On Sept 13, 2011 I wrote about government’s plan to wire up all the schools in the country to the internet. The plan that has been in the doldrums since the sputtering Smart School project was more or less forgotten. Fast forward four years, the 1BestariNet contract was concluded last June and it was extended to December 2014 on interim basis. The Auditor General made a study of the project and it was tabled in parliament. We had a few sleepless nights preparing our answers to the findings of the Audit.
The main bone of contention is the user experience in accessing the internet. Schools expect the system to enable them to access the net from anywhere in the school compound at anytime. On the ground, users are complaining that they are not getting the connectivity that they thought they are supposed to get. The lines are either down, erratic, or too slow especially to the schools that are connected with Very Small Aperture Techonology (VSAT). The schools are supposed to get 4G connectivity with minimum 2Mbps, except for VSAT schools.
We must remember connectivity and accesibility is as good as the money you are willing to pay. Meaning, everything is tied to the Service Level Agreement (SLA) that you subscribed. You want a fast and efficient service you must pay for it. The Government can only pay as much especially when the number of users involved are humongous. Something like 10,000 schools, 450,000 teachers, 5 milion students, and 4.5 million parents are the potential users. As it is the Ministry is paying to the tunes of millions ringgit to pay for the connectivity, despite getting the cheapest rate available. So, the best solution is to manage the the bandwidth usage in an orderly manner so that everybody in the schools had to chance to access the internet for teaching learning purposes. The onus is on the school managers to schedule the access to the internet so that all users have equal opportunity. It is akin to traffic rushing home during peak hours where five rows of cars all trying to squeeze into a-two lane route. All would be jammed up. If a traffic policemen is available to regulate the entry into the two-lane route in an orderly manner, traffic would be smooth and everyone would be able to get home, albeit in a smaller number at one time. Of course we had the option of building a bigger highway with more lanes which definitely costs us more money. Likewise, we had the option of buying bigger bandwidth for faster speed and pay through our nose. That aside there is the issue of size of the application being accessed. You may be able to get internet connection but as you key in the address of your choice site you had to wait for ages for it to load. That maybe due to the size of the application is big and not properly optimized.
Saturday morning brought another shock. The phone was set to silent for the Friday afternoon meeting,I went to the mosque soon after and forgot to switch back to normal mode when I went to bed that night. When I woke up for the Fajr prayer and had a peek at the phone, there were numerous missed calls and messages – all pertaining to the passing of my officer. Just last week I met him to discuss our visit to Sabah to check on school ICT maintenance.
He was a sprightly guy with a ramrod demeanor. A no nonsense officer feared by many especially non performing contractors. I really appreciated his services as we need man like this to straighten out wayward school heads, school activity centres’ officers and he understood technical specification like the back of his hands. I can still remember him explaining things in his Sarawakian accent. With his passing, I lost a technical officer steep in the knowledge of ICT in schools. We had our arguments, all professionally done, him with his Sarawakian accent and me with my fake Sarawakian twang!
The sight of his son tugging the deceased foot underneath the blanket that covered the body, with tears streaming as if trying to revive him, was really heart wrenching. I managed to peek at his face. Rigor mortis has yet to set in. He looked so peaceful as if he was asleep. Goodbye Tajuddin, it was good to know you. May Allah bless you and put you amongst the solihin.
Casablanca, an Atlantic Ocean port City made famous by the movie. Even the taxi driver had a CD ready with exceprts from the movie to be played in their vehicle. The main attraction of Casablanca is the King Hassan Mosque. The frpnt portion of the mosque projected into the sea givng the impression that it is floating on the water.
It was a wet and blustery afternoon when we reached Casablanca. The mosque is very imposing but I was so disappointed that we have to pay 120 dirham to enter the mosque outside the five prayer times. It was about an hour to Asar when we reached there. I had to pray outside near the ablution area. I am not willing to pay 120 dirham to pray inside the mosque. I found it preposterous that we have to pay to pray.
Somehow our journey back from Guelmim to Rabat was a wet one. The nine-hour coach journey was interspersed with rain spells along the way. Due to the unfavourable weather we had to abandon our plan to stop at Casablanca. Somehow the journey back was a lot quieter and a few stops as compared to the incoming journey the previous two days. It was still back breaking all the same. One observation that I make, the rural areas of Morocco still retain the old style of fencing their properties with high solid walls with huge ornate gates. The walls are normally painted brick red, a colour pervasive throughout the buildings of Morocco, especially Marakesh. Even the Governor of Guelmim residence is surrounded by brick red high walls with guard post at the entrance. I reckon this hark back to the fiefdom days of yore. As we nears Marakesh, Casablanca and Rabat, the old fort style enclosure is slowly being replaced by normal chainlink fence or some other transparent fence.
