Unplugged vs. Connected: A Comparative Observation of Urban and Indigenous Students’ Learning of Their Self-Identity

Shaida Salwi

Victoria International School, Malaysia

Over the next few months, BALID will host a series of blogs exploring the role of informal learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. Learn more about the series here and how you can contribute. More blogs in the series can be found here.

In this post, we hear about reflections from Shaida Salwi, an English teacher of an international school in Malaysia. She writes about her observations of the challenges and potentials of digital technology in the classroom and beyond – particularly among young people.

In today’s digital era, specifically looking at Malaysia, the learning landscape is moving (albeit at a snail’s pace) towards the transformation that we desire. Students who are living in urban areas are increasingly reliant on technology for various aspects of their lives, including education and identity exploration. In contrast, indigenous students draw on their community-embedded traditional knowledge for experiences. As a young educator who teaches students who live in urban areas whilst also volunteering my time teaching in rural areas, specifically the indigenous communities, I’d like to open a conversation on the different ways students from urban and rural areas learn informally through technology and indigenous practices and how it can impact their self-identity.

Volunteering at a camp for indigenous students: students’ teamwork effort in building a caterpillar train using newspapers

Digital platforms, educational apps, and various online resources have been growing lately in schools in Malaysia. It not only benefits us educators, but also helps students in urban areas who have seamlessly integrated technology into their lives and have been using these tools to expand their knowledge and skills. The digital divide in Malaysia is evident when I compare students who reside in urban areas to students who live in rural areas especially those of indigenous communities. While students in urban areas often have greater access to technology and digital resources, students from indigenous communities face barriers to technology access, resulting in a disparity in digital literacy and opportunities for self-directed learning. From educational YouTube channels to interactive learning applications such as Kahoot or Quizizz, students in urban areas have access to a wealth of information and engaging learning experiences. The benefits of technology-enabled informal learning include personalised learning opportunities and the ability to explore a wide range of subjects beyond the confines of the traditional classroom.

My students in an urban school working on their self-identity project while accessing the Internet

In our school, we teach Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) as a form of self-directed learning to prepare the students for the reality of life outside of the classroom. In the above picture, I brought the students to the school’s computer lab to work on their project which is related to their self-identity. There are three parts to the activities which include creating vision boards, personal narrative writing, and engaging in self-reflection exercises. These activities aim to empower students to explore their unique identities, build self-confidence, and cultivate a sense of authenticity and self-awareness. Being a Malaysian means you are part of a melting cultural pot. For these students, their identity is very important to them and they understand that it is crucial to learn how to navigate life based on their identity as their choices can make or break society. The autonomy and flexibility of technology definitely helped my students to achieve their goals but my concern lies in their increasing dependency on technology which may cause more harm than good.

When students in urban areas become solely and too dependent on technology, I believe, this may limit their exposure to real-world experiences which includes physical interaction with the environment, hands-on activities, and practical learning opportunities that are crucial for holistic growth. Relying excessively on virtual simulations or digital resources may restrict their understanding of the real world.

Let’s have a look at the other side of the story: in contrast to the technology-driven approach, I have observed some students who live in rural areas, specifically the Malaysian indigenous students, draw on community-embedded traditional knowledge and values for their experiences instead of relying too much on technology. Within their communities, intergenerational knowledge is often transferred to them via their elders who play a vital role in shaping their self-identity. Plus, students from indigenous communities actively engage with their environment, connect with their heritage, and immerse themselves in the cultural fabric of their communities. Thus, compared to their urban counterparts, I observe that the apparent stronger emphasis on experiential and hands-on learning, oral traditions, and observation of cultural practices majorly contributes to their holistic understanding of the world.

Students from rural areas and those from indigenous communities having fun learning with volunteers in a village in Kapit, Sarawak
(Pictures taken by Shaida and her team)

In my view, students who live at a distance from the internet have the best of both worlds in the sense that they are not totally dependent on technology, unlike some of those who live in urban areas. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be room for expanding the usage of technology in indigenous students’ lives. In fact, there are students who live in rural areas and those who come from indigenous backgrounds who are savvy in using social media platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and the like. Thus, I’m positive that digital tools can be employed to preserve and share traditional knowledge, ensuring its transmission to future generations. I can imagine that digital storytelling, multimedia presentations, and online platforms may provide opportunities for indigenous students to showcase their cultural heritage and further engage with wider audiences as per my observation while volunteering in the indigenous communities. Outsiders who are assisting members of the indigenous communities in this must take care to respect the unique cultural contexts and ethical considerations of the indigenous communities, in line with the policy of the Malaysian government.

