Wednesday, December 07, 2005

43] Cybernetic Technology and Ideology of Schooling in Malaysia

Issues and institutions of educational reform in a developing and cybernating society: Case study of forces of influence in the Malaysian “Smart Schools” project By Azly Rahman Columbia University Introduction Third World countries undergoing economic changes modeled after the advanced industrialized West most strategically focus their human capital revolution efforts via the process of educational restructuring which attempt to shift society from industrial to information-based. Thurow (1997) wrote of this phenomena in the historical development of capitalism in which advanced communications revolutions in the telematics industry has coerced nations into shifting their educational agenda for social reproduction to cultivate “brain power industries” in order to gain competitive advantage. McMichael (1996) analyzed the complex relationship between the so-called developing states in the international capitalist system, concluding that the former are relegated to the role of production houses for the advanced nations progressing into the Age of Networked and Digital Economy. Among the nation states in East Asia, Malaysia has been categorized (at least before the financial crisis of July 1997) by the World Bank (1993) as one of whose growth rate is “miraculous”, an “East Asian miracle” as it is termed, judged by indicators such as Gross National Product, per capita income, and openness to foreign investment. In this essay, I shall look at the relationship between Malaysia’s strategic plan for creating , via educational process and schooling as mechanism, a citizenry literate in technologies of cybernetics, the role of governmental institution involved in this plan, and the issues arising out of the mega-structural reform movement. This essay will be guided by the following questions: i. as it relates to a change in developmentalist paradigm, what is the nature of educational change engineered in the Malaysian “Smart Schools” project and how does it relate to international institutions involved, using Conflict paradigm as a framework of analysis? ii. as it relates to process of change, in what way is the project illustrative of the transfer of ideology and discourse relating to cybertechnology inherent in the global phenomena of a “wired and borderless world”? iii. as it relates to the players (actors) involved, what role do the multinational corporations and the government play in the initiation, implementation, and institutionalization process? In attempting to answer the questions, I have outlined the discussions within the context of the initiation, implementation, and institutionalization of the idea and weave through the issue of the embededness of political-economic discourse and the institutions involved in this structural reform. Scenario Independent Malaysia which emerged from centuries of Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese and British colonialism is an example of a nation-state which recently embarked upon a developmental quantum leap, from a semi-agricultural base to a high tech-high touch information-based social and educational transformational paradigmatic evolution via its announcing of the creation of “Smart Schools.” The concept, directed by the centralized top-down Ministry of Education and made to co-exist in tandem with Malaysia’s transformation into a “cyber society” is an attempt to technologize schools so that “democratization of learning, teaching and living” can be finally and fully realized. The case study from its initiation, implementation, and institutionalization aspects will discuss Malaysia’s “smart schools” as a planned change effort in light of its political-economic, sociological, and pedagogical dimensions. Fullan and Steigebauer (1982) in their analysis of the sources of educational change, note that changes in educational policy entailing in educational restructuring effort oftentimes are initiated out of society’s need to respond to complexities emerging; those which force governments or institutions to respond to the pressures which arise. “We can take it as a given that there will always be pressures for educational change in pluralistic societies. These pressures increase as society becomes more complex.” (p. 17). Quoting Sarason, Fullan and Steigelbauer (1982) summarized that “innovations get generated through a mixture of political and educational motives” (p.27). What pressures for change and what political and educational motives then lead to the Malaysian initiative of the nation-wide, internationally linked, ideologically inspired concept of wired or cyber learning and teaching called the “smart school” project? Initiation history In early January of 1997, as a lecturer in Thinking Skills, I was invited to represent the university I worked with to the first session of the unveiling of the idea of the smart school. The idea of the “wiring” of the Malaysian schools can be summarized by a communique from the Ministry of Education (1997) which read: By the year 2010, all the approximately ten thousand Malaysian schools will be Smart Schools. In these schools, learning will be self-directed, individually-paced, continuous and reflective. This will be made possible through the provision of multimedia technology and worldwide