Interest in digital literacy and learning has been growing in higher education, particularly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, much has been written of the challenges and limitations associated with ‘going digital’, such as Roberta Malee Bassett’s recent article in University World News.
One initiative that is tackling some of those challenges is Go Digital ASEAN, which Nurul Farah Fatasya, a student at the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, has been participating in.
Go Digital ASEAN
Go Digital ASEAN is a regional initiative implemented by the Asia Foundation in 2020 with the support of Google.org. It aims to equip micro and small businesses as well as underemployed young people with crucial skills and tools to enable them to participate in and benefit from the digital economy.
The central aim of this initiative is to bring digital integration and literacy to underserved communities, including women and young people in rural areas from across the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region. Go Digital ASEAN is also committed to mitigating the negative consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.
In July 2020, after Brunei lifted its national lockdown, the Go Digital ASEAN initiative was launched in Brunei as a national event, attracting significant attention, especially from university students and young people. Brunei’s Go Digital ASEAN was steered by the Big BWN Project, a local non-governmental organisation.
Realising the need for economic diversification which aligns with Brunei’s Wawasan 2035 vision, the initiative officially commenced in August 2020. It targets underemployed youth, underprivileged communities and indigenous groups, as well as people with disabilities nationwide. The project is conducted through multiple workshops and one-on-one mentoring.
Go Digital ASEAN involves various strategic partners, including the Nisai Group, a world-leading provider of Cambridge programmes for students around the world through online learning. Founded in the United Kingdom in 1996, Nisai Group introduced its first regional hub in Brunei in 2019.
With a growing awareness of the need for inclusive education within a digitalised world, the launch of Go Digital ASEAN in Brunei offered Nisai a good opportunity and platform for collaboration with local organisations and communities to cater to disadvantaged groups and individuals, including students with disabilities.
Nisai Group particularly focuses on the topic of technology for inclusive education in its training and involvement in the initiative.
COVID has brought more restrictions and challenges for students with disabilities. On top of the need for personalised attention, students having to work online also require a safe environment, a stable internet connection and a working laptop. Not all have access to all of these. Moreover, the absence of physical social connection adds another layer of challenges for these students.
Digital literacy and higher education
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck higher education institutions globally, forcing them to go digital in the delivery of education. At that time, many universities and their administrators as well as instructors and students found themselves under-prepared to adapt to this unexpected new normal.
In Brunei, higher education students in general have benefited from the advantage that, even before the pandemic crisis, their institutions had already integrated some form of online learning such as the Canvas learning management system.
In line with Brunei’s Wawasan 2035 vision, this provided a necessary infrastructure which allowed us to prepare for a glimpse of the future; and now, this necessity has been accelerated and the notion of ‘preparing for the future’ has become clearer to us.
Writing on ‘going digital’ from the context of Cambodia, Phirom Leng, Sothy Khieng and Tineke Water offer a number of urgent and practical suggestions to help the government and its higher education institutions to effectively move forward with digital learning and teaching.
These suggestions include blended learning, flipped classroom models and investment in digital infrastructures and literacy. On a larger scale, this sense of urgency for adaptation to digital literacy reflects the reality in many countries in Asia.
Online education and digital literacy have also often been misunderstood simply as doing everything online, as filling spaces with machines and digital equipment and as copying everything from ‘physical’ settings to online platforms, as Dr John Vu recently argued.
As an IT scientist who is also a university professor with vast teaching experience in various countries including the United States and Vietnam, Dr Vu shows that online learning and digital literacy involve a sophisticated understanding, implementation and pedagogy.
They work interactively to place students’ learning, their participation and quest for wanting to learn by themselves, with/from peers and with/from teachers at the centre. This also means that university instructors need to update themselves and equip themselves with such understanding and pedagogy.
Nadiah Hishamuddin, operations executive of Nisai Brunei, believes that the failure to leverage digital literacy will affect a person’s lifelong learning, pandemic or no pandemic. Digital literacy allows people to benefit from spaces beyond the traditional academic setting by allowing them to connect with experts worldwide and be part of a global community and even receive reputable qualifications entirely online. The list goes on.
