MUCH has been reported about the Covid-19 pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked in many people’s lives.
In the education sector, teachers and students have not been spared the ramifications of the unprecedented health crisis.
For almost one and a half years, both teachers and students in Malaysia have had to grapple with the abrupt migration from physical lessons to home-based teaching and learning (PdPR).
With this shift came issues such as poor accessibility to digital devices and Internet connectivity, low student engagement, PdPR fatigue and learning losses.
While efforts have been made by education institutions and the respective ministries to cushion the pandemic-induced impact on teaching and learning activities, the fact remains that more needs to be done to ensure the efficacy of PdPR and improve educational outcomes.
Even as schools have resumed physical lessons in stages beginning Oct 3, and tertiary institutions will reopen their doors from Oct 15, based on phases of the National Recovery Plan, PdPR for most students is likely to continue for some time yet.
Armed with a strong community spirit, an increasing number of Malaysian youths are stepping up to help those struggling with PdPR. Extending a hand through non-profit organisations and movements set up in response to the pandemic, they have shown that youths are capable of identifying problem areas and effecting positive change in times of need.
Having begun as a consultancy research project, Rakan Tutor sets out to supplement PdPR by providing free one-to-one tutoring for underserved secondary school students left behind in online studies.
“What we realised from our research is that students’ pandemic experience can be really poles apart depending on their backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses,” Rakan Tutor co-founder Eer Kai Song, 25, told StarEdu.
Eer went on to say that when teaching and learning moved online, a lot of teachers were caught off guard without any experience in distance teaching, resulting in very low student engagement.
“Therefore, a lot of students slowly lost interest or couldn’t follow,” said Eer, a consultant at McKinsey & Company London on secondment to an early-stage start-up in Malaysia.
This struggle is magnified in areas where teachers have limited access to technological teaching assets, and in the B40 community where students are often preoccupied with supporting their households and struggle to gain access to sufficient devices or Internet bandwidth.
Another Rakan Tutor co-founder Kaveen Parthiban, 21, said, the initiative aims to equip students with the skills and confidence to perform better academically, while giving them the motivation to achieve their fullest potential.
The idea was partly inspired by government initiatives in countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy and the United States where significant improvements to learning loss have been produced.
Rakan Tutor also aims to mentor students beyond academics.
“Through the one-to-one relationship, they can start talking about what they want to do after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or outside of their studies,” shared Kaveen, who is pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Warwick in the UK.
“We can also help them identify what they want to achieve in life, help them goal-set and work backwards,” added Eer.
The personalised learning format enables tutors to customise learning plans according to tutees’ individual needs.
The one-to-one structure also provides flexibility in terms of timing where tutees are able to arrange their schedules for when they are able to access the Internet or use shared devices.
Furthermore, students with limited bandwidth can use WhatsApp to continue their learning, instead of relying on video meetings.
From August to November, the first cohort involves 250 tutors and SPM candidates each, and focuses on the SPM Mathematics subject.
Tutors were mostly recruited via social media and the core team’s personal connections.
“We also got other organisations like the Malaysian societies of UK universities, volunteering societies of Malaysian universities, AIESEC and different community project-based societies involved,” they said, adding that the initiative quickly drew Malaysian youths who were eager to contribute.
To recruit tutees, Rakan Tutor decided against the easy route of simply opening sign-ups to the public.
Instead, they chose the slow and manual process of reaching out to teachers nationwide to introduce the Rakan Tutor initiative and get them to recommend students in need of help to ensure the opportunities go to the right students.
“We felt that the easy route wasn’t the right way to do it because we care a lot about the impact that we create,” they said.
Rakan Tutor’s 32-strong core team is made up of individuals from a wide range of professional backgrounds, helming the organisational divisions of marketing, tutor management, student management, programme management, and partnerships.
The team also comprises Rakan Guardians who manage tutor pods and tutor leads to ensure all volunteers receive the necessary resources and mentorship, creating a support network within the Rakan Tutor community.