Indigenous students using technology to learn about ASEAN during my volunteering sessions

Based on what I have seen in Malaysia, I think that students in urban areas need a breath of fresh air like their indigenous peers. There’s definitely a need for balance. I believe young people in urban areas should get out into nature to avoid overstimulation by technology. Meanwhile, students in rural areas should be given great access to digital resources, while taking care that their community values are not jeopardised. Cross-cultural exchanges and collaborations would provide opportunities for mutual learning and understanding, bridging the gap between urban and indigenous learning acquisition. Both paths have their merits and should be respected and fostered. By recognizing the strengths of each approach, we can create inclusive learning environments that honour diverse learning.

Shaida Salwi is currently the Head of Department for the Primary Unit, and an English educator at Victoria International School, Malaysia. She is also studying for an MA in English Literature at the University of Malaya. She is very passionate about female empowerment, children’s education and folklore. You may find her on Twitter @shaidaslwi


Rwandan Youth Peacebuilding by Learning

Yeonhee Sun

The Prince’s Trust (UK)

Over the next few months, BALID will host a series of blogs exploring the role of informal learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. Learn more about the series here and how you can contribute. More blogs in the series can be found here.

Yeonhee Sun of The Prince’s Trust (UK) pens this inspiring piece on the role of young people in peace building in Rwanda. In conversation with three youth peacebuilders, Yeonhee unpacks the various learning spaces and practices of young people to promote peace and build a more harmonious society.

The importance of young people

Young people have played an essential part in promoting a story that supports peace, reconciliation, and social healing in Rwanda since the 1994 genocide. Therefore, the role of young people as peacebuilders in the present and the future in their society’s recovery from conflict is critical. In 2014, while working as a project assistant in Rwanda’s eastern province, I became curious about how young people develop and maintain relationships and solidarity with neighbours who might have played a role in perpetrating the genocide. I was also interested in whether and how they can build peace through literacy learning. Recently, I had the opportunity to be in conversation with three youth peacebuilders in Rwanda to explore questions such as:

  1. What kind of learning occurs when people engage in their daily activities online and offline at home, school, and in the community (Government, NGOs, church, groups, Individuals)?
  2. How do young people use texts, words, and other forms of literacies in their everyday lives and in engaging with peacebuilding?
  3. What kind of knowledge or skills do young people improve and value through peacebuilding activities or programmes?

The young people (pseudonyms have been used in this article) were aged between 25 and 30 and they currently work as peacebuilders for local NGOs and study peacebuilding at university. I found them through LinkedIn by searching for peacebuilders in Rwanda. They all share a common goal of promoting peace in Rwanda. Two of them are Rwandans: Mahoro is a founder of a local NGO and Bosco is an Executive Director of a local NGO in Rwanda. Gatete is a South Sudanese who recently trained Rwandan university students on transforming power and conflict resolution communication in Huye, Rwanda’s southern province. Gatete is currently pursuing a master’s degree in international studies, specifically Peace and Conflict Studies, at university in East Asia. 


Peacebuilding Learnings and forms of literacies 

Different kinds of formal and informal learning for peacebuilding occur in person and online in Rwanda. Mahoro and Gatete said that the media is the main source of learning because it communicates about peacebuilding. Some young people also use different channels like newspapers and television. Also, many people in remote areas have limited resources so they have to turn to more traditional forms of media like radio. Mahoro addressed that ‘young people learn more through online platforms like YouTube, social media, and websites. Additionally, not many people read books, but many people learn a lot through storytelling in their community. Young and old generations are learning through their conversation in their area, whether through their local government offices, local meetings, school, restaurants, or markets’.

