Constructing Sustainable Digital Learning Environments for Remote Rural Children of Sarawak

Norazila Abd Aziz1, Mohamad Fitri S2, Rethinasamy Soubakeavathi3
  1. Research Fellow, Institute of Social Informatics and Technology Innovation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia. Email:
  2. Research Fellow, Institute of Social Informatics and Technology Innovation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia.
  3. Research Fellow, Institute of Social Informatics and Technology Innovation, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, Malaysia.


Together is a word we must learn to understand,
if we ever want to get to know each other better.
Together is a word that holds tomorrow in its hand.
Tomorrow's just another day to get together,
and...Get closer, closer, closer.

In the late 70s, a US television program for children called the Big Blue Marble aired on a Malaysian local television channel and it provided children in the country the opportunity to learn about the lives and activities of children from other parts of the world. There was also a segment on pen pals, which helped children connect with each other through writing, though they may be worlds apart in terms of geography, culture, language and traditions. A line in its opening theme song summed up the essence of the show - "Together is a word we must learn to understand, if we ever want to get to know each other better". It signified the importance of togetherness, sharing of ideas and exchanging of experiences in order to better understand and appreciate the cultures, beliefs and traditions upheld by children from various communities around the globe. At the time of broadcast, snail mail was the only mode of information sharing, and the ideas and experiences exchanged were mainly in verbal form. Forty years on, upon reflection, how information was shared between children across the globe has evolved through ICT media, children today are more likely to engage in email correspondence rather than using conventional mail to connect with friends, old and new, from around the world. Prensky has aptly labeled today's children as the Digital Natives (Prensky, 2001), Email has become a central part of the lives of the Digital Natives which also include computer games, social networks, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging, all of which suggest that these children function best when placed in a networked digital environment (Prensky, 2001).

However, it needs to be acknowledged that not all children who are born in the 21st Century can be classified as Digital Natives. There are digital gaps among children, particularly for those born into underprivileged remote communities (Mohamad, et al., 2010). For these children, their encounter with technology, particularly computers, would only be in schools, during school hours, and with the high student-computer ratio at most rural schools, the opportunity for them to access the computers is slim. Statistics from the International Communication Union (ICU) indicated that the gap in online presence continues to exist between the populations in developed and developing countries. Approximately 71% of the developed countries' populations are online, in comparison to only 21% of the populations in developing countries (ICU, 2010). The figures, however, do not suggest that the digital divide is only an issue for developing countries. In each nation, a social divide is apparent between its rich and poor in terms of technology access. Moreover, a democratic divide also emerges within the online community between users who use and do not use Internet resources to engage, mobilize and participate in public life (Norris, 2001).

Various studies have shown that technology can effectively contribute to the learning experience of children (Schacter, 1999; Roschelle, 2000; Gulek & Demirtas, 2005), particularly those who had regular and sustained use of the technology in their learning (Cox, 1993). Improvement in learning has been attributed not only to the learning experience from computer but also with computer (Jonassen, 2000; Ringstaff & Kelley, 2002). The former refers to the use of technology as a 'tutor' where functions involve providing drills and practice and tutorial for learners. The latter positions technology as 'intellectual partners' to support their engagement in higher order thinking (Jonassen 1996; 2000). It has further been reported that technology is capable to facilitate content expansion of children's learning by exposing them to ideas and experiences that would be inaccessible for most of them any other way (Roschelle, 2000). In addition, an increase in student achievement would take place if equality in access is provided. It means that technology should no longer be used as a shared commodity (Gulek & Demirtas, 2005). Ringstaff and Kelley (2002), however, assert that desirable learning outcomes from technology use are contingent upon a number of conditions. These include availability of sufficient and accessible technological resources, not just in school but also at home, as well as appropriate long term planning for technology diffusion which takes into account the goals and needs of the school community.