Taking cognisance of the need for tutors to be well-equipped with the necessary skills, tutor workshops and training sessions on pedagogical skills were conducted with a focus on empathy.
“We want to make sure that these volunteers who might not be from a B40 environment, or actually might be from a very privileged environment, will be able to communicate with the students in a very respectful, sensitive way,” said Eer.
Based on the performance of its first cohort, Rakan Tutor will explore offering different subjects or collaboration projects in hopes of further growing the programme and ensuring its sustainability.
The team recently raised over RM48,000 to support its programme costs such as purchasing online tutoring materials or textbooks and subsidising data packages for students who struggle with Internet access.
The funds will also be used to conduct criminal background checks on potential volunteer tutors to ensure the students’ safety.
To find out more about the programme, go to: https://rakantutor.org/
It was her own sense of disengagement during online classes that gave Universiti Malaya (UM) student Latashah Vallimanalan the impetus to create an initiative that would help upper secondary students make up for learning loss due to the pandemic.
“We also want to provide students with career mentoring to plan their lives post-SPM,” said the 22-year-old of EdVenture, which she co-founded with William Yip, Sri Yamuna Permaloo, Chong Sheng Yang and Samantha L. Kesh.
All five undergraduates are participants of the Youth Leadership Academy by McKinsey & Company.
A social entrepreneurship programme, EdVenture is aimed at providing free tutoring, workshops and mentorship for the less-advantaged, especially the B40 community.
It offers free classes for Mathematics, Additional Mathematics, History, Chemistry and Biology, with the first cohort officially launched on Sept 1.
Starting this month, classes are offered to students from other backgrounds, as well.
These students, however, will be required to pay a fee: RM50 for one subject, RM70 for two, and RM90 for three.
“Teachers at school are burdened with managing between 30 and 40 students in a session; there are bound to be gaps in the learning process.
“That’s why EdVenture was created – to fill in the gaps,” said Latashah, a former participant of The Star’s BRATs Young Journalist Programme.
EdVenture limits each class to 10 students to ensure optimal learning, and the tutors are made up of tertiary students to create a more relaxed peer-to-peer learning environment, she added.
Prior to the official launch in September, Latashah and her team held three pilot classes via an interactive video conferencing platform known as Gather Town.
The platform incorporates a retro-style video game background and allows students to customise their own avatars, creating a stimulating classroom setting for a fun learning experience, she shared.
The positive feedback received from the attendees has, she said, “motivated us to push EdVenture further” despite the challenges of bringing it to life.
Among the hurdles the team members who are scattered across the country had to overcome were juggling their academic and extracurricular obligations, as well as working together remotely.
“We learned to work efficiently and to really find the time for EdVenture,” said Latashah.
In late August, the team organised their first series of workshops where a panel of speakers composed of local and international scholars shared insights into scholarships offered in Malaysia.
As they plan to grow the initiative, the team is looking for more volunteers to aid in their expansion.
For more information on EdVenture, visit: www.instagram.com/my.edventure/
A guiding light
Bimbing, which means “to guide” in Bahasa Malaysia, was first launched in January this year to offer free education and career guidance for students.
As the nation was in the throes of the pandemic last year, Meharvan Singh and his peers observed that schoolgoing students, especially SPM candidates, were missing out on career counselling and scholarship advice.
Concerned about the uncertainties faced by these students, the 19-year-old, together with a group of young Malaysian professionals with a passion for education and career development, decided to form the non-profit social enterprise – which falls under the education and career pillar of Gerakan Belia Se-Punjabi Malaysia.
“There were many Form Five students who were very lost due to the change in their SPM dates and had a lot of uncertainties about their education pathways.
“Some were unsure if they should take a year off, and some had very little time between getting their results and starting their foundation year,” the Bimbing co-founder and lead coordinator shared.
He added that there were tertiary students who had to stop studying as their parents had lost their jobs and had no income to support their education.
“This is a huge issue with very limited attention from the Malaysian people,” said the Sunway University student.