By the time we reached Rabat it was pouring and we had to move straight back to the hotel to deposit our luggage, despite earlier instructions that we were supposed to stop for dinner with the Ambassador. We had to take a taxi to the restaurant where the dinner held. We must thank the Ambassador for taking the trouble to entertain us. The team from the Energy group who did not have to travel to Guelmim or Tan Tan were already there when we arrived. It was past normal dinner time. Still we were grateful. At least I had the chance to share tales of our journey with the professors from the Energy group.
The Education Group proposed that further collaboration with Morocco on two fronts, i.e collaboration between schools and collaboration on teacher training. We have to finalise the actual plan within 90 days. I hope I can mobilise our Bestari showcase schools to start engaging with their Moroccan counterparts immediately. Be ready SMK Sungai Pusu, SM Abd Rahman Talib, and SK Bukit Jelutong. Technology wise, I think we are quite ahead of them. I reckon we can get some sort of collaboration of environmental projects. At least some form of virtual connection must be established immediately.
There is this little town called Tan Tan facing the Atlantic ocean. To me the name itself conjure up the remoteness of the place. It is about three hours away from Guelmim, southwestwards. The journey through the desert was quiet except we have to stop three times for security checks. We were told,the guards stopped us to ensure our safety as the areas are bordering Mauritania, a supposedly unstable areas.
We arrived in Tan Tan well past lunch time and treated to another wonderful Moroccan lunch. This time we had a huge barbecued fish as the main dish.
Tan tan beach. The Atlantic Ocean waves looks formidable
Huge fish and squid for lunch. The fish is called dorna or something to that effect
The town is rather quiet at this time of the year. Maybe because it is winter time. I can’t write write much about the town as we did not really spend that much time except at the hotel where we had our lunch.
Our next destination is a school, Mansour Ehdhabi, really remind me of Maktab Mansor Adabi in kota Bharu. The welcoming ceremony compelled us to drink camel milk from a bowl – the same bowl. The milk so tasty, I could have gulped everything myself. Control man. Others still waiting in the queue.
Just a sip maam.
I am quite amazed that the school still enthusiastically received us even it was 6.30pm on saturday evening. They have put up all sorts of scientific exhibits for us to see. Again I am amazed at how confident their kids are explaining their projects, in English/Arabic/ French. But the best is spared for the last. The welcome party was conducted in a camel hide tent erected in the school compound. A real Samra tradition. And again we have to wear the jilabab, only this the jilabab were white and two sizes bigger. We left Tan Tan around 9pm, tired but quite happy.
Ummm..this thing can do…
the welcoming tent
Tea in the sahara
We were invited to have a dialog with the staff, lecturers, teachers and parents in Guelmim and Samra region at the Guelmim Academy. The session was chaired by the Academy Director, Abdullah Bouarfa.I have never seen such many people willing to listen to us in an oversea visit. It was quite an intimidating scene. They were about 50 of them, sitting around the huge meeting hall. I believe most of them can understand English but cannot express themselves in English. Funny they called teachers here “ustaz” as oppose to “professor” in Rabat and Marakesh. Fancy that I was addressed as Ustaz Shamsuddin!. So I switched from a professor to an ustaz within two days.
Since the focus of the visit is STEM, I presented some slides on how Malaysia is handling co-curricular activities to infuse science and technology in education. The slide, of course were prepared by someone else, I had the honour to present them. Quite a painstaking experience. Unlike in Rabat or Marakesh where we had simultaneous translator to do the translation, you just had to listen carefully through the headphone. Here we had to do it in the good old way. You speak a few sentences and you stop for the translator to translate them to Arabic. Then you continue and stop again. The start stop situation took a lot longer than the 15 minutes time slated for the session. In the Q&A sessions, we had to field 10 questions. Quite a lot for a Q&A session. A new record for me. The session lasted well into its fourth hour by the time we wrapped it up. Another record for me.
