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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

With E-learning, Universal Education Finally Comes of Age

By OOI KEE BENG, Editorial in Penang Monthly, July 2021.

LIKE SO MANY generations before me have done, I associate learning with schools. With buildings to which little uniformed boys and girls trudge before the day gets warm. With teachers who share knowledge generously but who keep doubting themselves. With exams that hang like a guillotine over the fate and fortune of the young.

And with holidays… those few weeks when one can wake up late, as if that were something that has to be granted by others.

Well, Covid-19 has had a thing or two to say about this whole way of life. Coming at a time when the digital revolution looms over all institutions of learning, threatening merciless disruptions of the type that has so far destroyed the taxi business, the retail shops and the travel trade, the connection between learning and schooling has never been under as grave public suspicion as it is today, at the tail end of the pandemic.

E-hailing, e-shopping and e-travel have reconfigured our options and our behaviour beyond recognition within a decade, while the handphone happily transformed our channels of information and our social life. As with these and other aspects of life in the post-2020 era, we have to reconsider the critical issue of Education. For one thing, we have to start dissociating “learning” from “schooling”.

Schools as places where young people congregate in order to be systematically taught matters of life, death and the afterlife have been around for centuries, since the times of the ancient Egyptians and Chinese.

But before modern times, schools were either elitist or religious – perhaps with the exception of the Chinese Confucian system, but even there, the works to be studied were highly standardised. Only with the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution and the nation state as standard for human organisation, did universal education become a real possibility.

To my mind, universal education is tied to universal suffrage and to other modern mass phenomena such as assembly line production, mass media and citizenship rights – not forgetting world wars (within which I would include colonialism) and global environmental destruction. Where universal education was concerned, teaching the scientific mode of thought to the young became the generator of school curricula the world over, and of examinations. I am not dismissing the existence of resistance to this trend, which has often come in the form of religious studies, but this is often considered an aberration, even in Malaysia despite strong governmental support for religious studies in school curricula.

What this universalisation, this massification, of human activities and interaction with other humans and with Mother Nature has amounted to in the long run is what we perceive as “globalisation”. And the digitalisation – all the phenomena classified under IR 4.0 – that is ruinously disrupting all the patterns of globalisation inherited into this millennium is but the next giant step in this process of integration of human experience.

The Genesis of Universal E-learning

Intellectual development has thus been considered a process happening within the school system, stretching from primary to secondary to tertiary levels. In recent decades, the oddly-named pre-school learning has been added on.

Outside of this are institutions concerned with the teaching of practical skills rather than with knowledge acquisition as such. But in recent times, the line between these and traditional teaching institutions has become blurred, as if being a harbinger of things to come.

With digitalisation crashing through the school door, and with universal e-learning being enforced upon the world during the Covid-19 pandemic, the school system runs the risk of being emptied of relevance. Just as we wonder what we are to do with empty office buildings, we will have to deliberate over what we are to do with empty school buildings as well.

Looking back, it does seem strange that so many generations in modern times, in these apparent enlightened times, were brought up to think that the point of learning was to get a good job, and the time of knowledge acquisition ended with the final exams. To put it controversially, this left us with half-educated populations, whose learning process slowed down drastically or even stopped after school; and who considered knowledge to be a collectively imbibed asset that could be traded and showcased, and not a product of individual thinking giving depth to experiences of life.

With e-learning as an easily and universally accessible and accepted norm, periodising of the learning process will now disappear. This is extremely exciting indeed, and the consequences run very deep.

Being able to combine courses and subjects as one wishes and for personal development and not necessarily to get a job; and to learn at any time in one’s life and as a matter of right and inclination, like going to the gym…. doesn’t that sound like universal education has finally come of age?


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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