The Bimbing initiative kicked off with its Post-SPM Series, which comprised six online sessions addressing common topics of interest among post-SPM candidates such as scholarship applications, the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) loans, and enrolment in Malaysian public universities.
It then held its own Virtual Career Day, which was a two-day online event that saw more than 300 participants gaining insights and industry knowledge shared by speakers from 10 industries.
Since then, the initiative has expanded to not only organising events that empower and develop youths, but also adults and even senior citizens – with the goal of empowering all Malaysians.
According to Meharvan, Bimbing’s four main portfolios encompass Bimbing For Kids, focusing on guiding children under the age of 15 and their parents; Bimbing Post-SPM for upper secondary, college and university students; Bimbing for Professionals focusing on upskilling working adults; and Bimbing for Retirees focusing on the financial, emotional and social aspects of post-retirement.
As part of Bimbing For Kids, the team actively conducts online talks to address issues pertaining to children’s education and the role their parents can play, he said.
Currently operating with the help of 20 volunteers, Bimbing’s main challenge is extending its reach to more people nationwide, Meharvan shared.
The team, he said, is fully utilising social media platforms as a means to promote and advertise their events and activities.
“We are looking to find more ways to expand our reach and we are hoping to recruit volunteers from around the country who can help expand our reach in their areas,” he added.
Not content with just holding virtual webinars, Bimbing has plans to set up an education fund and mentorship programme called “Anak Bimbing”, which is focused on mentoring, and providing financial support to, deserving B40 students.
Additionally, the team hopes to work hand in hand with the Education Ministry and private think tanks or non-governmental organisations on education-related initiatives.
For more information, check out @officialbimbing on Twitter and Instagram.
Reacting to struggles
Even students at the tertiary level need an extra lift when it comes to adapting to the e-learning environment.
For Jonathan Jeremiah Edward, the president of the Student Council and the Rotaract Club at Taylor’s University, his immediate concern was helping students prepare for their Cambridge A Level (CAL) examinations held last month.
Jonathan and his team organised online learning workshops called “Rotaract Reacts: to the Struggles of A-Levels” in the weeks leading up to the examinations.
It was part of the Rotaract Reacts series by the Rotaract Club, where it takes it upon itself to respond to struggles faced by students at Taylor’s University and the general public.
Each participant was charged RM5 for each of the four sessions, with the revenue and donations totalling over RM1,000 channelled to the Dignity for Children Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that provides holistic care and education to poor urban children in Kuala Lumpur.
“The idea was born in June, when the impact from prolonged virtual online classes was getting more evident by the day. The close exposure to the struggles inspired my team and me to help the students,” said Jonathan.
In carrying out their initiative, the 21-year-old and his team encountered a few challenges which included inviting speakers for the workshops.
The lecturers at Taylor’s University were their first choice of candidates. That idea, however, did not come to fruition as the lecturers were busy preparing for a workshop they had planned for the students.
Therefore, the team had to seek external speakers, which they managed to accomplish in the end.
To ensure the workshops achieved their goal, surveys were conducted among the students to understand the subjects and topics they were struggling with. The results were then shared with the speakers so that more attention was given to these topics, said Jonathan.
“The workshops featured really great speakers. I was glad we were able to raise over RM1,000. In the future, we’ll try to push this initiative to a bigger scale,” he said.
Besides this workshop, the club has organised an event called “Rotaract Reacts: to the White Flag Movement” where it sold custom-made affirmation cards, stickers and digital artworks to raise funds for people struggling during the pandemic.
For the club’s ongoing activities, check out: www.instagram.com/rotaract.tlc/
Jaclyn, Divya, Iylia and Mae Xin are participants of the BRATs Young Journalist Programme run by The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) team. Throughout the year-long programme, participants aged between 14 and 22 from all across the country experience life as journalists, contributing ideas, conducting interviews, and completing writing assignments. They get to earn bylines, attend workshops, and extend their social networks. To join Star-NiE’s online youth community, go to facebook.com/niebrats.