networking. (p. 1) The plan for such a purposeful change was thus to utilize computer-mediated learning technologies particularly the Internet and the World-Wide web so that the national agenda of creating a “cyber society” will be realized by a targeted metaphorical date of year 2020. Echoing Sarason (1996) on the need to look at changes in the school system as derived from inside and outside the schools (p. 12), and from Fullan and Steigelbauer’s notion of political and educational motivated innovation (p. 27), the case of the initiated “smart school” concept can be said to be derived not only out of “first-order” analysis, but particularly apparent and dominant out of “second order” dictates --- out of political-economic perception of what constitutes progress and how education must respond to them. As the “smart school” concept relates to this second order changes, the Ministry of Education (1997) notes that: Malaysia needs to make the critical transition from an industrial economy to a leader in the Information Age. In order to make this vision a reality, Malaysia needs to make a fundamental shift towards a more technologically literate, thinking workforce, able to perform in a global work environment and use the tools available in the Information Age. To make this shift, the education system must undergo a radical transformation (p. 1) The Minister of Education announced that the first Smart School is being built with a cost of Malaysian Ringgit 144.5 million of which, aside from it being “wired”, “will also be equipped a hostel for 800 students, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a hockey pitch, a hall and other facilities” (Business Times, 1996, p. 3) It is also said that the school will start operating in January 1999 and eventually all Malaysian schools will be operating based upon this concept. The idea of democratizing the school system via the “wiring up” of learning would be an interesting area to be analyzed if one takes as a point of analytical departure Darling Hammond’s (1997) assertion on the criteria for schools that will work: The success of today’s effort will ultimately rest on whether educational policies continue to enforce a bureaucratic approach that emphasize standardization and prescription of practice or whether they support a professional approach that arms teachers with the knowledge they need to teach skillfully and make appropriate decisions. (p. 34) Along this line of assertion too Darling-Hammond (1993) talked about the need for reform movements to take into consideration the developing of “communities of learning grounded in communities of democratic discourse” (p. 761) In the case of the Malaysian “Smart schools”, it is thus the focus of this case study to mediate between the top-down mega-structural changes imposed by the Ministry of Education with the bottom-up response from those affected by the changes within the context of the meaning of educational change. Will the initiated change work? How does one measure the “democratic-ness” of the intended and purposeful change? Can equality and equal opportunity be achieved particularly in the distribution of resources needed to make future generation of Malaysians “cybernetic” in thinking? Which socio-economic class will benefit from this technology-intensive, political-economic driven educational transformation effort? These are the questions, which will be explored further in the next section on implementation and institutionalization. As to whether equality and equal opportunity will be achieved, a scenario of social transformation goal constructed within a perspective using the Conflict paradigm can perhaps answer the question of “who will benefit?”. Implementation Whilst in the previous section on initiation history I have alluded to the idea that the Malaysian Smart School project signify a phase in educational change situated within the context of paradigmatic insistence that the nation must be technologized as such so that its citizenry can become technologically literate and hence be able to participate as information workers in the laissez faire international system, the political economic context of such a proposed mega structural change need to be elaborated. The guiding question will thus be: what is the context, modus operandi and intended roles and relationship subsumed in the project’s implementation stage? More specifically, as this section will address are the philosophical, ideological, psychological, and pedagogical issues relating to it which guides and provide the driving force of this new technicist thinking about what educational change must constitute. Although Sarason’s (1996) analysis of the culture and problem of change is powerful in attempting to provide us a point of reference of moving from looking at change from its regularities to alternatives, it merely and particularly describe change at the micro level of schooling in the American context. The value of Sarason’s (1996) idea may perhaps be in his call for us to adopt the ecological approach in looking at change. Transposing this idea to the context of the Malaysian Smart School thus not only require one to look at the project within the macro level as it relates to curricular and pedagogical issues but also at the macro level of what Steiner-Khamsi (1998) called the “circularity of