A peace building graphic

Mahoro asserted ‘home learning is important for peacebuilding because young people can listen to history and their individuals’ experience and stories in the past from their grandparents and parents during the genocide. These conversations are easier to have between families. For instance, there is no judgement whether they are Hutu or Tutsi, when you see their appearance. We should know “Ndi Umunyarwanda!” (I am a Rwandan) and we should respect others and embrace “Turi Abanyarwanda” (we are Rwandans). Therefore, it is helpful to make a relationship with their peers and neighbours and think with a more positive perspective post-genocide’. His examples show that young people are informally learning national identity, respect, tolerance and a positive mindset.

In addition, Bosco said that sometimes the government invites guest speakers (local leaders and genocide survivors) to promote peace among Rwandan citizens. They talk about their experience and why peacebuilding is important to communities in their daily. Bosco mentioned that ‘I have lots of experience in high schools when I was a student as a survivor. I visited memorials with students to learn about our history and then we discussed how we can be together and how we can protect our country and our future as far as peace is concerned’.

Mahoro and Bosco responded that as citizens of the new generations, this younger generation thinks Facebook and Instagram are important to communicate what they feel or what message they want to convey to people in the commemoration period. Rather than giving speeches, they prefer to share their message through social media, addressing a larger audience through their Twitter or Facebook accounts. Additionally, they use Instagram to share their thoughts on peace through visual content. For example, The Rwandan government posted one image of fire with “Kwibuka 29” (Kwibuka is a Kinyarwanda word that means “To Remember” and 29 is that the 7th of April marks the 29th anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. The Flame of Remembrance symbolises the courage and resilience of Rwandans over the last 29 years.) Also, media shared quotes about the genocide, from the President or from Rwandan celebrities, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Young people shared trending media and tagged “Kwibuka 29”.

Examples of instagram posts

However, Mahoro asserted that ‘some people can’t use smartphones or computers due to lack of equipment and digital skill. Therefore, they never use the Internet. They use their voice to talk about their ideas, thoughts and feelings of peace in person and also, they share flyers or brochure with text’. According to them, young people utilise different forms of literacy in various locations to share their ideas about peace and conflict.


Valuable knowledge and skills for peacebuilding

Everyone addressed that young people should know about their history and culture in Rwanda so, they should keep learning and listening to others. Therefore, they think that literacy skills (Reading, Writing, listening, and speaking) are the most important to access lots of information. They agreed that people should go to school for education when they are younger. Especially, young people use their computers or smartphones, so IT skills are crucial to get information and different perspectives about issues.

Mahoro and Bosco trained young people to improve their literacy and digital skills through their projects. Through the project, they were also exposed to different genocides in other countries, took online courses about peacebuilding, and shared their ideas with others by posting or discussing issues on the communication channels. As a result, they can see political leaders and elders through a different lens with the aid of critical thinking. Mahoro said that ‘I support youth to read books through my project in rural areas and we provide them with some stories. They learn how to communicate with others and make relationships and also, they can speak to others and share with us. This is important to know what they want to do or what kind of people they are. Peacebuilding is important to engage people, grow a positive mindset of living and a more inclusive society where we can live without harm’.

Local NGO youth library

Gatete asserted that ‘the more informed young people are the more they have the capacity to inform others. Young people who are not well informed about the situation, the less likely they are to make a difference in their local communities. One ingredient of conflict in Africa is that some young people are non-literate and therefore, don’t have the capacity to access other ideologies and investigate information for themselves’.

He also mentioned about communication skill by sharing his peacebuilding programme. Providing basic concepts on how communication can also cause conflict, therefore young people learn how other people can communicate effectively through things (For example, I-messages instead of You-messages, transforming power, and the violence and the non-violence tree).

You-messages (suggesting blame and encouraging the recipient to deny wrong-doing or to blame back) can cause conflict so this programme encourages the I-messages (simply state a problem, without blaming someone for it) in terms of communication and to ensure that the learners will be able to use nonviolent ways of communication to reduce conflict. His programme includes a key element called “transforming power,” which serves as the foundation of their alternative violence approach. This approach is based on the belief that everyone possesses an innate power, and that by tapping into this power, individuals are able to resolve conflicts in an effective way. This power can be expressed in a variety of ways, including humour, and can be used to transform difficult situations into positive outcomes. He asked young people to create two trees: one for violence and one for nonviolence. The violence tree shows the effects and consequences of violence, while the nonviolence tree explores the elements and impacts of nonviolence. By comparing the two, learners can better understand the concepts and why violence should be avoided, and how nonviolence can be used instead. This helps them reflect on the history of violence and consider nonviolent solutions.

