A Unique ICT Development Project in Cambodia: Provincial Business e-Learning
Cambodia is a country undergoing rapid changes, including a keen demand for access to higher education among rural youth. The major centers for post-secondary school education are mainly located in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Although recently there has been a proliferation of private universities these programs are lecture-based and require students to attend regular scheduled classes. Distance education and/or independent study options are hard to find in government or private universities.
To jump-start on-line learning in rural areas, The Asia Foundation (TAF) (www.asiafoundation.org) proposed using as an access point for virtual learning five Community Information Centers (CICs) created by TAF through USAID support in all Cambodian provinces. With funding from USAID/ANE the dot-Gov Program implemented by Internews Network, Inc. (www.internews.org), provided a sub contract to TAF to implement the Provincial Business e-Learning Project.
The Project successfully delivered two semesters of on-line business courses in Khmer language in five rural provinces outside Phnom Penh, which were developed and implemented over an 18 month period. Two hundred fifty Cambodian students received scholarships to study business courses in their home towns without the expense of relocating to Phnom Phen. The on-line experience was particularly successful for young women, which opens new opportunities for other educational institutions to reach out to rural women in Cambodia via e-learning courses.
The enabling environment of the CICs played a crucial role in providing young women and men from the rural provinces of Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Cham, Pursat, Kompong Som, and Pailin a place to expand their educational and economic horizons through the benefits of online learning in their own language.
TAF successfully facilitated and coordinated the primary institutional partners. Key to the Project was identification of a local private sector university committed to sustaining an on-line business curriculum in the Khmer language. The International Institute of Cambodia (IIC) (www.iic.edu.kh) was selected by TAF through a competitive and transparent process. A NGO specializing in e-learning, SDLearn, (www.sdlearn.net) was selected to provide on-line and face to face Train-the-Trainer courses on how to facilitate an online course and also developed the e- learning platform which was then translated into Khmer Unicode. A local NGO, Khmer OS, (www.khmerOS.info) was also brought in to train IIC instructors, CIC staff and students in the use of the Khmer Unicode keyboard. Finally, the CICs, each run by a different Cambodian NGO also made the commitment to create an enabling learning venue for students, to learn the Khmer e-learning platform and the course objectives.
TAF managed these relationships by making sure the Project objectives were the primary focus and continually demonstrated the benefits of collaboration. As well, SDLearn, IIC and the participating CICs were deeply committed to making the Project successful, working long hours to troubleshoot and make sure the students were able to use the learning platform and also understood the subject matter. This meant that the IIC instructors had to change the way they normally taught the courses and CIC staff had to work with the students in understanding how to use the online environment.
An outstanding feature of this Project was the utilization of Khmer Unicode that enabled Cambodians-for the first time- to access and search online information in Khmer. This feature allowed students to learn accounting, marketing and business management subject matter in their own language. This on-line experience was complemented by the provision of computer-based training, paper-based course materials, online discussions, and face-to- face interaction at the CICs.
A Strategic Design
The way the Project was managed by TAF ensured that the local partner institutions gained expertise with management and implementation of on-line learning. Each CIC is based in the office of a local NGO and managed by a group of staff trained to help people access information from the Internet and use email.
It was clear from the beginning that the CICs and IIC would need to rapidly commit to increasing their own skill levels so they could interact with students within the online environment. The 23 instructors at IIC and four from the CICs completed the SDLearn on-line course on e-learning Course Design and Facilitation, which was critical in getting IIC and CIC staff at the same level of on-line learning literacy. As well, the Project demonstrated that a successful relationship between a private university based in Phnom Penh could be forged with individual Community Information Centers in the provinces.
To expand the online capacity of the CICs, TAF upgraded facilities and Internet connections at the participating CICs, and SDLearn provided substantial technical assistance to the CICs and IIC for online pedagogy. These pioneering efforts created a platform for many other Internet-based activities to take place. Although the main objective of these educational activities aims at improving the business skills of rural students, the upgrading of the CICs and the on-line learning experience spills into other aspects of Cambodian society.