Studies investigating rural children's experiences with technology have reported its significant effect on developing the children's learning (Inamdar, 2004; Kamat & Shinde, 2009; Mohamad, et al., 2010; Nayak & Kalyankar, 2010). One of the renowned studies on using technology for rural children's learning is the 'Hole in the Wall' experiment, first used by Sugata Mitra in 1999. Mitra hypothesized that any set of children can acquire basic computing skills, provided that access to a suitable computing facility is made available for them. He proved that it was possible for learning to take place even without the presence of teachers. The rationale for the finding may have been triggered by the fact that learning experiences are based on the learners' own discovery and the collaboration among them helped learning to advance (Mitra et. al., 2005). Mitra's findings suggested that the primary elements for such learning experience are the individual interest for learning, collaborative interaction and accessibility to technology. Presence of technology is seen to be able to generate interest and discussion about its potential use, especially among learners from geographically challenged locations. Another prominent technology initiative which focuses on education development of rural children is the Shilpa Sayura project in Sri Lanka. The project focused on providing interactive digital content in Sinhalese to prepare the students for national examination. Instead of schools, access to these materials is obtained at the rural telecentres (OECD, 2009). The utilization of rural telecentres in the project suggests their plausibility to provide educational information to the rural learners (Niranjan et. al, 2009), as well as serve as a resource centre for the rural community's development in ICT and in other aspects of living (Norizan & Jalaluddin, 2008).

Efforts to bring technology to rural communities have been undertaken in the Asia Pacific region (UNESCO Bangkok, 2005; McQuaide, 2009)). In Thailand, for instance, a program on 'literacy development through computer software' was carried out during 2001-2002 at two remote villages. The success of the project led to the implementation of another project on 'inter-village connectivity and empowerment through ICT in rural areas' to a wider rural audience (UNESCO Bangkok, 2005). Among the lessons reported based on their implementation experience are that awareness of technology functional importance would be greater when its use is linked to solving community problems, and not restricted to only school-based content; and that rural children and youth should be encouraged to become active partners in their community growth. By doing so, a higher level of sustainability in both ICT and community development activities can be achieved. During 2003 to 2007, the Chinese government implemented what it claimed to be the largest ICT project in the world. This project focused on improving the quality of basic education in rural China through a distance education project for its rural schools (McQuaide, 2009). The technologies and all learning materials were prepared for the rural schools and the teachers involved were trained on how to use the materials using the technologies provided for them. However, the requirement to use the 'packaged' learning materials turned out to be one of the challenges faced in the project implementation. The materials designed were regarded to be unsuitable to meet the needs of the rural learners as they were not drawn from the experiences and settings which the children were more familiar with. The Chinese experience infers that the content for any learning initiatives targeted at rural children must be based on local needs and context. Technology introduced to the rural learners will only have impact if it is used in a context which they can relate to.

Research context

Since 1998, a team of researchers from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) have been working on engaging remote rural communities in Borneo with applications of technology. Social informatics is the key element in all research projects carried out by the team whose specific areas of research interest range from computer science, information systems, and engineering (alternative/renewable energy) to social sciences, cognitive sciences, commerce, and language. The team employs a people-centered participatory approach in all its research projects to empower rural communities to harness the potential of technologies for social and economic development. It is believed that a strong rapport between the research team and the community, and an understanding of local needs for socio-economic change, must first be established before any innovation could be introduced, diffused and embraced by the community involved.

The first rural remote location which the team worked with is Bario, a relatively small site nestled in the plateau of the Kelabit Highlands, not far from the Malaysia-Indonesia border between Sarawak, Malaysia and Kalimantan, Indonesia. Bario, which literally means 'wet wind' in the ethnic Kelabit language, is home to approximately 1000 people, majority of whom are the Kelabits, one of the smallest ethnic groups in Sarawak. The Bario people mainly work as farmers and their main livelihood comes from the vast rice and pineapple plantations. Due to the geographical isolation of its location, there are only two possible ways to access the site - on air and on land. The journey by air takes about an hour from Miri, Sarawak using a 19-seater Twin Otter airplane, whereas the land journey takes about 14 days of trekking across forested mountains. To reduce the number of days spent trekking on land, a river journey from Sungai Baram could be used, and although it takes approximately about 4 to 5 hours, the route is available only until Marudi, another small remote location in between Miri and Bario. The rest of the journey would have to be on foot and would take about another 3 to 4 days of trekking. Of late, logging trails have also been used to access Bario, but the journey requires the use of sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicles to brace the challenging deep ravines and muddy pathways along the way.

