SOLS 24/7 sets out to level the education playing field
By Kiran Kaur Sidhu July 19, 2018
- Teaches computer science at RM59 a month and Cambridge English with a 96% pass rate
- Students with zero English achieve basic level in 100 hours, teacher training in two weeks
TO SUM up the experience of visiting the SOLS 24/7 centres, the words that come to mind are inconspicuous but impressionable. From an outsider’s perspective, the SOLS 24/7 buildings in Kuala Lumpur appear discreet and understated. But the social problems being addressed within the spacious but modest premises are no small feat.
The founder and CEO, Raj Ridvan Singh, says he used to prefer keeping under the radar instead of speaking about the work SOLS 24/7 does. “But I realise now that I need to talk and raise awareness because we can offer good solutions and programmes to the underprivileged.”
With multiple non-profit foundations and social enterprises operating under the SOLS 24/7 umbrella, the organisation is dedicated to solving problems through its wide array of programmes for rural and Orang Asli students.
Under SOLS Tech, the students are taught how to refurbish old computers. The organisation has gifted around 3,500 functional computers to the needy over the past four years, far exceeding donations made by top computer companies.
On top of that, their social enterprise arm SOLS Energy provides training to students teaching them to become solar panel installers for residential homes. “Today, we are the largest solar installers for homes with over 30 installations of our solar panels on customer properties.”
Raj adds, “The reason we got into the solar business is simple. We’ve been doing youth development for 10 years where we used to teach them information technology (IT). But with the influx of good and cheap foreign labour, it is becoming increasingly difficult for our Orang Asli youth to compete.”
As an indicator of the waves SOLS 24/7 has effected, it is worthy to note that this humanitarian organisation has trained 325,000 students from poor communities throughout the Asean region, with core subjects being English, Computer Science and Information Technology.
“No one cares about the poor. They always get second class, lower quality goods than us, which is what drives us to strive to provide them with the best we can,” Raj emphasises.
Learning English and Computer Science a must for all
Guaranteeing the credibility of its programmes, the social enterprise SOLS Smart, is a certified Cambridge English Language Assessment Centre and a Google for Education partner, one of seven in Asia. SOLS Smart also acquired Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) status which is a recognition by the government of Malaysia for ICT businesses which develop or use multimedia technology.
Although Google’s Computer Science (CS) First programme is free for everyone online, only Google partners like SOLS 24/7 can issue certification for those who complete the course. Talking about companies that charge expensive fees to teach coding, Raj says outright, “It’s wrong to do so.”
With a background as a computer systems engineer, Raj asserts, “It’s supposed to be cheap and available to everyone, instead of being exclusively for the rich who can afford enrichment classes.”
SOLS 24/7 offers classes at RM59 per month for six hours of lessons to address the issue of inaccessibility and generate income, a refreshing difference from the market rate of RM300 to RM500.
As for the English programme, those with little to no knowledge of English can achieve basic level proficiency after 100 hours of SOL 24/7’s programme. While the methodology and system have been subject to scepticism, its efficacy is undeniable.
Testifying to this, Raj says, “96% of our students pass the Cambridge Key (KET) and Business (BEC) exams and are deemed perfect for the employer.”
A common problem plaguing graduates in Malaysia is their lack of English proficiency. “Even with 11 years of schooling, 70% of our population cannot speak employable English,” he says. Raj believes SOL 24/7’s 100-hour programme is the solution.
In fact, he believes this is the exact reason SOLS 24/7 was given the mandate to run the Ministry of Finance’s Bahasa Inggeris 1Malaysia (BI1M) programme for the past two years. “We trained about 14,000 students every year.
“We have found a way to do it large-scale, cost effective and with impact,” Raj says about SOLS 24/7’s programmes. With the help of Berjaya Corporation Bhd, the programme has been implemented in 50 centres throughout the country.
Fuelled by passion, he reiterates that English and computer science should not be unaffordable, luxury products. “The only reason middle income households have good jobs is because of English. Why do we make it exclusive?”
Technology in the classroom for blended learning
It is not just the English learning programme for students that the organisation has designed, but also a training programme for teachers. Raj explains, “We have developed an app under SOLS Smart which enables anyone who can speak native English to become English trainers with our programme with only two weeks of training.”
The training programme provides a continuation for the Orang Asli students to work with the organisation and offer their services. One of the English teachers has been at the centre for four years in total, first as a student and now, as a teacher.
Miri, an Orang Asli local from Sabah, shares her experience, “Coming from a family of eight siblings, I only studied till Form 2 because of the financial difficulties my family faced.” The turning point for Miri to join SOLS 24/7 came after observing a positive change in one of her friends who had undergone the programme.
“Before SOLS 24/7, I thought the only path for me was to become a cleaner. Coming here, I fell in love with the programme. The way we were taught along with the support and encouragement we received really gave me hope,” Miri says.
Being a blended learning programme, the SOLS 24/7 solution couples the use of technology and books in a classroom setting. “Instead of teachers, facilitators are trained to follow the structure of the teaching system,” Raj says.
Citing a 10% dropout rate from courses on Khan Academy and Coursera.org, Raj believes teachers and facilitators are crucial to the learning environment. “It is human nature that only 10% of the human population is self-motivated. What about the remainder 90%? That’s where the schooling system plays a part.”
Raj hopes to continue work with the Malaysian government to create a greater impact with his tried and tested methods. “Otherwise, SOLS 24/7 could enter the market and franchise. But that way, it will be more challenging and take a longer time to address the issue that’s close to my heart, which is helping the B40 lower income group.”
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