Along with Internet access and email accounts, the CICs provided students with access to a library of local language reference materials, a supportive environment to hold study groups, interact with their classmates, and face to face guidance with IT trainers to ease their introduction to online learning. Not only did students and lecturers communicate over e-mail and discussion forums, students were able to use Simultaneous Message Systems (SMS) text messaging and mobile phones to call IIC faculty if needed. Additionally, because there was often a time delay between when a student asked a question and the lecturer responded, the courses introduced an independent study pedagogy to lecturers and students, which was based on development of critical thinking skills rather than rote learning.
An evaluation was conducted between the first and second rounds (semesters), and the Project refined to make the second semester more even successful. The evaluation showed that at least half of the students were women; indicating that women on-line learning is accepted in rural areas. An average of 80 percent of the original enrolled students successfully completed the courses they signed up for.
New Opportunities for Female Cambodian Students
A remarkable aspect of the Project was the percentage of female students who enrolled and successfully completed the courses. About 50 percent of the students were women. The Project deliberately reached out to female students when promoting the courses. Women enrolled because the opportunity to take online courses allowed them to stay with family instead of commuting or moving to Phnom Penh which is a major hindrance for women to pursue studies beyond secondary school.
Ms. Neth Samith, is 25 years old works as a bookkeeper at a local childcare and education center. Although she knew some computer basics, she was hesitant to take the online program because she did not know anything about elearning and felt she might not have the necessary skills to succeed. Fortunately Ms. Samith decided to apply to the eLearning program and was awarded a scholarship to study marketing. As a result of participating in the program, Ms. Samith felt that not only did she learn some knowledge about marketing but she also developed practical skills of using a computer and good study habits and decided to go back to university to become a teacher.
A Major Tool for Economic and Social Development: Khmer Unicode
The Khmer online learning platform, which utilizes Khmer Unicode, is a major achievement that has many other applications such as e-government. Unicode which assigns a unique code to every Khmer character is a major shift from the pervious technology which simply mapped Khmer characters onto the Roman alphabet. While it may sound insignificant, this means that for the first time Cambodians were able to search information on the internet in their own language. The Project has demonstrated that Khmer Unicode applications are technically possible, opening the door for the development of further formal and non-formal online learning courses as well as other local language e-government applications such as online civil and business registration. As well the ability to develop websites and databases that are searchable will enable the development of accessible online Khmer language content.
Expanding the Horizons of Cambodian Youth and Businesses
The Provincial Business e-Learning Project made possible through the partnership of various entities has brought about a significant achievement within the Cambodian education sector. The mid-term evaluation showed that 90 percent of the students were interested in taking an online course in the future and more than 85 percent of the students surveyed thought their employment prospects had increased as a result of the courses. After the first round of courses, 16 percent of the students surveyed had gotten a new job after course completion and about 40 percent had been promoted within their current organization. This differs from regular university graduates who reportedly have a 10 percent job placement rate. Even those students who did not immediately experience a change of employment were more confident, felt they knew the subject matter more thoroughly than if they had taken a face to face course and felt better prepared for future job opportunities.
By increasing the opportunities for learning for rural students, the capacity of the CICs to enable and host on-line learning, and IIC to develop an online curriculum, the project demonstrated it is possible to bridge the opportunity gap for higher education existing between Phnom Penh and provincial areas through online learning. IIC is now expanding its online curriculum and other Cambodian universities are now considering doing the same. A primary challenge remaining is the cost of Internet connectivity which severely hinders the widespread adoption of on-line learning that is financially self-sustaining. A competitive market for telecommunications and Internet would lower prices and increase accessibility allowing further expansion of on-line learning in Cambodia.
For more information about this article:
Ms. Pauline Tweedie, ICT Program Officer
The Asia Foundation
Mr. Chhoun Chan Than, Director
International Institute of Cambodia
Robert Raab, Ph.D., Director