Remote learning chaos highlights divide
The commotion surrounding this week's online classroom "trial" launch attests to the glaring educational disparity gap in the country.
The Education Ministry, which poorly prepared for the virtual classrooms, should shoulder the blame. Such classrooms, rolled out to provide an alternative during the coronavirus pandemic, simply added to the plight of those who have been hit hardest by the outbreak.
It seems the unlucky students shared a similar fate to the working poor who had to struggle very hard to receive the cash-handout package after initially being rejected by the registration system. On the education front, it saddens me to see so many poor students left out in the cold due to a lack of state resources despite the much touted government slogan: "No one left behind".
Many families have no internet connection, a basic necessity for remote learning, even though the Office of Basic Education had boasted that every single family could take part in the online classrooms through distance learning television. It's a surprise that the Education Ministry was totally unaware that so many families do not have TV signal receivers or "set top boxes", not to mention internet connections.
Around 1.8 million kids who have been shut out of the online classrooms are underprivileged or suffer from disabilities. The Covid-19 pandemic is making it harder for them to study. So many are at risk of being permanently cut off from state education, especially those in rural areas.
Disgruntled parents made their complaints heard loud and clear. A family with five kids but one TV set saw its children forced to take turns studying. Online learning adds a burden to cash-strapped parents as they are obliged to buy laptops or smartphones, fearing their children will be left behind without them. Highway police in Prachin Buri shared a picture of four young students seeking a WiFi signal from a police booth to connect to the virtual class. There were also reports of two brothers who suffered eye strain from staring at their monitors for too long.
On the one hand, society has praised the determined students who are trying their best to stay connected, without realising it was all just a trial, and they would not be receiving any grades from those virtual classes. On the other hand, it remains unclear why there was a lack of communication between the Education Ministry and the parents regarding the "trial" nature of that distance learning session.
The chaos speaks volume about the failure of the Thailand 4.0 policy that was formulated by the military regime in 2017.
The Education Ministry conceded that the trial classes encountered a number of obstacles, physical and technical.
In fact, the shortcomings reflect deep-rooted problems for the ministry, which over the years has received a large share of the budgetary pie from the government. Unfortunately, those big allocations have been used for personnel salaries, not the development of the educational system.
We have to admit that most, if not all politicians assigned to handle the education system are not truly qualified to do so. This explains why turnover is so high at the ministry. Some governments have even swapped out the minister four or five times during their tenure. The current minister, Nataphol Teepsuwan, a former PDRC core member, has under-performed since he took office a year ago.
Teachers' quality, or a lack thereof, is also a problem. Recently, one scandal or crime after the other has made headlines on account of unscrupulous teachers.
I think it's time that we, along with the ministry, learn from the trial mistakes and look deep into the heart of the problem: The education disparity gap, rich vs poor kids and the deficit between urban and rural students.
Education is a fundamental service provided by the state. More efforts must be made to address the disparity and it is important that in assessing educational quality, the state should refrain from using the same educational standards, which only widen the gap.
For instance, online learning, because of a lack of equipment and technical glitches, may not fit some 15,000 small schools in remote, marginalised areas, which account half of the national total. It's necessary that the state proactively adjusts its plans to cater to those students' needs, like sending teams of teachers or volunteers to conduct classes. Without well-designed help, these students will be locked out of the classroom for good if a second Covid-19 wave hits the country.
That said, the ministry should recognise diversity and be more flexible. I agree with a proposal that not all schools have to wait until July 1 to reopen. Any schools that are ready and not located in at-risk areas can start up right away.
Decentralisation of education is inevitable. We need input from local communities and civic groups to make schools cater to local needs and also narrow the disparity gap. This should be a priority for the nation.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.