When learning goes digital: Reflections on urban youth living in poverty in Malaysia

March 31, 2021

This blog, authored in collaboration with Hema Letchamanan, School of Education, Taylor’s University, is part of UNDP Malaysia's Kisah series, which explores COVID-19 impacts through the dual lens of conversation partners at the front lines as well as UNDP’s programmes and priorities. ('Kisah' is a Malay word that means ‘story’ and ‘to care, to take interest’.) To find out more, email the UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia at acclab.my@undp.org.  

*Pseudonyms have been used in this article to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of interviewees. 


A youth creating a small study environment with limited space available. Photo credit: Youth interviewee/Taylor’s University


The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the learning journey of many youths worldwide, especially those belonging to vulnerable communities. In Malaysia, many youths living in poverty come from refugee or B40 (Bottom-40 income bracket) households. The incidence of absolute poverty stood at 5.6% as of 2019. 75% of the Malaysian population lives in urban areas, and 30% of them are classified as ‘urban poor.’

Worldwide, education systems have been disrupted, reinforcing the societal divide between those who have access to online education and those who do not. Youth, especially from vulnerable communities, face two main issues: a lack of digital infrastructure, and home environments that are not conducive to learning. The digital divide includes lack of access to devices (smartphones and/or laptops) with stable internet to support online learning. The Government of Malaysia has taken some steps to help students overcome this. In April 2020, the Government started the Program TV Pendidikan or Kelas@rumah. These programmes were started as an alternative for students who couldn’t access the internet. Household TV penetration rate is higher (approximately 92%) compared to internet penetration (approximately 83%), but some households still had neither. The Ministry of Education also unveiled a digital learning platform, DELIMa (Digital Education Learning Initiative Malaysia) incorporating material from some of the biggest ed-tech brands, including Google Classroom, Microsoft 365 and Apple Teacher Learning Centre.

But the question still remains: are such digital interventions enough?

To probe this topic further, we at UNDP partnered with the School of Education, Taylor’s University, and interviewed 11 youth between the ages of 14 and 17, across different ethnicities, and from urban-poor communities, mostly in the Klang Valley. We wanted to understand, in-depth, the challenges they faced in terms of online learning (specifically during the Movement Control Order, or MCO, in 2020).

Despite many hurdles, the youths interviewed are still positive about their future. They said this pandemic has taught them to develop grit, to better adapt to changes, and to deal with adversity. While these youth are resilient, as a society we still have a responsibility to help them navigate these challenges. Is there something we could do to better their education access and the last-mile delivery? Here are some gaps that persist in the Malaysian context.

1. Lack of infrastructure to support online learning

While most youth from urban-poor households had access to some sort of internet service (mostly mobile broadband), online learning was often interrupted due to poor network speed, disrupting learning. Even for those who had digital devices at home, learning was still difficult. The experience of taking a class from a phone compared to from a laptop could vary significantly. During this pandemic, many also had to share their devices with other family members. For instance, if the parents were working and had work meetings to be taken using a laptop, the children were unable to attend classes.

One of our interviewees, Siti*, noted that Mathematics requires step-wise teaching, and when there is a network issue while solving a complicated problem, she would feel lost and unable to comprehend the concept well. This could directly affect her learning, especially since she will be taking her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (equivalent to GCE O-Level) this year.

2. Lack of conducive home environment to support online learning

A comfortable and conducive learning environment that aids the learning process is essential, but during the MCO, our interviewees experienced interruptions while studying as they were expected to help with household chores or to look after their younger siblings. One of the main problems faced by the youth we interviewed is that they have limited space to study. While many youths in Malaysia had rooms that provided privacy during classes, this is an unattainable luxury for the urban-poor who share such spaces with parents and/or siblings. We found that something as simple as talking to a friend on the phone became hard during the pandemic because of lack of privacy, and caused many of the interviewees to feel unhappy. Some of our interviewees also reported difficulties in focusing on online learning. For most of them, learning in groups and peer support is an essential part of their learning. However, online learning leaves them without face-to-face guidance from teachers or peers and they have a tough time understanding some of the topics being taught.