Prior to the commencement of the Bario project, also referred to as the e-Bario project, the people of Bario solely relied on generator set or solar power for electricity (Hushairi Zen, 2004). There was no 24-hour electricity supply available at the site nor was there any treated water. Communication between the people of Bario and those from other locations was carried out using radio calls or in the form of messages relayed and obtained from arriving or departing passengers at the airport. Similarly, medium of communication exchange could also come from those arriving and departing from the other access points.

The funding received by the research team enabled them to provide significant technology donations to the two schools at Bario. The first recipient was the Bario Secondary School. This school provides formal education, only from Form 1 to Form 3 (ages 13 to 15), after which the school pupils would have to attend their upper secondary levels at schools in nearby towns of Miri and Marudi. In January 2000, to accommodate 10 computers, a printer, a scanner and a generator set, the team together with the school community set up the school's first computer laboratory. The setting up of the computer laboratory, with similar equipments for the Bario Primary School took place about a year later. The primary school provides formal education from Primary 1 to Primary 6 (ages 7 to 12). With technology in place at these schools, the members of the research team with expertise in technology literacy conducted the Information Technology Literacy Program for the school community. Another significant development in this remote rural community was the establishment of Gatuman Bario in 2001. This community telecentre was equipped with computers and VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) connection enabling Internet access to be in place. In addition, public telephones were also installed to improve the communication between Bario and the world outside.

Over the next ten years from the time the research team first started work in Bario, more technologies have been introduced to the community. Different technology engagement activities have since been conducted to enable the community to capitalize on the potential of technology for community development. The telecentre has since been established as a testing ground for technologies to be deployed in other rural communities in Borneo (Mohamad, et al., 2010).

Objectives of research

This paper describes part of an on-going research project carried out by the e-Bario education team which generally aims to investigate the impact of using technology to supplement classroom learning among children of remote rural locations in Sarawak, Malaysia. Specifically, the project focuses on assessing the feasibility of developing a technology literacy programme in an informal setting. The program used digitalized local content which are selected and built to sustain and enhance local cultures, beliefs and traditions that already exist in these remote rural locations.

The project is divided into five main phases which include (i) baseline data gathering, focusing on assessing availability and conditions of technology at both Bario schools and the telecentre, as well as identification of initial beliefs of the school community on the potential of technology to enhance and facilitate the formal learning experience of the pupils; (ii) piloting a technology literacy program, which adopts the concept of Universal Playground that aims at promoting interactions among children from various locations using a secured Internet based environment and in doing so encourages development of an understanding and appreciation of diversity of culture and traditions of children from these locations; (iii) deployment of the Universal Playground program to children of Bario and an investigation of their perceptions of the potential of technology to facilitate learning and develop cross cultural communication and intercultural awareness; (iv) construction of a digital learning environment that facilitates development of technology literacy, using localized content and experiences of the remote rural community, and encourages collaboration and information sharing in knowledge creation and local knowledge preservation; (v) deployment of the digital learning environment to other rural remote sites in Borneo.

Detailed findings from the first two phases have been reported elsewhere (Mohamad, et al., 2009, 2010). This paper focuses on findings acquired in the third phase of the project, specifically the implementation of the ICT program which uses the Universal Playground concept with Bario school children. Feedback from the school children and other community participants involved in the study is also presented in the paper.


The third phase of the research was conducted over a period of a year in 2010 using a participatory action research approach. It involves an iterative cycle of planning, action, observation, and reflection. Engagement of the community participants in all cycles was vital to the project to instill a sense of belonging and ownership to the project.

Findings from the first two phases of the project were referred to in the planning stage of the third project phase. An analysis of baseline data, carried out in mid 2009, indicated that there was poor Internet connection at both the primary and secondary schools at Bario, and the information has led the team to decide to conduct the technology literacy program at a venue closer to the telecentre, which had been identified to have a more reliable Internet access and speed. The only venue with a layout adequately spacious to accommodate the project participants and within close proximity to the telecentre was the town hall.

At the beginning, the team conducted a series of meetings with local school administrators and community leaders to introduce the concept of Universal Pslayground, as well as to determine their views and interest in collaborating with the team to implement it with their school children. The initial feedback from the local gatekeepers were positive. They expressed keen interest to be involved in the project as they also felt that it would provide an extraordinary experience for Bario children. They also promised support for successful implementation. Permission from the Sarawak State Education Department was also sought and favorably granted during the same timeframe.

