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In The News

Date: September 2, 1998

Malaysia Begins to 'Wire' Its Classrooms
By Thomas Fuller

KUALA LUMPUR - Just paces away from Kuala Lumpur's shopping malls and high-rise hotels is the city's most elegant anachronism, a colonial-style schoolhouse.

Modern Kuala Lumpur has swallowed up Bukit Bintang Girls' School, a primary and secondary school, that has been here since 1930. The twin Petronas Towers, the world's tallest building, loom over its hockey field and a four-lane, traffic-clogged street loops around its periphery.

Students sit in spartan classrooms with doors and windows open to the world - the classes have no air-conditioning - as the sounds of the city bounce off the concrete floors and wooden ceilings.

''We thought all along that it was not suitable for the kids to be studying in that environment,'' said Najib Tun Razak, the Malaysian education minister. ''It's chock-a-block, the noise level and all that.'' Last year, Mr. Najib and three private-sector companies did something about it. The Education Ministry decided to swap the valuable land on which the school stands for a fully furnished, $25 million campus on the outskirts of the city.

Computers will replace chalk boards. Each classroom will have eight terminals, and students will rely on the World Wide Web and educational software as much as textbooks.

Also swept away with the old school, officials say, will be traditional teaching methods. The new school will serve as the prototype for the next generation of Malaysian education facilities, known as smart schools, a plan to bring the Internet and multimedia teaching aids into all of Malaysia's 8,000 primary and secondary schools by 2010.

It's an ambitious plan in a country where a large share of schools are located in rural areas. Hundreds of them don't even have electricity.

The program will start modestly, with 90 schools opening next year, involving about 80,000 students. The ministry has budgeted 120 million ringgit ($27 million) for the first stage of the program in addition to private-sector contributions.

The plan could be not only a jolt to the educational system as a whole but also bring a redefinition of the role of the teacher, especially at the rural schools.

''Traditionally, the teacher is all supreme in class. He or she is expected to be the purveyor of knowledge,'' said Muhamad Khairuddin, coordinator of the smart school program at the Ministry of Education. ''In the outlying areas of the country, the teacher is usually the most educated person in the community, a very authoritative figure.''

With the Internet and computer software brought into the classroom, the teacher will become what the ministry calls ''a guide on the side.'' The role of the student, too, will change.

''We are moving eventually toward a model in which students take examinations as and when they are ready,'' said Mr. Najib. As a first step, the ministry is giving students an exam that gauges their performance and allows them to skip a grade if they do well.

For Malaysia, revamping its educational system and immersing its students in the culture of the Internet carries high stakes. Its political leadership has been encouraging a fundamental shift in the country's economy toward information technology: software development and multimedia applications.

It is a vision that will require the country to improve its computer literacy rates. Today, just 14 percent of households in the country have computers.

But in terms of its overall educational system, Malaysia has a head start. Unlike many of its neighbors, the country's educational resources are liberally distributed in the countryside, a legacy of the British colonial days. Literacy is nearly 90 percent and major newspapers carry weekly education sections.

If the smart school program is successful, rural schools could benefit most. Ministry officials point out that it is much easier to provide a small, remote school with an Internet connection and a few computer terminals than it is to buy hundreds of books for a library.

But looming over the entire program is East Asia's economic crisis. Plans to send teachers for training overseas have been canceled and the ministry has been forced to cut back the number of computers in each classroom.

''We had some very ambitious plans initially to have a very high computer to student ratio, but unfortunately we've been hard hit by this currency turmoil,'' said Mr. Najib. ''We've had to revise our plans.''

THOMAS FULLER is a special correspondent for the International Herald Tribune in Malaysia.


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