As a bit of background, there are about 2,000 secondary schools in Malaysia of which 78 are Chinese Conforming Schools which are collectively known as Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan (SMJK) and are categorized under Bantuan Modal Schools.
The land where SMJKs are sited belong to the Board of Governors (BOGs) who are responsible for the physical development of the school. The key draw back for SMJKs is that the public at large is responsible for the funding of any school projects. The Bantuan Modal scheme provides only some grants for the schools' physical development. However the main advantage is that the school has the flexibility to implement projects without much interference from the authority.
One of the first things Mr Tiong did after being appointed as headmaster for SMJK Dindings way back in 1992 was identifying ICT as one of the key strategies for improving the school in terms of teaching, learning, communications and administration. He placed his vision for the school in a strategic paper and spent 5 tireless years turning SMJK Dindings into a high-tech learning institution. Readers might note that by 1997 the ICT and Internet bug hasn't really caught on in Malaysia. The Government only released the various tenders for the Smart School programme in that year.
During the 5 painful years, Mr Tiong traveled all over the country, “begged and twisted the arms of many people into donating to rebuild the school, netting more than RM1 million in cash and kind”. All that was raised went into the renovation of the older school buildings and the construction of a new three-storey building which is more often refers to as "cyber-classrooms".
The new building was fully 'connected' via conduits for data cables setting up a school-wide Local Area Network (LAN). The laying of the copper and fibre optic cables were undertaken by Sapura Network Integrator, Thomas & Betts, a US-based company and the students of SMJK Dindings.
Mr Tiong's enterprising spirit is almost unbelievable, even to a seasoned Internet entrepreneur like myself. Together with his students, they really went to the ends of the earth, enabled by the Internet to seek out the best deals for the schools with its limited funds.
While the initial years depended on the generosity of the local corporations such as Sapura Holdings, Hock Hua Bank Bhd and 3Com Asia Pacific Ltd, Mr Tiong knew that such consistent and continued charity are going to be hard to come by. Hence, key technology equipment such as hubs, switches, network interface cards and other computer accessories were purchased from eBay.com at a rock bottom prices when the Internet bubble burst. In fact, one of the students even traveled 6 times to the United States to ship the items back.
Additional hardware was purchased from Singapore or through local auction sites such as Lelong.com.my. In 2005, the school started to purchase large numbers of refurbished CPU and servers from Dell that come with 5-year extended warranty, part and labour. The deployment of the used and refurbished hardware certainly enabled the school to maximise returns from the limited financial resources.
So how “high-tech” is SMJK Dindings today?
Well, I can say that after reading his story, I have nailed a note in my head to visit the school one of this days. And I would encourage all Malaysian headmasters and headmasters-to-be to do the same, for there is much we can learn.
From what I can tell, the entire school is run using some of the best technology applications. Each student have their own RFID tags which linked themselves to the schools management system enabling attendance taking, school discipline via an online merit and demerit systems, library access, utilisation and much more. What is most interesting, is that not only will the system be accessed by the teachers, administrators and students, they are also monitored directly by the students' parents!
Mr Tiong is also not so “blinkered” by technology that he forgets the critical human factor.
“It is probably true that pupils have much higher levels of ability in ICT than many of those in the teaching profession. ICT is the new literacy skill and teachers have to grasp any available opportunity to enhance their ICT skills if they are to use it in the teaching and learning process. Pupils cannot be expected to become adept at the new technologies if the teachers themselves do not fully appreciate the potentials of these technologies.”It is well-known that teachers often take a longer time to learn the new technologies and to integrate them into the everyday curriculum. SMJK Dindings provides a wide selection of ICT training for teachers and administrative staff. All the staff members must attend computer lessons, one and a half hour each week, learning more about email programs, Internet search tools, web designing, Office tools, computer hardware and trouble-shooting skills, Windows installation and even digital photography.
With so much ICT equipment in the school, maintenance, the Achilles heel of typical Malaysian government projects, will certainly be have been a challenge. Instead, the school turned this challenge into an opportunity by forming “cyber-brigades” which are given responsibilities to keep system downtime to a minimal level.
The cyber-brigades comprised Form 2 to Form 5 students. Software and Operating System maintenance are assisted by Form 4 and Form 5 students taking Information Technology and Computer Programming courses at SPM level. Network and servers maintenance are undertaken by ex-students working in Kuala Lumpur, either remotely or on-site during the weekends.
The story of the students and alumni taking charge is highlighted in the Star Education supplement on November 5nd. The two young men picture there are Mr Tiong's ex-students who came back to help in install network cables.
One of the more interesting projects undertaken by students in the school included a hands-on experience in laying a 700m multi-modal fiber-optic cable linking the school with a nearby primary school and kindergarten. The campus-wide high bandwidth network was probably the first of its kind in the country that was commissioned and maintained by teenagers.
As part of the curriculum, students are also assigned projects by teachers to encourage them to do research on the Internet to complement their traditional subjects. Some tertiary colleges do not even encourage such activities, much less a typical secondary school.
SMJK Dindings was a dwindling school quickly losing relevance to parents even in the neighbourhood when Mr Tiong was appointed its headmaster. His task to turn the school around was not helped by its location in the village, sandwiched between an oil palm estate and a coconut plantation.
Today, parents from far and wide sent their children to SMJK Dindings to study ICT related subjects. Students, teachers, administrative staff and parents are able to access information about Real-Time Attendance with RFID, students discipline, examination management, library management and co-curriculum activity via Internet and Intranet. All this was achieved with a meagre RM2 million in cash and kind which was collected over the past dozen years or so.
This is in stark contrast to the efforts of the Ministry of Education, which has spent hundreds of millions to build smart-schools and very little to show besides poorly maintained and under-utilised computer hardware and ICT equipment. The Ministry of Education should perhaps consider appointing Mr Tiong as the Director-General in-charge of Smart Schools in Malaysia for I'm certain that he'll help achieve Malaysia's goals to provide quality education with less than half the budget in less than half the time for ten-fold the returns.
Is the Minister of Education himself, or his senior officials too proud to eat humble pie at the expense of the nation?
Thank you, Mr Tiong for helping make Malaysia a better place for fellow Malaysians. This certainly makes a great Malaysian and Christmas story. ;)