the pedagogy of teaching, especially in science and maths classes.
 
READ ALSO: Slow Internet speeds damping Malaysia’s digital economy aspirations: MDEC CEO
 
Details are scarce at the moment, not surprisingly. Malaysia’s Education Ministry and school system are not known for consistency, with many a policy flipflop in the last few years, especially around the use of English in schools.
 
English being the lingua franca of the tech world, interestingly enough: The idea was that we would teach math and science subjects in English so that our students would be able to connect to the greater world of knowledge and information-sharing out there.
 
But the current administration couldn’t stay the course and gave in to the right-wing elements in its own party, people who insisted that learning English was an attack on our sovereignty and would create a disadvantage for the Malay-Muslim majority.
 
In some ways, coding is the lingua franca of the digital world. It would be interesting to see if we can stay the course this time.
 
But at least Malaysia is finally doing something about it, many of us were probably thinking. It’s a good sign.
 
Too bad it is coming more than 25 years after a similar commitment was made.
 
In 1988, the then Education Minister Anwar Ibrahim – now the jailed leader of the Opposition party – announced that computer skills and programming (the old-school term for ‘coding’) would be part of the curriculum by 1990.
 
I remember it clearly because he announced this as the keynote speaker at the Microfest computer conference and exhibition that used to be organised annually by The Star, currently Malaysia’s No 1 English daily. It got me my first byline in the main paper, even it was a shared byline.
 
Over the next few years, the IT industry and education sector followed developments very closely. Teachers were supposed to be trained. Few were. There was a plan to wire up all schools in the nation with copper, then later fibre. The Internet happened, and that plan was forgotten, while the timeline kept shifting.
 
By then, Anwar had moved to the Finance portfolio and his successor at the Education Ministry, Dr Sulaiman Daud, was left to pick up the pieces.
 
Slowly but surely, the idea of making computers part of the school system was put on the backburner, only to be reignited once in a while when votes were being sought.
 

Malaysia to make coding part of school syllabus … 25+ years later

 
So why am I bringing up the distant past, when I had a lot more hair and a lot less belly? Things change, administrations come and go, and we should look ahead and not back.
 
But the thing is, the same thing happened in the recent past. In 2012, the Malaysian Government kicked off the 1BestariNet project, which promised laptops for every child and Internet connectivity for every one of the nation’s 10,000 schools.
 
But that was not all: The project included the use of the ‘Frog’ virtual learning environment (VLE) for teachers, students and even their parents.
 
1BestariNet would cost the Malaysian taxpayer RM1.5 billion (nearly US$500 million at the time) at least, and would take 13 years, we were told. And the project was handed on a platter to YTL Communications, the telco arm of the powerful YTL Group and the company behind the YES 4G service.
 
But there were issues about connectivity and the building of telco towers in school compounds, and yes, again, teachers were not trained. All this led civil advocates and Opposition leaders to describe it as a spectacular failure, and even the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee recommended it be scrapped.
 
So we’re now back at square one.
 
Malaysia to make coding part of school syllabus … 25+ years laterBut to be honest, I think Yasmin (pic) and her team at MDEC are the right ones to lead this charge.
 
I bring up the team because the idea goes back to the time when her predecessor Badlisham Ghazali was in charge.
 
In a press conference announcing details of the Digital Malaysia programme, which seeks to transform Malaysia into a ‘digital economy,’ he told Digital News Asia (DNA) on the sidelines that he and his team had been in discussions with officials at the Education Ministry to make coding part of the syllabus.
 
But all credit to Yasmin for seeing this through. And people who know her, especially in her time as managing director of Microsoft Malaysia (2006-2010), have pointed out that this was part of her ‘Citizenship’ vision for the company – ‘Citizenship’ being Microsoft’s version of corporate social responsibility (CSR).
 
But this is Microsoft, so Citizenship is CSR on public policy steroids, where the company seeks to make a positive contribution to the economies and communities it operates in – and of course, making sure its technologies can play a key role. [Disclosure: The writer was also an employee of Microsoft Malaysia, from early 2010 to late 2011]
 
To be fair, introducing coding in schools is a good idea. It’s the new literacy for the digital age. But good ideas are nothing if not met with equally good execution.
 
And we need leaders with the political will to see it done as transparently and as openly as possible, where there is proper consultation with all stakeholders, including teachers, schoolchildren and their parents.
 
Then, and only then, will we not be playing catch-up with Indonesia, which also intends to make coding part of its school curriculum next year.
 
Related Stories:
 
1BestariNet becomes political hot-button issue
 
APAC students want coding as a core subject in school: Microsoft study
 
Yasmin Mahmood – driver, not the driven
 
 
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