The initial planning was also based on the response received from program participants who were involved in the pilot stage of the project. The pilot group consisted of thirty children from three rural schools located close to the university and thirty one program facilitators who were university student volunteers. An ICT program from NPO Pangaea Japan was chosen as the core technology integration programme used in the research project. The ICT program, termed as Pangaea, has been successfully conducted at other locations around the globe, for instance in Japan, South Korea, Austria and Kenya. However, the proposed implementation at a remote rural location would be its first. Hence, it is pertinent for the team to pilot the implementation to ascertain issues specific to technology experiences of rural children in Malaysia, specifically in Sarawak. In general, the remote rural children in Sarawak had very little experience with technology. At first, they were unsure of the possibility of participating in a digital playground with children who they had not met and did not even share the same language with. At the end of the program, after a series of activities had been conducted, which also involved web cam activities with children from Japan, the children indicated great interest in sharing their cultural experiences with their new web-friends. They would also like to explore further the possibility of using technology to learn more about the culture and traditions of their new friends. Considering the positive feedback from the pilot group, at the end of 2009, the research team flew in to Bario to finalize the implementation plan with the school administrators and community leaders in Bario. It was important that program activity dates were agreed upon by all involved so that logistical aspects could be arranged in advance. In addition, information about the program participants, their total number, including facilitator volunteers had to be finalized before implementation could be put into action.

Five activity days were chosen for program implementation, with the first one scheduled at the end of January 2010. In the beginning of the same month, a program introductory session involving all 20 Bario children participants and 15 facilitator volunteers was held and basic information about the children's technology experience and expectations was obtained via individual interview sessions. The facilitator volunteers were advised to provide strong support and encouragement to the children. They were also informed about the preparation required before each activity session and the reflection activity that followed at its end. A key person was identified from the facilitator group to act as the intermediary between the team and the program participants. All updates about future program activities for the year would be communicated to the key person. This person would be responsible for information dissemination and basic program preparation, including managing any other requirements necessary for the running of all planned activities with the children in Bario. The first meeting enabled the team's technical support to check on the technical requirements and setting needed on every actual activity day.

In general, each program activity day would start with the pre-activity preparation, followed by the planned activities, and end with the reflection and feedback from the team and the facilitators. The planned activities can further be grouped into two types - the local and the web-cam activities. Local activities refer to the face-to-face activities which require the children to complete some artworks, such as drawings of their virtual houses, rooms, and villages, which later would be scanned and uploaded to the internet via a specially designed secure web environment called the PangaeaNet. The children were also able to view and comment on other children's artworks which had been uploaded from other program locations. They were encouraged to share ideas and exchange experiences with each other using pictons (pictorial letters or pictograms). By using pictons as the means of communication, the children focused on the messages to be exchanged and did not have to dwell on linguistic competency or skills. The local activities were carried out in January, April and August of 2010. The web-cam activities, on the other hand, enabled the children to interact with children from other program locations in real time. Those who have established correspondence via PangaeaNet could further develop virtual friendship bonding through use of various games and activities. Two of the program activity days were web-cam sessions, the first was in May 2010 with the children in Kyoto, Japan and the second, in October 2010, with the children from the pilot group at UNIMAS.

To further investigate the children's perception about the ICT program used and the activities that they took part in for each program activity day, pre and post program activity interviews were conducted. The pre program activity questions focused on their beliefs about the culture and traditions of children from other program locations, their ICT experience in terms of knowledge and skills, as well as their expectations from the project. Meanwhile, the post activity questions centered on their views on the day's activities, whether they had found the experience meaningful and what they hoped to be doing for the next program activity day. Additional information was asked on web-cam activity days to determine their prior knowledge about the country (e.g. language, culture, traditions) and location of the other group of children they would be having the web-cam activity with. Similarly, the post activity questions would also seek their views about the day's activities and the new information learnt about the children from the other locations. In addition to the interviews, observations were carried out to determine the level of interaction and collaboration during each activity carried out. Finally, qualitative analysis was carried out to identify the themes and patterns that emerge from the data obtained from each program activity day.