Digital marketing and employability
The ongoing Go Digital ASEAN initiative has involved more than 2,000 volunteer trainers across the region including Nurul Farah Fatasya. They have come together to conduct workshops and mentoring to a diverse target audience.
Fatasya has been able to train diverse groups in digital marketing and employability, many of whom knew little about them previously. This shows how important it is to introduce digital skills to the general public alongside other digital literacy-related topics such as cybersecurity, e-commerce and digital workforce issues.
The Go Digital ASEAN project has shed light on how technology can benefit them and enhance their chances of introducing their skills, knowledge, ideas and products to a much broader audience.
The project shows the importance of lifelong learning and how lifelong learning could bring about many positive outcomes to underserved communities and young people.
Through the module AZ-3309 “Education and Society in a Globalised World”, Fatasya has found herself able to take a sociological perspective on what she was experiencing in daily life. Before and during her degree, she would question the relevance of her degree in sociology and anthropology, thinking it might not give students a specific career path.
Even in her final semester, she did not know what sort of career path to pursue and felt slightly discouraged due to the stigma around non-vocational humanities degrees. She felt a general sense that the degree was a ‘back-up’ for those who had no other choice. Indeed, initially she wanted to pursue a degree in criminology and law, but this was not available in Brunei.
The pandemic forced her to shift her academic plans almost entirely. At that time, when Brunei started closing its borders along with other countries, numerous flights were cancelled, including her own flight to South Korea to pursue her Discovery Year as a third-year student. She was devastated.
However, over the next few months, a lot changed in her life as she set out on different ways to ‘compensate’ for what could have been an amazing semester overseas. She kickstarted a graphic design career and built a large client base and she became happier with learning remotely. It was not, however, until she reflected on this in the AZ-3309 classes that she realised these silver linings.
While Fatasya’s digital knowledge and literacy have enabled her to provide training and mentoring to different communities in the areas of digital marketing and employability, her sociology background has helped her see many nuances in the world of digital learning.
She sees both opportunities and challenges. While she sees possibilities, she also sees the stark digital and social divide among and within the communities and individuals she has helped to train, something that has fuelled her aspiration to build an inclusive digital community in Brunei and has rubbed off on her module teacher.
Building an inclusive digital community
Through her experience with and exposure to digital literacy and online learning, and her knowledge of running her own digital start-up, Fatasya is also well aware of many issues and mixed responses among individuals. She feels that it is imperative not to turn a blind eye to students who struggle and who experience online learning in different ways.
While institutions and governments indeed play crucial roles in a person’s education, and they can do so much when it comes to providing necessary infrastructure and training, we need to be reminded that education is an ecosystem; and educators, institutions, governments, parents, students and other members of society all play a role in a person’s education journey.
The same can be said about building a digital community. It requires a whole community approach.
The evidence points to a wide range of experiences, perceptions, aspirations and decisions held and taken by administrators, students and instructors when it comes to digital and online learning. Indeed, although the outcomes and consequences of online delivery remain contested, one thing which is clear is that more initiatives to help upskill particular aspects of digital literacy tailored to different individuals’ situations are needed.
The pandemic has taught us that it is essential for us to leverage our ability to adapt digitally and to be more prepared for a future that is uncertain.
However, with many students able to seize such opportunities, we cannot ignore the pre-existing digital divide that continues to heavily impact on those with increased vulnerabilities. We need to work together to ensure that this transformation that we are all experiencing is inclusive, guaranteeing that no one is left behind.
As the COVID-19 pandemic recedes in many areas and learning modes gradually go back to normal, meaning physical classes, the need for digital literacy is not necessarily ebbing.
It is our role as educators to embrace lifelong learning within an inclusive community and to raise awareness of the importance and necessity of digital literacy and the many opportunities and inequalities that accompany it. We need to continue this dialogue by actively playing a role in the digital world, in community engagement and through scholarly dialogues.
Nurul Farah Fatasya Binti Mohammad Ramli is a freelance graphic designer and digital marketer who completed a bachelor of arts degree in sociology and anthropology at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. E-mail: email@example.com. Phan Le Ha is head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group and senior professor in the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. She is also affiliated with the department of educational foundations in the College of Education, University of Hawaii at Manoa. This article is part of a series, “Sociology Students Write Back and Forward”. The first article, which gives an overview, can be read here.