Ainaa* is a refugee living in Malaysia. Since the pandemic, she has had to take on additional care responsibilities to support her family. In another case, Fatin* shares a room with three other siblings and all of them have to take online classes at the same time, from the same room. This completely shatters the productivity and attention of students like her. To understand more about the experiences of these youth, do check out our co-authored photo essay:


Photo credit: UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia



So, what is the way forward?

The education system is at a turning point today. Online learning and e-classrooms, which were discussed by policymakers only in developed economies pre-COVID-19, are now being considered by governments everywhere. This makes it essential for youth to equip themselves with digital skills as not only will the future of work be technology-based, but also the future of learning. Push for digital development has been central to the developmental stories of many countries, with 5G technology and internet inclusion being discussed intently; Malaysia is no different. Going forward, here are two policy areas that could be improved.

1. Bridging the digital divide would go a long way in promoting inclusive education. Findings from a survey led by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Malaysia found that 37% of students (including pre-primary, primary and secondary) do not have digital devices and only 6-9% of students owned a personal computer/laptop. But the devices in itself will not help, if the problem of poor internet isn’t solved. In the short-term, if teaching content can be downloaded rather than “livestreamed,” it could help those facing fluctuations in connectivity. Also, a good mix of audio and text content will also help, as it takes up less bandwidth than video. In the long-term, going forward, building a well-rounded digital ecosystem will be important.

2. Providing economic support to vulnerable communities will benefit the students by providing a more conducive environment to study. The first step towards this is to change housing policies to make housing, with essential spaces and services available at a low cost or subsidised rate. Research has shown that affordable housing leads to better educational success, especially for youth from low-income backgrounds. In support of this, Taylor's University has partnered with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (under Dasar Komuniti Negara / National Community Policy) to design and build learning spaces for children to study comfortably in their own homes. Moving forward, what we need is for future low-cost houses to incorporate dedicated spaces for learning in their design.

Going digital has successfully promoted social inclusivity (such as online banking leading to financial inclusion), but it can also exacerbate social divides. With students in Malaysia returning to schools, the health risk still lingers, especially for urban youth who live in poor and dense living conditions. Assessing how far behind these youth are compared to others, and devising an action plan to ensure they can catch up, is important. Failure to do this may risk more youths dropping out of school.

To achieve inclusive development, it is ultimately equally important to consider non-conventional—even non-digital—solutions to these issues. The World Bank recognises the need to build cities that are spatially inclusive, i.e., providing affordable services of housing, water and sanitation. Across Asia, there is an increase in people living in urban poverty with inadequate facilities and cramped housing conditions; policies encompassing spatial, social and economic factors are therefore imperative. 


The authors would like to thank Irdina Ismaida Zamri and Monica Haque, Bachelor of Education students, Taylor's University; Sukhpreet Kaur, alumna, Taylor's University; Mathavi Nadarajah Thevar, senior teacher at Yayasan Chow Kit; and Ms. Janarthani Arumugam; for their inputs in writing this blog. The authors would also like to thank UNDP colleagues Su-Jin Lim, Area-Based Programme Coordinator; Muhammad Imran Abdul Razak, Accelerator Lab intern (Exploration); and David Tan, Head of Experimentation, Accelerator Lab; for inputs and comments.

About this blog’s co-author



About this blog’s conversation partner



Taylor’s University is a top-ranking private university in Malaysia and Southeast Asia, and focuses primarily on teaching excellence, quality student experience and research that serves the needs of the society. The School of Education at Taylor’s University continuously works on projects that promote quality education for all children.

This blog contains information and perspectives of the individual authors and does not indicate any formal endorsement by UNDP Malaysia of the partner organisation, nor does it indicate provision of any technical support in their implementation. UNDP Malaysia is not responsible for content provided in any of the external sites linked to this article. This is purely for informational purposes only.