transfer” and the “displacing of reforms” of post-colonial educational system, Wallerstein (1990) called dependency in the world order and Bourdieu (1994) called “habitus” vis-a-vis to the transfer of discourse. We proceed, in the following paragraphs to look at the universe of alternative undertaken in the smart school project by drawing upon the “big picture” notion of implementation as described by Fullan and Steigelbauer (1982). Sarason’s (1996) concluding remark, that “…[c]onstant attention to both the content and process of reform and their complex interrelationship is required” is useful in my ecological analysis of the implementation of the Malaysian Smart schools. It entails one’s looking at the big picture of ideology and schooling and how the latter as a process of economic, political, cultural, and social reproduction is intrinsically-linked in a matrix of complex relationship within an ideological nemesis that perhaps only a critique of ideology can offer analytical help in order for it to be understood. Or perhaps the postmodern tool of Chaos or Complexity theory grounded in the critique of ideology can best be of utility. What then is this big picture? The picture of change is, in the Baudrilliardian sense, a fascinating one. Malaysia, under the rule of its Prime Minister of 17-years, Mahathir Mohamad has of late embarked upon the creations of a cyber-society run from an administrative capital called CyberJaya within the techno-cultural context of so-called a “Multi-Media Super Corridor” (MSC). The MSC is a built in on several hundred square kilometers of area in which “seven flagship applications” will be its feature. It mimics California’s Silicon Valley and Singapore’s cybercity concepts among others of which Malaysia will be moved to a new paradigm of living based upon the “humane application of high technology” manifested in the sub concepts of electronic government, tele-medicine, electronic banking, electronic commerce, and pertinent to our analysis, the smart schools. The biggest airport in Asia, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport was recently opened to facilitate the development of CyberJaya. From the “wired-up” capital city as the initial program of mega-structural change, the Malaysian government planned to create cyber-principalities out of the thirteen states constituting the federation. It is envisioned that by the metaphorical year of 2020 the country will have achieved the status of fully industrialized nation able to compete with other advanced industrialized nations namely the United States of America, Europe, and Japan and that such an advancement would however be based upon a strong foundation of religious and moral values. Thus, through its “smart schools” of which the prototype will be operating on January 1, 1999, future generation of this nation will be able to fully and democratically participate in the Information Age. The country has now specialized universities among them moving towards the total implementation of the Internet as a mode of delivery. One that was recently established itself as the first “virtual university” in the country prides itself in its total absence of physical interaction between the student and the instructor. The implementation stage can be looked at from the international and national dimensions within the perspective of the institutions involved as well as the issues at hand. The international advisory panel of the mega-structural change project is perhaps more impressive than those who sat in the 1980s Nation Commission of Educational Exchange (NCEE) who amongst of others insisted on creating a technologically literate America able to sustain the unchallenged preeminence superiority of the most powerful nation on earth. In the case of Malaysia, the government has invited, as advisors among others CEOs of the following corporations: Acer Incorporated, Alcatel Alsthom, Microsoft Corporation, SUN Microsystems, Bechtel Group Incorporated, British Telecom, Cisco Systems, Compaq Computer Corporation, DHL, Ericsson, Fujitsu Limited, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Motorola Corporation, Netscape Communications, Reuters, Motion Picture Association of America, and tens of other giants in the telematics and media-related industries. Professors of Business and Public Policy from Silicon Valley’s Stanford University and Alvin Toffler of Toffler Associates are also among those guiding the development of Malaysia’s cyber initiatives. Malaysian subsidiaries of these giants in the world of trillion-dollar club transnational corporations have been set up in the development of the Multimedia Super Corridor. The multi-billion dollar airport recently opened thus is an important infrastructure to help these trillion-dollar companies land quickly and safely to the MSC. At the national level of implementation, a landmark decision (passed in August 1997) is the creation of a Ministry of Multimedia and Information as a restructuring project of the Ministry of Information. The cybercity and all its cyberstate ideological apparatuses, the “seven flagship applications” will be under the electronic and telematic tutelage of this new ministry. The smart school project is currently under the Ministry of Education and with the creation of the Ministry of Multimedia and Information, it is not entirely