Alternative to Violence Programme (AVP)

One of his main priorities was promoting civic education, which is considered essential for achieving stability and peace in any society. Investing in young people through knowledge and skills transfer, both transferable and soft, can help them become agents of positive change. This includes not only knowledge of peacebuilding, but also entrepreneurship, which can create more employment opportunities for young people. Therefore, engaging them through conferences and training programs can be an effective way of changing their lives and making them feel valued by involving them in organisations that work towards change. As the majority of society can be made up of young people, investing in their development can go back to their district and lead to a better future for all.


Closing Reflections

I had a wonderful experience having a conversation with young people in Rwanda who are dedicated to promoting peace in their communities. I was impressed by their journey of learning from others through projects, and now they are leading local NGOs and training other young people in peacebuilding. Despite their different backgrounds, they all share a strong desire to create a more peaceful world and recognise the important role that young people play in shaping their country’s future.

I would like to have a group discussion with more young people or people who attended the same or similar peacebuilding programmes because I am excited to see different aspects of issues. Additionally, I would like to engage with women next time because I found only men participants through social media. I am sure that if I worked with women, I could discover different learnings, valuable knowledge, skills or forms of literacies on peacebuilding. I am sharing this blog to demonstrate that Rwandan young people are currently contributing to a peaceful atmosphere and every day they engage in different forms of literacy to promote peacebuilding in various areas of the country.

Yeonhee Sun is currently working as Youth Development Lead at The Prince’s Trust in the West Midlands, United Kingdom. She completed her MA in Education and Development from the University of East Anglia and has been involved in Rwandan adult literacy education through the Bridge Africa Project from the Korean National Commission for UNESCO. She also coordinated educational programmes with volunteers in Rwanda. Email: Yeonheesun1@gmail.com; Twitter: Yeonhee_Sun

Step up, Speak out: A participatory research project involving young people from North East England in addressing sexual violence

Janelle Rabe

Durham University

Over the next few months, BALID will host a series of blogs exploring the role of informal learning and literacies in young people’s everyday lives. The series hopes to feature young people’s work and ideas, inspire intergenerational conversation and become the basis for future action / research in these areas. Learn more about the series here and how you can contribute.

Janelle Rabe of Durham University opens this series by sharing an exciting approach to engaging young people in conversations around sexual violence. Drawing from participatory research co-designed with young people, Janelle’s blog gives an insight into the importance of recognising young people’s voices and experiences when designing sexual health programmes.

WHY should we involve young people?

“Speak out! You are not alone!” – the young people in my project had this to say to their peers about sexual violence. Young people’s views are vital in effectively addressing sexual violence. However, they are rarely involved in programming and research on sexual health and sexual violence in the UK and globally . Young people think they should be involved because hearing from them will help their peers feel that they are not alone, and they can talk about their experiences. They are uniquely qualified to provide grounded perspectives on what works best for them .

I’ve always highly valued working with and learning from young people. I think they have fantastic ideas that we should listen to and act on. This prompted my ongoing Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded PhD study, a participatory action research (PAR) project led by young people on addressing sexual violence. PAR is considered an effective strategy in providing spaces for young people to shape the research process, such as identifying their topics of interest and their preferred methods of communicating.

WHO were involved?

Two groups of young people (13-18 years old) from a youth group and a school in North East England joined the project. The youth group comprised 15 young people (13-18 years old), 8 girls and 7 boys (two who identify as gay), while the school group involved 11 young people (16-17 years old), 8 girls and 3 non-binary.

Safe spaces agreement. Balls are part of the calm box young people can use when feeling anxious.

HOW did we work together?

Both groups co-created safe space agreements by deciding on the values that were important to them in working together such as respect, trust, and understanding.