Guelmim suffered from major floods a few months back and you can still see the after effects everywhere. Even the lodging house where we were taken for dinner was not spared. As it was in the whole of Morocco, the use of electricity is as minimal as possible. The place was dark, even in the darkness, I can see the pathway to the restaurant was still spattered with debris and mud. The dinner was spectacular in a way were made to wear the traditional Saharan garb before we dinner was served – complete with the blue turban. And the jilabab and the turban were ours for keep. It was a really tiring day (and night). It was almost 11pm when we reached our hotel. I dozed off as soon as I put my head on the pillow, in jilabab and all.
A section of the participants in the briefing session
The men had to wear the jilabab.
And the ladies beautifully garbed in Saharan dress
I can pass as an African delegate for the south-south cooperation summit!
Here we go again, another 700km ride to Guelmim.
Our next destination is place called Guelmim, a little city almost to the southernmost of Morocco. Honestly I have never heard of the city.It was not even on the Google map (unless you zoom in the details). It is more than 400km away from Marakesh. As old adage said, it is not the destination but the journey that matters. The journey was well worth it despite the long hours and freezing temperature. Large part of the journey involved twisting roads through the famous Argan producing region. I must say I did not know anything about Argan oil but the ladies cannot stop talking about it as soon as they reached Rabat. Apparently argan oil is a much sought after beauty oil and Morocco is the only country in the world producing it. It is definitely expensive, in Rabat, I was told, 100ml costs 200 dirham.Trust the ladies.They know best.
I did not check the map but was made to understand that Guelmim is about 450km from Marakesh. Another long journey. We left early morning so that we can reach our destination by mid afternoon. We are supposed to have lunch with the Governor of Guelmim and visit a college. The journey was mixed pathways of motorways, state roads and winding mountainous roads. As soon as we left Marakesh, on both sides of the roads we can see a lot of greeneries especially olives orchards but as we moved further down south, the road become more twisted and the land become barren. This is the cacti, mountain goats, camels and argan land. Maybe because fresh green leaves dificult to come by, the mountain goats not only able to climb hilly and mountainous slopes, they can even climb the trees. I saw a few cases of goats happily perched on top of three to five metre trees! Amazing.
an Argan tree
Argan trees have been here for thousands of years
We reached Guelmim by mid noon and the Governor treated us to a sumptious lunch at his residence. We never expect this kind of treatment. He is a keen admirer of Tun dr M. We had to canstantly reminded him that TDM had retired many moons ago. In fact many people that i met in Morocco still talking about him every time they were told that we were from Malaysia. Such a hold that great man has on the Islamic world.
The dates that they presented as starters were really out of this world. The jewel dates are produce of Guelmim.
the magnificent jewel dates of Guelmim.
The fruit basket
Everywhere the protrait of the King is prominently displayed.
Dr Tebbins told me that Morocco is basically divided into two by the Atlas mountain range that diagonally straddled the country from northeast to southwest. The northern portion is the french influenced and greener fertile land while the southern portion (southeast rather) is the beginning of the Sahara desert and often referred as Bab al sahara (gateway to Sahara). The Atlas range is unique in the sense that it provide Morocco with a snow capped mountains and it is quite rare for a country to have a desert as well as skiing resort at the same time. That is the uniqueness of Morocco. We were taken half way up the Atlas mountains and the temperature quickly dropped to 10C from 19C in Marakesh. The hilly road has a wonderful poster panoramic view and the roadside are lined with shops selling rugs, tajin claypots, honey and other bric a brac peculiar to the area. We didn’t get to the top because it was late and we are suppose to have dinner in Marakesh. We had to turn back. I was grateful because I do not think I can stand the mountain cold since I was a bit under dressed. Gross misjudgement on my part of the weather situation.
View on the way tothemountain top
The Friday night dinner hosted by the directors of the ENS (Ecole Normal de Superior – Teacher Training Colleges) was a grand affair with lavish food and entertainment. Pity I was full and tired by the time they brought in the spring chickens. Not even the belly dance can shake the tiredness away.
Lavish spread, with plenty of bread.
I noticed that the ladies in Marakesh city centre almost like the ladies in any European cities. If not for their Arabic accent you wouldn’t be wrong to think that you’re in Paris. I even spied some of them smoking in the restaurant and riding motorbikes which are quite a rarity in the Arab world. But then again, Morocco is not Arabic country, so I was told by the American who accompanied us all along the trip. Actually he is accompanying his Moroccan wife who is our interpreter. Thank you Dr Tebbins and Dr Bulima for putting up with our incessant questions as well as acting as our tour guides.
