Learning goes online

The future is now as the Covid-19 crisis crams students into virtual classrooms

Studying commerce and accounting at Chulalongkorn University, 19-year-old freshman Karanchai Chaisiripong has turned some living space at home into a classroom for distance learning programmes. Although it's convenient to attend a lecture at his fingertips, he prefers the traditional face-to-face learning that allows him to have live interaction with instructors.

"We use the internet, smartphone and computer in daily life, so there's no problem studying online. The country is in a crisis but we have to continue our studies until May. Nowadays, there is multimedia technology to facilitate teleconferencing and online educational programmes," Karanchai said.

To contain the Covid-19 spread, entertainment venues, shopping malls, fitness centres and cinemas around Bangkok were closed and many universities and schools shifted their classes to online platforms beginning in mid-February. Educational institutions around the world have undergone similar shifts in approach.

Grade 5 student Ava Suttichaipruek of Garden International School is studying online at home during the Covid-19 crisis. (Photos by Wissanun Ema-Amorn)

"I understand that this is the way to help reduce the risk of the Covid-19 infections. People should stay home, while most of my friends returned to their homes in the countryside. Everyone panics but we will get through this emergency together," Karanchai said.

Distance learning is not new to Thailand. In 1995, the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej initiated the Distance Learning Television programme to provide a basic education for students living in remote areas. Using satellite TV, classes from Wang Klai Kangwon School in Hua Hin, Prachuap Khiri Khan province, were broadcast to ease the shortage of skilled teachers in small schools.

Distance learning has been modernised in the digital era. Many leading tech firms have developed a wide range of easy-to-use applications for mobile phones and laptops such as Zoom Cloud Meetings, Blackboard, Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams, making them popular educational media options during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Starting last Monday, part-time teacher Lerpong Amsa-ngiam has used Zoom to conduct seven sections of English for communication, experiential English and essay writing for students of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok University and King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang.

There are some 30 to 40 students in each session, which take almost three hours. In this virtual classroom, Lerpong can share content through PowerPoint presentations, while students can interact with him in real time.

"My students and I usually communicate via a private Facebook group. Today, students are good at multimedia technology using tablets rather than traditional textbooks. It's very convenient for everyone to learn from a mobile phone or computer. Distance learning programmes help save time to travel from home to university as we have to give priority to students' health and safety," Lerpong said.

"Other professors and I notice that students are more focused and attend the lectures on time. They have fun learning new experiences. With advanced technology, I can show PowerPoint slides from my computer and all students can see everything like they're sitting alongside me.

"All students open the webcam so that I can check what they are doing. They can chat to me both in a private or public platform in case they have some questions. We can do everything in real time like we're in an actual classroom."

Depending on disciplines and responsibilities when everything goes to online platforms, students will make a video clip for their English-speaking exams while spending two hours finishing the written test.

"I love this application because it can create a video clip while I'm teaching. After a class, I will post it on the Facebook group so that students can play it and review the lessons anytime," Lerpong added.

"Under the Covid-19 crisis, teachers around the world are sharing their techniques on YouTube. Distance-learning programmes might not be proper with a science course that students need to learn in a laboratory. So they will be assigned to do a project instead. We need to adapt ourselves to the situation."

Distance learning

After studying online for a week, Karanchai found that the online learning programmes can help his classmates boost self-confidence. Students aren't shy to ask questions in a chat room when they don't understand.

"The applications come with fun features and emoticons that we can use to raise our hands when having something to say or express our feelings. We can also chat both on personal or public platforms, in which teachers and friends will respond quickly. It's good for shy people to make inquiries behind a keyboard because they often sit mute in the real classroom," Karanchai said.

"Apart from making presentations in a class, we will submit homework through email or Line. Some senior teachers don't have skills for using technology or IT gadgets, so we share some tips with them. In the future, the development of 5G technology will be useful once we're in a crisis like this."

To be part of the home isolation bandwagon, office worker Wissanun Ema-Amorn sets up a tranquil corner to work from home. While doing so, her 10-year-old daughter -- a student at Garden International School in Sathon district -- sits in front of a computer to take lessons from 8am to 3pm. The school has designed its own e-Learning programme using Google Classroom as a major media platform to connect all students with teachers.

According to Wissanun, each class takes 50 minutes and teachers give students new assignments every day.

"My daughter studies in Grade 5. Her teachers usually write the assignments on Google Classroom, but this is the first time we have used it to implement distance learning programmes at home. Everything is based on the original timetable. Teachers will share PDF files, video and audio clips then my daughter must do homework to meet a deadline," Wissanun said.

Online learning seems like a new toy drawing kids' attention. For the first two weeks, Wissanun noticed that her daughter could stay focused on lessons and finish her tasks faster. With high-speed internet, the classes can carry on smoothly and her daughter can communicate with teachers in real time through a chat room or email.

"My daughter gets up early in the morning and comes to stand by the computer promptly. The school has educated students about all computer basics, so it's not hard to enjoy the online educational programmes. She can download document files and make her endeavour to grasp all lessons by herself. For the PE class, she can create a video clip while doing a series of jumping jacks and send it to her teacher," Wissanun said.

Some private schools in Bangkok are also arranging a series of online classes, based on a timetable. Smartphones become an important educational tool when teachers put all assignments and some video clips on Google Docs.

During class, parents need to monitor their children, especially kindergarten students to keep them focused on the lessons. Students and teachers still have real-time communication through Line -- both by chat and video call.

Perhaps this might be an opportunity for families to learn and spend more time together.

"Of course, it's better if students can have live interaction with teachers," Wissanun said. "We need to learn to live in this situation."