The findings provide a number of insights about the children's perceptions of the potential of technology to facilitate learning and mediate cross cultural communication and collaboration. At the initial stage of the program, varying levels of uncertainty were expressed about technology mediated communication. However, this changed after the first web-cam activity session was carried out. The Bario children gradually began to understand how technology could play a strong role in developing and sustaining a bond of friendship between them and the other children from different cultural, geographical and linguistic backgrounds. They were enthused about the fact that their artworks could be viewed on PangaeaNet. However, the use of pictons as a means of communication had a mixed reception. A small number of them indicated difficulty in interpreting the intended meaning of the pictons used on PangaeaNet. Nevertheless, those who received messages from other countries were really excited and replied to them. They wrote new messages to other PangaeaNet pals as well. They expressed their eagerness to get to know new friends from other countries through the network.

The first pre web-cam interview data showed that most of the children have not met any Japanese people or any other people of different ethnic groups outside of their own localities. The majority did not know any vocabulary in Japanese or anything about Japan. After the webcam activity with Kyoto, the Bario children learned a few linguistic expressions in Japanese including 'self introduction' and 'hello'. They also remarked that the webcam game sessions with Japanese children were very exciting and they expressed keen interest to continue communicating with children from other countries abroad.

Data from the second pre web-cam interview suggested that the children were not aware about many aspects of living outside of Bario. Some even thought the Kota Samarahan (where the UNIMAS Campus is located) was in Peninsular Malaysia or overseas. During web-cam activity, the children were shown Kota Samarahan's location using Google Maps. The post interview data showed that the Bario children became more aware that Kota Samarahan was also located in Sarawak and the children were of Malay, Iban, Bidayuh and Chinese ethnic groups. It became clear at the end of the activity that both groups (UNIMAS and Bario) displayed a keen interest to learn more about other Sarawak children whom they met online through the web-cam session. It was also interesting to note that many of them did not know about their own festivals and other Malaysian festivals. The lack of knowledge suggested a critical need to preserve local cultural knowledge as well as widen their current understanding about other ethnic groups and cultures in Sarawak.


Analysis of local needs and community support are keys to effective deployment of any technology literacy program. Though difficult and challenging, issues about power supply and network systems to deploy and sustain the implementation of any ICT-based educational programme can be dealt with, when continuous local community support is obtained. The favourable response received from the Bario community towards the implementation of the Universal Playground program suggested that access to technology does not only benefit the children who are involved in the educational programme, but it influences and affects the ways of life and beliefs of the peoples in these remote rural locations. It is therefore contended that by making technology a significant part of remote rural community living, the gap in terms of digital, social and democratic differences between them and the more privileged communities can be reduced in the long run.

Reading about children from other locations and interacting directly with them based on topics of personal interest gives rise to two different learning experiences. The high level of enthusiasm shown by the rural remote children when learning to use technology for communication gives the indication that, given the access and opportunity, they can also make technology a central part of their lives. In addition, children at both sites in Sarawak had exhibited genuine interest to share their local knowledge with each other through their artworks and picton messages. Such sharing of experiences could be harnessed as another way of learning about other indigenous cultures, beliefs and traditions.

The Bario experience demonstrates that it is possible to introduce a scalable deployment of technology literacy programme with various groups of children from remote rural communities within Sarawak. The experience served as a conceptual framework to be used for a similar deployment of technology literacy programme for children from other remote rural sites within Borneo. Learning from other countries, such as Japan, to understand the potential of using technology to bridge digital divides among individuals and groups of people across the world is a valuable experience, and should be harnessed continuously to enable positive knowledge and technology transfer to occur across geographical borders.


The remote rural location, by default, made it a financially challenging task for the research team to conduct activities on a more frequent basis. Community interest, motivation and the drive to push things forward are therefore crucial in making any technology literacy programme continuously useful and sustainable for years to come. By engaging the children in a technology literacy program that emphasises sharing of ideas and exchanging of experiences in a digital learning setting, the physical remoteness of their location will not stay visible for long. In today's 'big blue marble', geographical locations are invariably narrowed by access to ICT. ICT helps in setting up a networked environment for children from remote rural areas and proves to be a beneficial long-term investment, as technology enables the children to embrace cultures, beliefs and traditions which may be taken for granted or lost over time, if systematic documentation is not in place. Technology helps bridge gaps between children, physically and communicatively. With proper planning, it has the potential to enhance the children's learning experiences by capitalising on local knowledge which is uniquely their own.


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