The Renault that took us almost 2000km across Morocco .
The highway to Marakesh is also a tolled highway. If I am not mistaken we have to stop to pay toll in at least three places before we reached Marakesh. I did not see any card or tagging system being employed. But traffic was very light. There is hardly more than five cars at each booth. The highway is good like our PLUS highway but the the drivers are more disciplined and courteous. The fast lane is only utilised for overtaking. Once they overtook they wil move to the centre lane. How civil compared to road hoggers in our highway. Every public transport or hired buses traversing the highways will carry a simple tracking charts that can easily calculate the distance and the time taken to traverse that distance. The police can easly check whether the vehile had been speeding by checking this chart. And according to our driver, in his halting English, you can be fined even for the journey made two or three days earlier as the the chart has a daily record. It is just a simple paper record with some needles that indicate time you start your journey and distance you have covered since. fairly simple. Maybe our JPJ and Police can learn something from Morocco. Since the highways cut across mountainous regions, ever so often you would see safety run off areas being provided with sand pits to slow down and stop runaway vehicles. I believe PLUS only has this facility near the Menora tunnel southbound, built after the infamous former Jelapang toll accident.
The rest stops are numerously available at regular intervals and most of them have petrol stations, food courts and of course toilets. Unfortunately in some stops the “masjid” (prayer rooms) are unisex and have no place for ablutions. It is a real challenge to take ablution in the toilets and quickly run to the mosques, especially when the temperature hovers around 5C and it is raining as well. Fortunately, being a traveller in the western world before, I am quite prepared for it. I have even prayed in an open car park in the middle of winter in Scotland. but then that is another story. Funny they do not call the praying area musolla. I believe it is an arabic term. I used it to ask the attendant at one of the stop areas and drew a blank. I had to use a hand signal to indicate praying before I made myself understood. Again, Maghribi is not an Arab country.
One of the petrol stations rest stop areas
I was told that my name was selected to go to Morocco as a part of team to reciprocate a science technology engineering and maths (STEM) implementation visit by the Morroccan team last year. I thought nothing of it after that info came through as the ministry had in past made last minute decisions for approval. Even though the trip is partially funded by National Science Academy (ASM). I was too busy to think about it with the impending visit to Singapore at the behest of Microsoft is also in the pipe line. As it happened the trip to Singapore was approved a day before the traveling date. It was fully funded by Microsoft Malaysia, and I reckon with that came the quick approval.
The conference was a fruitful one. We had the opportunity to share the many facets of implementation of ICT in Education in not only Asian countries but in South America as well. The VP for HP regaled us with a story of how the Bolivia implemented the 1 student 1 device initiative. Not unlike the effort that we are trying to implement in Malaysia. Lesson learnt: It has to be a holistic effort by the Government, involving the Education Ministry, the Production Ministry and other agencies. It is still early stage yet. And to reduce price, the Production Ministry allow local companies to set up local productions facilities.
American international school, Singapore
Microsoft took us to an Exchange event in An American International School. It is a USD300m facilities with all the trappings of a top notch school. I wonder how much the parent had to fork out to enable their children to be sent here. As it is in many facilities in Singapore the school is merely 100m away from the MRT station. I reckon this is part of Microsoft attempt to showcase their prowess in the computer in Education world.
Among the interesting activity that took place is the “Mystery Skype” session between two schools. The organizer would set up a skyping session between two schools. Neither school knows what the other is and its location. They have to pose a series of YES or NO questions to the opposite school in order to guess the location of the opposite school.I saw the two participating schools actively discussing possible questions to ask, rapidly consulting the google maps, atlas, and their teacher. A very lively session. I guess this is what they called learning is fun. I just hoped the content of the learning is equally well absorbed by the students. Learning is no longer the purveyor of the teacher. Dr Sugatha Mitra, in his Hole in the wall experiment in India said, student will learn by themselves even without a teacher.
Mystery Skype session
The highlight of the event was the announcement of the Microsoft 150 showcase schools. Malaysia did not do that bad. Three of our schools were selected and given the plaques of recognition. Congratulations to leaders of Sk Bukit Jelutong, Shah Alam, SMK Sg Pusu, Gombak and SMK Abd Rahman Talib, Kuantan.
So now to enliven the motto “expect more, do more and be more”.
Showcase schools award winners