Phnom Penh (FN), May. 14 – Amidst the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), students throughout the country began their unprecedented shift towards online classes. Out of necessity, Cambodia’s education system is undergoing a digital transformation for the better. Although Cambodia’s education system had to embrace digital technologies quickly, it has done so with resilience, innovation, and adaptability. Taking a strategic approach to digital transformation will not only democratise access to education but will also contribute to the development of human capital, further advancing the country’s industrialisation.
No educational experience can match the ones offered in a classroom setting; however, in a pandemic, it is the only option to ensure students are educated in a safe and healthy environment. The closure of educational institutions throughout the world has been a measure adopted by governments to limit the spread of the COVID-19. Within a few weeks of shutting down public and private educational institutions, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports (MoEYS) quickly launched an eLearning portal (elearning.moeys.gov.kh), which offers prerecorded videos in mathematics, Khmer literature, biology, chemistry, physics, history and English. Pioneered by the government, the eLearning portal is the first time for many Cambodian students to utilise an online learning platform to access their studies. Moreover, the MoEYS in cooperation with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) recently launched ‘Think! Think!’ to provide free online classes to students.
The private sector has been a reliable partner in offering and supporting home-based learning opportunities. In addition to the MoEYS’ eLearning portal, KOOMPI, a domestic laptop manufacturer, launched “KOOMPI Academy,” a platform that not only has online classes for students to continue their studies, but also offers educational institutions a platform to develop their courses and upload their content online. Moreover, to ensure students have internet access, a massive barrier to eLearning for low-income students, Metfone is providing free data to all students accessing the MoEYS’ eLearning portals in addition to offering Internet access at a discounted rate. Recently, Metfone, a telecommunication company with 42-percent of the country’s mobile market share, has been selected as the MoEYS’s official partner in providing telecommunication solutions to the ministry and schools from 2020 – 2025.
With approximately two-thirds of the population under the age of thirty, Cambodia can no longer be complacent in investing in the next generation; instead, we need to tap into the country’s unlocked potentials. Both access and quality pose critical challenges to the education system, illustrating a need for improved school curricula, sufficiently trained educators, and more resources for school improvements. Digitalisation is not a silver-bullet to issues plaguing the education system. However, it has the potential to complement the much-needed educational reforms.
With the ambition to transform the country from a lower-middle-income country to uppermiddle-income country by 2030 and to be a developed country by 2050, digitalising the education system should be a critical component of Cambodia’s grand industrialisation strategy. So far, in light of these unprecedented and disruptive times, the government has been adaptive and agile. However, there are a few considerations we must take in a strategic approach, to a post-COVID-19 education system.
First, we need to acknowledge the digital divide between high inequalities across gender, location and socio-economic groups. In particular, students from low-income families living in rural communities face significant challenges in accessing eLearning platforms, ranging from internet affordability to owning and accessing an electronic device. Policymakers will need to ensure digitalisation does not exacerbate the inequalities within the education system or risk worsening the education gap.
Second, the increasing number of partners and actors creating new digital educational resources could lead to fragmentation and overlap in the MoEYS’ efforts. Although increases in educational resources are highly beneficial in expanding access to learning, the MoEYS’ eLearning platform must be the primary provider of educational instruction. As a ‘public good’, education lies within the purview of the government as the benefits are spread across society in terms of employment, health and social cohesion, and economic prosperity. The emergence of educational partners and actors should not encroach on the MoEYS’ mandate. Instead, other educational resources and platforms, such as KOOMPI Academy and JICA’s ‘Think! Think!’ should complement the MoEYS’ eLearning platform. As more educational resources are developed, all material and content produced should meet the MoEYS’ standards of high quality.
Third, continuous improvements to the eLearning platform will be essential to enhancing a student’s learning experience. Although the MoEYS developed the platform to meet Cambodia’s short-term educational challenges during COVID-19, the eLearning platform should be a permanent fixture within the education system. The eLearning portal has the potential to transition from a platform hosting pre-recorded lessons, to an interactive virtual classroom enabling more in-depth learning.
Fourth, the success of an interactive virtual classroom will be dependent on delivery. As the eLearning portal evolves, substantial investments will be needed in equipping educators with enhanced communication skills, but more importantly, technological literacy in the ability to use and evaluate internet resources, design and implement online lessons plans, evaluate student performance, and troubleshoot minor technical issues.
Fifth, affordable Internet is fundamental to the digital educational experience. Although the MoEYS has partnered with Metfone, who has been a corporate leader in ensuring students have access to affordable Internet, all telecommunication companies should adopt the same practice of waiving internet costs associated with accessing resources offered by the MoEYS.
To re-emphasize, eLearning cannot ever replicate or replace the learning experience in a traditional classroom. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution. However, when harnessed effectively and done right, it can complement the efforts of educators in teaching the next generation for the 21st century. The rapid progress made by the government should be applauded in being able to deliver a solution for the short-term. Whether intentional or unintentional, it has also sparked a new way of learning that could be the solution to not only reducing the barriers to education, but also create a more equitable system in building the talent we need to be a competitive and innovative nation – regionally and globally.
TOUCH Darren*, Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs
*TOUCH Darren is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Inclusive Digital Economy (CIDE) of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI) and a Schwarzman Scholar at Tsinghua University.