Phnom Penh (KH), November 2011 - Does ICT integration in teacher training work in developing countries? This is one of the questions of the OEB interactive learning café session with examples from three continents. David Dionys, Programme Coordinator ICT in education, presents here the current stand of ICT in Cambodia, where the education system has been reconstructed over the last three decades.
What is the current stand of ICT in Cambodia?
David Dionys: Cambodia has had arrested development in its education due to its recent history. The political and economic turmoil as a consequence of the involvement in the US-Vietnam war, the regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, and finally the Vietnamese administration in the 1980s was only overcome at the beginning of the 1990s. Since then the situation in the country has stabilized considerably, and the last decade has seen a more prosperous environment for economic growth, fomented by a relatively stable political environment.
The education system has been reconstructed over the last three decades, but it has been an arduous task, with the Ministry of Education facing both a lack of infrastructure (school buildings to start with) and qualified human resources - teachers and administrators. With the support for Education For All in Cambodia, primary-school enrolment has increased, but the attendance levels drop in continued education, with a marked drop for higher secondary education.
It is only natural that Cambodia is lagging in comparison with neighbours like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, which have taken great leaps in the introduction of ICT in their educational systems. Nevertheless, ICTs have been introduced at a progressive rate in the last decade. In what follows I will refer to the public school system, not the private schools that, due to their elevated fees, are able to introduce computers.
Regarding ICT at the university and higher education level, the introduction of computers has been the most pronounced, with computer labs present for students and a modest application of computers in teaching.
Teacher-training colleges are also in the process of introducing ICT. For some time now, computer labs have been introduced that have allowed students to receive the obligatory two hours of ICT classes per week. The status of these computer labs differs greatly between the colleges and is dependent on the donors from which the colleges received the computers.
Of the 384 upper secondary schools, less than ninety have been equipped with a reasonable computer lab for students. These computers are generally provided by international organisms or private Cambodian donors. There are concrete plans to equip as many schools as possible, aiming to provide all upper secondary schools with computer labs by 2019, including a systematic replacement of obsolete computers. This will be quite a challenge given the annual increase of the total number of secondary schools - over thirty per year. It is further complicated by the lack of a stable electrical supply, which is only present in half the schools.
At lower secondary, primary, and early childhood education levels, computers are almost exclusively limited to administration and management, and even there their use is limited. Access to stable electricity is very limited.
A general problem at all levels is the state of the computers that schools receive. Computers are often old models or refurbished ones, presenting a significant number of maintenance problems and technical difficulties. Even if new computers were donated, schools have virtually no budget available for maintenance or replacement of computers, and the sustainability of these computer labs is therefore low, a problem which is exacerbated by the absence of maintenance personnel.
It also needs to be pointed out that while administration has access to some computers, and students might benefit from the presence of a computer lab, the actual teaching staff is often the last to have computers to work with - at least in their work environment.
Human resources are being prepared to cope with present and future challenges. At this time, only twenty percent of upper secondary schools are effectively teaching ICT to their students. To lighten the burden on the ICT teachers, all new Mathematics, Physics, English, Agriculture, and Economics teachers will be trained as ICT teachers as a second subject.
Regarding the Internet, the price and availability of ISPs has dropped sharply over the last five years, and the simultaneous introduction of an Internet backbone and 3G wireless services has improved access throughout the country. The Ministry has signed a memorandum of understanding with an ISP that will provide them with free Internet access over the next five years. Although the implementation of this scheme is hampered by technical and administrative problems, it has at least provided an increased connectivity to Ministry management, as well as to a number of schools.
Are there great differences between urban and rural areas in regard to access and availability?
David Dionys: Yes, there is still a great difference between the cities and the rural areas in access to both computers and the Internet.
A very severe constraint on the use of ICTs lies in the unavailability of electrical power. While the urban areas have a relatively stable electrical power supply, this is often not the case outside the province capitals. Power blackouts are rife, and most of the classrooms are not even equipped with power sockets. Electricity is furthermore very expensive due to the primary source used: diesel fuel. With the construction of hydro power plants - expected to be completed around 2014 - this situation is likely to improve, with an improved power supply to bigger parts of the country and a decreasing price, but it will take significant time and money to update the existing infrastructure and take advantage of this. National plans for electrical infrastructure expect to cover seventy percent of the country by 2030.
Likewise, the availability of computer parts and technical personnel is often low, even in provincial capitals.
Where do you see the greatest benefits of ICT use in Cambodia today?
David Dionys: While the global discussion about the usefulness of ICT for education still goes on, in Cambodia it is important to try to maximize the benefits of the few resources present. It would be an illusion to strive for fully computer equipped schools with students using the computers themselves.
