Online Competitions - Do They Widen or Close the Gap between Urban and Rural Students?
by Ian James
Doubts - Awe - Curiosity
When the news came that there was going to be a Sabah State Level English Language Carnival, I had many doubts. What with all the challenges everyone had to face during the pandemic, I didn’t think it was going to be much of a success. And when it was later announced to be a fully-online event, my doubts increased twofold. I was so certain it would only appeal to students of well-to-do families. At the same time, I silently wept over the fate of so many rural students who could only dream of taking part in the event; if only they had the luxury of high-speed Internet connectivity as their privileged urban counterparts.
Which is why when I discovered that 22 districts sent in their registrations, I was filled with awe. I have been involved with so many English Carnivals in the previous years. There was one time when I got appointed as one of the judges for the Poetry Recitation competition and was overwhelmed because something like 14 districts participated in it. So if 14 districts overwhelmed me, what more 22! As much as I was in awe, I was also curious. How was it possible that this year’s carnival (an online one to boot) became one of the most participated English Carnivals in the history of JPN Sabah?
The Secret Hope
If you look at the Poverty Line Income figures gathered by the National Statistics Department in 2019, five districts in Sabah recorded the highest poverty rate. Those districts included Tongod (56.6%), Pitas (53.6%), Kota Marudu (46.1%), Beluran (45%), and Telupid (40.7%). Yet, somehow, students from all of these districts registered to participate in this year's English Carnival. Have things actually changed since the statistics were published? I don't think so! At some point, while trying to understand the whole situation, negative thoughts came creeping into my head. What if these students were forced to join the carnival because of a certain KPI that their district education offices were trying to achieve? So eventually, I decided to get in touch with some of my teacher friends from the said districts.
What I learned from these teachers was they secretly hoped their students wouldn’t participate in any of the competitions at the carnival. They told me that they already had too much on their plate and they certainly didn’t want to shoulder any additional burden. They knew that once their students decided to take part in a competition, they would feel the pressure to coach their students to perfection. Needless to say, that would require a lot of effort. Then who was going to be in charge of their PDPRs? What about their own children’s PDPRs? What about all the reports they had to prepare? Meetings? Module’s preparation? Upcoming End-of-Year Assessments? School’s re-opening?
Once A Teacher, Always A Teacher
Nevertheless, once a teacher always a teacher. When news about the carnival received an overwhelming response from their students, they somehow managed to muster up the enthusiasm to do what they had to do. So, it became obvious to me that it was not due to a certain KPI, and nor was it to do with them being forced by certain individuals. The students decided to compete of their own accord. In their mind, it was an opportunity not to be missed. The idea of online competitions appealed to them because they didn’t have to leave their family behind. Besides, they didn’t have to worry about packing for a trip; there wouldn't be any. All they needed was good Internet connection, which their teachers were happy to help because finding a place with good Internet connection was a cinch in comparison to begging for financial support from the powers that be had it been a "real-life/face-to-face" competition.
As time went by, many of these teachers told me how excited they felt when they finally obtained the permission from their PPDs to take their students to school (the only place where they could get stable internet connection) for the competition. To them, being put under strict SOPs was a small price to pay as compared to denying their students the opportunity because, sadly, the latter had been their only option in the previous years. They simply could not have afforded the journey. It hadn’t been just about money. It had been about safety as well. Even if they had sufficient funds to cover the travel and accommodation expenses, finding the safest mode of transportation would not have been an easy task due to their geographical locations and underdeveloped infrastructures.
Filled with determination, optimism and indomitable spirit, they managed to go through each of the competitions with only minor difficulties. And if you think being able to participate in the carnival was impressive enough, let me enlighten you on how well they performed:
So, you see, these students were adamant on taking part in this year’s carnival because, deep inside, they knew what they were capable of. They wanted people to know that they could be on a par with their so-called privileged urban counterparts. Perhaps they had been wanting to do so since a long time ago but simply couldn't due to the fact that online competitions were non-existent back then.
...these students were adamant on taking part in this year’s carnival because, deep inside, they knew what they were capable of. They wanted people to know that they could be on a par with their so-called privileged urban counterparts. Perhaps they had been wanting to do so since a long time ago but simply couldn't due to the fact that online competitions were non-existent back then.
'The Voice' for Rural Students?
In retrospect, I now realise how foolish I had been. Who was I to say that online competitions would only benefit urban students? Such a simplistic assumption. To be honest, I have never even served in rural areas over the course of my 16-year teaching career. So, what put me in the position to say that organising online competitions was a sure-fire way of widening the gap between rural and urban students?
Nonetheless, I take consolation in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who entertained such an assumption. I know for certain that, initially, many of my fellow urban teachers had also underestimated the amount of participation the carnival would receive from rural districts. Not only that, I also know for a fact that some even went so far as to boycott the carnival because they believed that, by doing so, they became “the voice” for rural students. If you're one of them, I applaud you for your well-intentioned gesture. But, if you have time, drop me a line or two. I'll be happy to invite you as one of the judges for an upcoming Online Public Speaking competition. You'll discover that they don't need anyone to be their voice; they can easily speak for themselves!
Published on 8 October 2021
Ian James is an English teacher who is passionate about experiential education. He believes that one of the ways to promote it is by getting students to participate in co-academic activities. Over the past 16 years, he has been involved in a lot of co-academic programmes as a trainer, an adjudicator and a technical officer. He is currently teaching in SK Petagas, Penampang. During his free time, he enjoys running, reading and listening to music.
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