clear yet how the context of its operation will be situated. Reflecting upon Sarason’s (1996) notion of ecology in social and education change, and focusing upon the case study of the Smart Schools, I have attempted to situate the macro-level context of the implementation, drawing upon the idea of the transfer of Silicon Valley idea of how a society is engineered to look like. I have also mentioned the context of change at the national level, characterized by a planned effort in paradigmatic shift, akin to what futurists such Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt talked about as, respectively “the third wave” and “megatrend” of which structural transformations are conjured and brought to heights determined by the semantically- and semiotically-driven notion of “Information Age” under the shibboleth of “corporate developmentalism” of which technological advancement and its attendant demands is presumed of its neutrality. A critical analysis of this discourse on technologism and “techno-hype-ism” will be dealt with in the final part of this essay subtitled “institutionalization”. As a further point of case-study focus on the issues and institutions in the development of Malaysian education, I proceed to look at how the “Smart School project” is to be implemented as a top-down, technology-driven, corporate-capitalist ideologically- constituted agenda as it relates to its philosophical, ideological, semantical, psychological and pedagogical dimensions. Through such a level of ecological analysis, the picture of change can perhaps be logically perceived. In looking at the implementation stage at the national educational philosophical and curricular levels, it would be worth looking at the scenarios conjured by those in the Ministry of Education on the potentialities of computer-mediated learning as a “liberating force”. Since this case study looks at the Smart school as concept in the process of being implemented and not one which has been, discussions on its implementation will thus take the form of an analysis of the project’s intended outcomes relying upon analysis of scenarios. The description of the scenes from a day in a Malaysian Smart school (see Appendix) almost read like Arthur C. Clarke’s scenario of life in the year 2010; one in which the human being is further “liberated” from the mundane and uncreative aspects of learning to living and learning in a cyber society via telematics and informatics. Before moving to a critical discussion on the contexts related to the implementation at the national level, it is imperative to look at a view, in the paragraph below on what constitutes “technological determinism” as an ideology as it relates to the issue of professional control in this age of infomatics and how this in turn relate to the structure of teaching and learning, how knowledge is conceptualized, as well as how the technological model of teaching is to be employed in the Smart school project. I now turn to a brief discussion on the issue of the presumed neutrality of technology. Taking Beninger’s (1993) notion of “control revolution” as a point of concern and a framework for analyzing the human dimension of technological change, we can look at the Smart School project as a Third World nation’s economic developmental phase in integrating itself in the advanced stage of Computer Revolution which has historically emerged as an apparatus of human and social control. The tone of the communiqué on the Smart School, is one of a nation having the unquestionable faith in the inevitable progress of the Computer Revolution and the post-positivist euphoria of Information Age. It echoed the believe that technology, in all its neutrality will bring forth creative evolution for generations ahead via the social reproductive means called education, in the tradition argued by Herbert Simon, the “Father of Artificial Intelligence,”. Simon (1986) believed in our keeping of options in our planning for alternative futures through the epochal advances in our society, and in this aspect, the advances made in the Computer Revolution. Simon’s ideological orientation in equating social progress with the parallel development of technology can be logically understood. This orientation can be derived from many a common-held belief in the presumed neutrality of technology and the paradigm of equating human thinking with the inner-workings of the artificial intelligence manifested in computers. There are however, issues which need to be addressed both, in case of Malaysian Smart Schools and in the overall interpretation of educational planning, implementation, and institutionalization within the domain of human-machine interface. Whilst at the megastructural level the changes which have been influential in the decision to create Smart school is characterized by the ideological notion that Malaysia need to progress via technologizing society, at the nation-state level, educational restructuring takes the character of top-down reform within the matrix of the creation of the billion-dollar Multimedia Super Corridor. Zooming in on the implementation of the Smart school, particularly in the nation’s preparation for the radical technological shift in the manner educational change is framed, the following paragraphs will discuss ways by which the implementation process takes shape. Particularly