On March 16, Cambodia published a directive for the closure of all academic institutes across the Kingdom in a bid to contain the spread of the coronavirus. However, as the number of infected patients continue to soar by the day, reopening of the schools remains uncertain. Caught in a limbo are students and teachers who struggle to adjust with the limited alternatives presented before them.
In an effort to keep students on track with the academic curriculum, the educational sector has brought in reforms to digitalise traditional pedagogy. While the public has seen the government’s initiative to launch e-learning materials for Mathematics, History, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Khmer literature, teachers and students alike admit navigation of the new system has been challenging.
“In the provinces, students and teachers are not yet properly familiar with the digital platforms,” shared Ms Sothunthear, a Grade 11 teacher at Somdach Ouv High School. “Our normal learning method involves the use of chalkboards and whiteboards. I have never tried teaching through a computer or creating an online presentation for the class. This online learning will be a very challenging task for me.”
Asked whether teachers or students in the school know how to use digital platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom, Ms Sothunthear said none of them know how to utilise online platforms other than Facebook.
This year is Som Srey Mao’s last year in high school. However, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Kingdom has rendered her final year a struggle as she and her classmates adapt to remote learning.
“Because this is our first time studying remotely, many of us have never been trained to use online platforms. Some of us don’t even have the proper devices needed to access such programmes,” said the 19-year-old student.
According to Ministry of Education, nearly 3.2 million students were enrolled in public schools for the academic year 2018-19, with some 2.6 million of them based in rural areas. The ratio between public school students in the rural areas to those from the urban cities outlines the obvious unequal access to resources needed to maximise learning.
“At home, I share a smartphone with my younger sister and our mother,” said Ly Mey, a Grade 9 student.
In addition to the lack of learning devices, Mey’s older sister, Grade 11 student Ly Sokhuntheavy, said the poor internet access in their area has made the remote learning programme even more difficult.
“The poor internet access also poses a problem because students have to top up their phone credit all the time just so they could get a better connection. This requires a lot of money,” she said.
Asked how the government plans to address such challenges posed by remote learning, Dr Khamboly of the Education Ministry declined to comment.
“The recent school closures came very close to the first semestral break so it should not have much effect in the term’s curriculum,” explained Khoun Theara, an education specialist at the Cambodian think tank Future Forum. “However, if the pandemic persists or worsens for several more months, then it could drastically disrupt this year’s academic curriculum.”