Each group brainstormed and ranked its priority topics for the workshops. These included understanding sexual violence, young people’s education about sexual violence, and the effects of sexual violence on young people. Through a series of participatory workshops per group, we engaged in interactive activities such as body maps, vignettes, sorting and ranking, games, and discussion groups.

Icebreaker games and feedback were crucial parts of each session. Icebreaker games made young people feel comfortable and relaxed before we started the discussions. Meanwhile, their feedback were helpful in guiding me to adjust the activities to suit their needs. I aimed to be as open and flexible as possible. For instance, in a previous session, some of the young people said they preferred to do a role play but in the following session, they didn’t feel like it. I improvised a game on the spot which they enjoyed. Even in the icebreaker games and the snacks, I asked them for their preferences or provided them with options.

Young people’s workshop feedback

Their positive feedback about the workshops reinforced why working with young people is incredibly meaningful to me. I wanted to open spaces for them where they can freely express and enjoy themselves, even when dealing with sensitive topics. I’m pleased that the workshops have been safe spaces where they can learn from one another. Some of their feedback can be seen below.


Providing safe spaces

“Feeling safe and understood, we can all have input.”

“Janelle made me feel comfortable to share my thoughts and reminded us we can leave if we had to, this is a safe space etc.”

Learning from one another

“I liked how we were able to put forward our own opinions so I could understand other people’s points.”

 “Group work allowed for more opinions to be heard (and a contrast in opinions).”

Highlighting young people’s feelings

“I like it because it makes me feel acknowledged about the topic.”

“The sessions make me feel smart, educated, amazing, and lush.”

WHAT did we find out together?

Emerging findings from the research project include a co-developed understanding of sexual violence and young people’s recommendations for improving relationships and sex education, and school responses to sexual violence. Young people felt they were not supported enough to recognize and respond to sexual violence in various contexts. They were disappointed with the limited discussion of sexual violence in their lessons. They thought their schools were not doing enough to show that they were taking sexual violence seriously. They also felt discouraged from disclosing, reporting, and seeking help after experiencing sexual violence. They recommended more targeted training for teachers to better respond to their concerns and in teaching the lessons. They also wanted to see concrete actions from schools to reassure students that speaking up about their experience would have a positive outcome for the young person affected by sexual violence. They wanted consistent support for these affected young people, such as mental health counseling, if necessary.

WHERE are we going next?

Working with and learning from the young people has been such a fulfilling experience. I am always amazed by their brilliant ideas and their passion for change. They have led the project in exciting directions that I didn’t anticipate. I am glad I decided to follow their lead.

Challenging the norms of adult-children dynamics was vital along with negotiating working relationships with the young people. I respected young people’s views and I didn’t want to impose my plans or decisions as the adult researcher. I consistently showed that I valued their insights in various aspects. I wanted to make them feel that we were doing a joint project together rather than it being just my project. I committed to this approach from the start because young people are rarely listened to, much less given a chance to lead discussions related to sex or sexual violence. There is often a stigma and a culture of silence even when young people want to learn more and do something about the issue. Through our project, I wanted to show the benefits of an alternative approach of involving young people that can be explored by other researchers and practitioners in the future.

Creative reflection activities

Moving forward, I am eager to engage more young people in the UK and my home country, the Philippines. I will also apply young people’s recommendations of involving diverse groups of young people such as those from ethnic minority communities, those with disabilities, and those with different sexual orientations. I intend to boost the impact of the project by disseminating young people’s insights and recommendations to policymakers, teachers, schools, parents and other young people.

Overall, young people’s feedback on the workshops emphasised their appreciation and clamour for having safe, non-judgmental and open spaces to discuss and learn about the issue of sexual violence together with their peers. It’s about time we listened to them and gave them the spaces they deserve.

Janelle Rabe is a doctoral researcher at the Durham University Department of Sociology and a member of the Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse (CRiVA). Her PhD project is funded by the Northern Ireland and North East Doctoral Training Partnership (NINE DTP) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). She has a decade of experience working with non-governmental organizations and policymakers in the Philippines on child rights and development issues. She has contributed to policy advocacy campaigns leading to the passage of laws on raising the age of sexual consent, child nutrition and child protection.

Email: anne.j.rabe@durham.ac.uk

Twitter: janelle_rabe