important will be those on the infrastructural changes undertaken, teacher training initiatives planned, and the nature packaged knowledge designed. As it pertains to infastructural changes, the ambitious Malaysian Smart School project which attempt, by the year 2010 to technologize 10,000 schools has its focus the setting up of tools of cyberlearning so that knowledge can be electronically distributed through high-tech high touch means. As noted in the communiqué: Smart schools invariably demand a heavy investment in multimedia infrastructure. The hardware would include computers and peripherals, video and voice-conferencing equipment and the backbone of telecommunications infrastructure … The software will comprise word processor spreadsheets, networking software, e-mail-software, Internet browsers, authoring tools and training software. In addition, schools will require the creation of interlinked national and local databases and research center. The infrastructure is not incremental to the current information technology deployment but orders of magnitude higher. The successful planning, procurement, installation and maintenance will require a radical change in approach. (MoE Communiqué, p.1) Indeed such a plan to adopt infrastructure mimicking the way information technology is used in advanced industrialized countries is characteristic of a Third World nation’s ambivalence towards the concept of “appropriate technology, available resources.” It misses the point concerning transfer of concepts natural to the environment of advanced nations which already historically rich in technology and enculturalized into it. Fullan and Steigelbauer (1991) quoted research by Scandamalia and Bereiter (1989) on the use of computer-assisted learning to enhance understanding of subject matter in a cooperative learning manner. The project, CSILE – Computer-Supported International Learning Environment is one in which: Students interact with outreach databases to pursue and pose questions, construct plans for gathering information, elaborate what they know, and wonder, and the like. Students identify certain notes as “candidates for publication” (sharing) or as “candidates for submission to our biology expert” (either the teacher of someone designated outside the classroom). Thus ‘learning becomes exploration rather than task-driven.’ (p. 188) Indeed the above-quoted scenario of cyber-learning can perhaps contribute to the democratization and in-depth ness of learning if we look at it from a pedagogical perspective. However, albeit a liberating picture of technology utilization portrayed in the CSILE project, the case might turn out to be different for the Malaysian Smart School project. It must again be looked at from the standpoint of an implantation of a radical concept which will carry with it an expensive educational price-tag in foreign investment, technology transfer and the cost involved in restructuring teacher training to meet the demands of the cyberschools. For Canada, United States, Europe and Japan – owners of the means of production of cybertechnologies related to teaching and learning – the infrastructural development and the technological culture seem second nature. For Malaysia and other Third World nations wishing to “catch-up” with the West, the race might never be a fruitful one after all. From my experience as a visitor to the Open Learning Agency in Vancouver Canada and my discussions with those involved with the Smart School project, the information gathered is that the prototype for the Malaysian Smart School is a high-tech, wired high school in Vancouver visited by key policy-making officials of the Malaysian Ministry of Education. Perhaps out of the fascination of how technology can help “democratize learning” and out of the misunderstood notion of the meaning of educational technology as it is related to the meaning of education itself, the officials overlooked the nature of infrastructural changes which will have to be implemented and the astronomical budget involved. It is thus a political-economic issue with transfer of discourse at its core. At the level of teacher training, plans are being outlined to train cyberteachers to work with cyberlearners in cyber schools within cyber cities soon to be governed from a cyber capital. The communique from the ministry, concluded in a language synthesizing technological determinism, top-down reform and “swim or sink attitude” can be illustrated as follow: The most crucial aspect of training would be teacher training. There needs to be a careful mix of intensive training and counseling to help teachers adapt to the new environment. This will be critical in order to dispel the natural insecurity and fears of redundancy that will arise from this radical paradigm shift in teaching methodology and hence the very role of teachers. (P. 1) The language is hence illustrative of the limited choice given to teachers in determining the options open for understanding what teaching means. It seems to focus entirely on enabling technologies themselves rather than enabling teachers to master a repertoire of teaching techniques which do not necessarily demand high technological investments. In short, the language is illustrative of the idea that teachers need to be prepared “what to think about” rather that what Darling-Hammond (1997) would say “how to think” and design their own methodologies so that the concept teaching for understanding can be realized. To quote Darling Hammond on the critical success factor for teaching: The success of today’s effort will ultimately rest on whatever education policies continue to enforce bureaucratic approach that emphasizes standardization and prescription of practice or whether they support a professional approach that arms teachers with the knowledge they need to teach skillfully and make appropriate decisions. (p. 34) Although the communiqué allude to the idea that the mindset of the teachers need to be prepared for the Smart School environment which will be characterized be “self-paced, self-directed, and self-accessed learning” (p. 1) the cyberschool project is predominantly clouded in language of heavy infrastructural investment colored by the idiom of corporate restructuring focusing on infrastructure more than intellectual endeavors: Effective implementation of Smart Schools will require funding for the building of new schools will all its multimedia infrastructure, upgrading facilities in existing schools and teacher training institutions and for the maintenance of new technology introduced. Over the duration of this project, this will require several billion Ringgit Malaysia (RM). While the dramatic increase in budgetary allocation is necessary, it is unlikely that it will be sufficient to fund this mega-project. Innovative methods such as private sector funding, corporate and community involvement and sponsorships and smart use of the excellent infrastructure after schools hours, will need to be explored. It is also interesting to note that parallel to the implementation of the Smart School as a cyber learning initiative is planned and purposeful change to implement the principles of Total Quality Management so that Malaysian Schools will, like the manufacturing sector, be certified with the ISO 9000 (International Standards of Operation 9000) The Ministry of Education has announced this initiative as a vision to turn schools as “a wellspring of knowledge” and for them to become world-class education centers consistent with the Total Quality Management concept and ISO 9000 quality standard” (p.1). In elaborating this vision, the Deputy Education Minister is quoted as saying that: The implementation of the systems would also alleviate disciplinary and social problems… [and that the systems are to be implemented because]… TQM and ISO 9000 have become global benchmarks reshaping competition and organizations around the world which is why its concepts must be learned and factored into our education system. (p. 1) If the top-down efforts are characterized by the demands of transforming the entire system into one technologized in nature demanding shifts in teacher mindset and quality assurance in the manner schools will be controlled, what then could be the nature of implementation relating to the body of knowledge to be passed down to the student? In other words what kinds of learning and teaching paraphernalia will be used in creating a learning environment, which has the vision and mission of creating a technologically literate citizenry? What courseware will support the implementation process? These questions will be explored in brief before we move on to the scenario of an institutionalized concept called Smart School. The discussion on courseware and the mode of teaching and learning via electronic means can offer an insight into the shape of education to come circa year 2020 in a cyber Third World nation such as Malaysia. Institutionalization The setting up of the Smart Schools within the Malaysian government’s project to establish Cyberjaya and Putrajaya claimed and trumpeted as two of the world’s first intelligent cities, is a technological deterministic step towards further linking the nation to the world’s financial capital. And within the perspective of school as a means of social, economic, political and technological reproduction, Smart Schools are aimed at producing citizens able to function effectively in the Information Age. Whether the control of high-technological production is in the hands of the few in the techno-industrialized West and whether nations such as Malaysia plunging itself in this long term of uncertainty and in the wheel of international capitalist machine, are not the issue in educational reform. The idea and implementation of such a controlled paradigm of development and progress, once institutionalized, will carry consequences anathema to the idea of educational reform based upon the use of “available technology and appropriate resources” constructed within a paradigm celebrating grassroots, bottom-up and humanistic initiatives. The impending question of technological-based education reform movement in the case of Malaysia will perhaps miss the question of “who will benefit” in such claims (contd.)

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AZLY RAHMAN is an educator, academic, international columnist, and author of nine books on Malaysia and Global Affairs. He grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University doctorate in international education development and Master’s degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies communication, fiction and non-fiction writing. Twitter @azlyrahman.