Pandemic is exposing the gaps in Thai education

Pandemic is exposing the gaps in Thai education

School closures as part of measures to control the spread of Covid-19 pose challenges that will transform the face of Thai education. At present, there are nearly 13 million students stranded at home and 600,000 teachers are unable to teach in their classes.

The closing of schools has significant ramifications on the learning process as it means the educational trajectory of students is halted and their learning and development is impeded or even stopped. Furthermore, as students become more isolated amid this new social setting, they are prone to suffer from mental trauma caused by isolation and solitude -- something that is affecting young children more than adolescents.

In response to the crisis, Education Minister Nataphol Teepsuwan has convinced educators around the country to shift their education services to a virtual space, namely online classes.

Thomas Parks, Country Representative of the Asia Foundation said, "This crisis has swept over the Thai education system like a tsunami and has caught everyone by surprise. Over the next two weeks, urgent interventions are needed to help teachers, students and parents connect with learning materials that are already available. However, access will be uneven and new solutions are needed to ensure kids in smaller and more remote schools do not fall behind."

Responding to the government's call to utilise online learning resources, the Asia Foundation together with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of the Australian Embassy has come up with a rapid response effort to meet Thai educational needs. The foundation has created www.thailandlearning.org to compile existing online learning and cultural resources as well as educational tools that will prove useful for students to explore and spend quality time with during homeschooling. The resources are diverse and dynamic ranging from links to the Royal Project on Distance Learning of the late King Bhumibol, OBEC TV, Microsoft Teams and Google Culture.

The learning materials -- available in Thai and English -- were chosen after careful consideration and curation of hundreds of websites and applications. The portal is made with a clear vision to be as user friendly as possible to ensure effective educational experiences. The portal also offers a one-stop service for students and a library if you will to search, learn and explore quality educational services from Thailand and around the world.

The process of making the portal has been eye-opening. It is clear that the Thai education is extremely fatigued and was not prepared to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

But online learning is just the tip of the iceberg.

Firstly, existing online resources for students are limited in quality and quantity. After weeks of exploring the existing resources, the foundation noticed a dearth of resources in Thai compared to English. It is not just the quantity that is worrying but also the quality of content.

Most of the Thai educational content online replicates traditional pedagogy, which is based on a topdown rote-learning approach. Being in front of a camera without having real students is already a challenge for teachers, however, if teachers don't change their pedagogy to incorporate technology to invite students to participate, the lectures will be static and less effective.

Mr Nattaphol has made it clear that he wants an interactive, two-way learning process.

There is also the issue of infrastructure. This insight was the result of a year-long research on schools' principalship. Bigger schools -- regardless of their locations -- are better endowed with financial, educational and technological resources than smaller schools.

Niphon Yosda, principal of Sarakhampittayakom, said that in his school of 4,000 students, all of them had access to smartphones which enabled them to learn online. However, small schools throughout the country -- even in Bangkok -- are facing a severe shortage of basic resources, children who do not have smartphones or adequate access to wi-fi services.

The crisis has disrupted the Thai education system but it also must serve as a wake-up call. For the past 20 years, government after government has promised to take technology and education seriously and even wrote the National Education Act of 1999. From the one tablet per child to smart classrooms, these policies were not taken as seriously as the political rhetoric promised they would. This time of crisis calls for greater public and private partnership in education as Covid-19 has disrupted learning opportunities for students and brought to light the technological divide in Thailand. If this lesson is taken seriously, Thailand can transform its educational landscape for better learning and educational opportunities for all.

Rattana Lao, PhD, is a Senior Programme Officer Policy and Research at the Asia Foundation.

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