Week 2 of the H800 course, and two main focus areas this week. One is the role of participation in learning (the subject of one of the next blog posts) and the other is about the introduction of technology in learning in developing countries.
Starting point of the discussion is a paper the situation in higher education in Bhutan and Nepal, two of the poorer countries in Asia, investigated by Frank Rennie and Robin Mason. I'll add some reflections on the situation in Cambodia, based on my experiences and a study from Abdon, Nimomiya and Raab in 2007.
1. E-learning makes sense
Access to higher education in all three countries is severely limited by geographical factors. Mountains and bad roads in Nepal and Bhutan, monsoon rains and lack of infrastructure in Cambodia. Academic institutions are usually limited to the capital. In Cambodia only approximately 10% of the population lives in the capital. Outside the capital the availability of quality education is very rare. The few academic institutions have to deal with shortages in qualified personnel to deal with a growing demand for higher education. Cambodia still has a low participation rate in higher education, with just 1.2 per cent of the population enrolled, compared with an average of 20.7 per cent in all the ASEAN countries (Cambodia Cultural Profile, 2005).
All three countries have a very high proportion of young people (see chart below or here). The large proportion of young people, combined with decreasing fertility rates, generates a "demographic dividend" in Cambodia. This is a large generation of young people, with less obligations to take care of large families themselves. This demographic dividend offers tremendous possibilities for development and economic growth, but is requires sufficient generation of access to higher education and employment opportunities afterwards. Lack of these may result in a large group of frustrated and angry youth (not unlike the demographic situation in Tunisia). A degree in higher education is also more and more a necessary prerequisite for a well-paid job afterwards. Providing access to qualitative higher education seems hardly possible with traditional ways of education.
2. Yes, there are important technological barriers...
Rennie and Mason list in their paper some technological challenges for the introduction of e-learning in Nepal and Bhutan:
- regular power cuts
- slow, unreliable and expensive internet costs
- low IT literacy skills
These are also valid for Cambodia, although access to internet has improved dramatically the last few years. Broadband and mobile internet have become more widely accessible at around 20 USD per month, although it's still more expensive than in neighbouring countries. Poor mastery of English in Cambodia is not really a technological barrier, but could be classified here as an additional "external" barrier.
These technological challenges can be overcome however (or are being overcome) with a large enough investment of human and financial resources, such as the installation of resource and computer rooms in teacher training colleges by VVOB.
3. ...But cultural barriers are more important
Rennie and Mason discuss a set of cultural values that form an impediment to the introduction of online learning:
In both countries is a widespread suspicion towards the quality and the value of degrees achieved online. The authors point to the fact that this was the case in the West as well until 20 years ago, so this barrier may disappear as more people experience online learning. In Cambodia, the reputation of (the country of) the university seems very important. Online learning programmes have not yet established a strong reputation in Asian minds.
Pedagogies in these countries are still very much teacher-centered, based on lectures, taking notes and accepting the teacher as a knowledge expert. Online pedagogies on the other hand are based on pedagogies of self-directed learning, where the teacher acts as a facilitator and mentor, who motivates students, guides them to interesting resources and stimulates critical thinking, independent working and creativity. The authors suggest a contrast between "traditional" and "modern" educational thinking. The prevalence of a teacher-centered pedagogy is enhanced by the lack of resources (in the native language) in the classroom, although there are student-centered approaches that don't require (expensive) materials and are suitable for large groups.
A strong centralisation of education coupled with a lack of resources (books, magazines, computers) makes it also more difficult to promote self-directed learning, where learners select and evaluate resources themselves. In Cambodia educational resources need to be approved by the Ministry of Education.
4. The way forward
The authors suggest that "quick wins" can be made by incorporating some elements of e-learning into existing, campus-based programmes. For example, the integration of video-conferencing lectures or the provision of key articles in an online or digital format. These allow learners to get used to online learning without disrupting too much the current pedagogical approaches.
On the medium term e-learning requires important changes in the organisation of education, such as the structure of the curriculum or the way of assessment. Assessment in Cambodia, for example, is still very strongly focused on fact recollection and does not strongly support teachers in adopting a student-centered approach that fosters creativity or critical thinking.
A pilot study in Cambodia in 2006 suggests that online learning can be successful in increasing access to quality education to students outside Phnom Penh, female students (strongly underrepresented in Cambodian higher education) and to working students. Cultural barriers or prejudices with online education seem to evaporate quickly, once enrolled in an online course.