The ICT curriculum has been revised for various levels of education. Students and teachers alike receive training in basic digital literacy (including skills to search the Internet), which is quite a necessity, even in this era of digital natives. It will be important the curriculum focuses on the application of ICT in regard to the actual needs for teaching and the labour market, i.e. not merely focusing on the use of office software and computer basics. The Ministry therefore focuses on a quadrangular strategy that goes beyond the use of computers: it also includes effective communication, an understanding of work environments, and finally critical thinking skills. These 21st-century skills form the focus of perceived advantages of ICT use.
Language is a limiting factor in the use of ICTs, as most of the Cambodian nationals only speak Khmer. Some level of English literacy is mostly present, but generally not enough to effectively use the Internet for teaching research. The development of localized teaching and learning materials is therefore crucial. The VVOB programme in Cambodia has been developing and localizing Khmer multimedia for over four years now. This includes videos of model lessons and science experiments, as well as animations, simulations, and digital games for science teaching.
Other development partners like the Open Institute have contributed learning materials to support digital literacy. It has been shown that the presence of quality teaching materials is a basic condition to foment ICT use in teaching. The developed materials are matched to the Cambodian curriculum and come with support materials to guide teachers and teacher trainers in their use - next to the availability of resources, training for their adequate use is equally important. In the medium term, this will have a great impact in students' learning outcomes.
Just as in the rest of the world, mobile phones in all shapes and sizes have become available to the general public, which has had a tremendous impact on communication overall. Use of email is also increasing, albeit it would be too much to say that it is commonplace - most of the communication within the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport goes through snail mail. The potential for ICTs to improve communication is tremendous, however, and will certainly lead to a heightened exchange of good practices. Use of mobile technologies for learning may be an option for the future, but in the short term its impact will be limited to some interesting experiments at the best.
A supporting factor that should not be underestimated is the bottom-up effect of a digitalizing world. Computers have become more accessible to the Cambodian society, and the likelihood of teaching staff and students having access to a computer at home is higher than at school. This will provide an increased digital literacy, which will enable Cambodian society to adapt to the needs of a globalizing world.
Does Cambodia have a national plan for the development of ICT? If so, what are its goals?
David Dionys: The last version of the master plan for ICT in education was finalized in early 2010. It is a great effort that brings together the strategic planning for the whole education sector. It discusses the use of ICT for all levels of schooling and the education administration.
"For General Education, the plan concentrates on increasing the preparation and employability of students by giving them ICT-based professional and pre-university skills. For higher education, it focuses on expanding computer use, increasing access to information and research, reaching out to more students through distance education, and improving distribution of research and subject documents through an electronic repository or clearing house.
Teacher training is improved by using video as a teacher-training support tool, mainly for science subjects, but also for general pedagogy. Pre-service teachers (and in-service teachers whenever possible) are taught how to improve their teaching and administration skills through the use of computers and other forms of ICT. Non-formal education is reinforced by creating materials for self-training or for supporting the training of students who are preparing for equivalency exams, and also by developing video materials for community programs of the CLCs.
The Ministry centralizes and homogenizes its databases, standardizes data formats across the education system, and decentralizes data input to schools when possible, but also to District and Provincial Offices of Education. The Office of ICT in Education was developed to guarantee that all ICT-related tasks can be developed, coordinated, and maintained. Ministry staff is trained to use ICT in all those tasks in which computers will increase the efficiency and accuracy of the work."
The master plan includes a number of technical recommendations as well, such as the use of low-power-consuming computers and the use of Unicode Khmer fonts.
The budget for the master plan, however, remains insecure. Of the estimated 9.5 million US$, almost 6 million US$ have not been secured yet. The remainder of the money is still partly subject to approval and the completion of agreements with the Cambodian capacity development fund (European Union, SIDA, UNICEF) and other development partners.
What are your hopes for the future of ICT in Cambodia?
David Dionys: The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports will need to invest in ICT if it wants to realize its dreams. While the willingness towards use of ICT for education is great and progress is visible, the high dependency on foreign aid is certainly a weakness. For ICT to create an added value, a sustained effort will be needed over time, and a good place to begin is to dedicate at least a modest budget towards it. It will also need to continue investing in staff for ICT support, including rewarding ICT champions with recognition. Investing in education is investing in the future, and ICT is a force to be reckoned with in the near future.
The growing presence of quality resources as developed by VVOB and others should establish a strong stimulus and incentive for the motivated teacher to use these materials in a classroom setting. With a clearing house, like www.krou.org, providing a central access point to this information, they should be easily accessible for the greater public. Together with sustained training, this is likely to lead to a more effective use of ICT for education.
Training will need to be matched as much as possible to create specific added value by helping teachers to teach better, administrators to manage more effectively, and students to prepare for the professional market. Besides the standard curriculum, training in ICT skills can be reinforced with the help of development agencies like ADB, USAID, Open Institute and VVOB, and supported or complemented by private sector initiatives like Intel Teach.
The increased access to ICTs in Cambodian society should lead to a generally increased digital literacy despite the lack of access in the educational institutions. The willingness of the country's people to shape their future will be a strong incentive to catch up and close the digital gap.