Online learning falls short in Covid era

A campaign held at Asoke intersection in Bangkok by the Bad Students group. It portrays a student committing mock suicide to protest against the failure of on-line education. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Over one and a half years, millions of Thai students have been forced to forsake their physical classroom, schools, friends, and playground, to study in virtual classes conducted through online platforms.

Online classes turn out to be more than dull; students and teachers lament painful experiences making it work, while for parents, they say it's hard motivating their children to study from home.

Other external factors also play a major role: power cuts in rural areas, lack of electronic devices or access to a stable internet, and environments ill-suited for learning at home.

These problems persist, even now. Bigger questions loom large: even before Covid, online learning was touted as an opportunity for all students, who could access pools of knowledge and information.

How come the platform touted to be the future of education for all has turned into such an unsatisfactory experience for many?

The problem is not confined to Thailand. Other countries have found a way to solve the problem such as lending computers at home or paying extra money for families to afford online education.

Others provide tailor-made home visits to help students or create community centres for students with fewer means to study.

These solutions have not taken hold in Thailand. Aware of the problems, the Ministry of Education now provides 2,000 baht grants for families for on-line learning. Needless to say, the assistance is far from enough.

The question is why the system needs so much time to adapt to online learning?

Painful experiences in virtual classes drove more than 8,600 students to join an "online class strike" last week, a campaign led by the "Bad Students" activist group which emphasises the need for education reform.

The strike asked students across the country to skip online classes to show their unhappiness with the Ministry of Education.

The group said the ministry had failed to implement an effective online learning curriculum or provide adequate support to students.

The picture contrasts with figures offering a promising outlook for online learning in Thailand. According to World Bank data, internet user penetration in the country reached nearly 70% of the population in 2019, above the Asia and Pacific average.

Around 99.9% of the population were able to gain access to electricity in the same period of time.

Mobile cellular subscriptions are nearly 130 million, suggesting many Thais have more than one device.

These figures show the digital infrastructure necessary for online learning is relatively good, though not perfect.

But students' disadvantaged backgrounds play a big part in preventing them from accessing this infrastructure.

A recent survey by the Equitable Education Fund (EEF), the government organisation supporting students from low-income families, found that 88% of students from extremely poor families can't access electricity and electronic devices for online learning.

The survey was conducted in 29 provinces affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. It also traced nearly 295,000 students living with extreme poverty and found that about 40,000 did not return to their classes during the current semester because of poverty. Most are in lower secondary education.

On social media, young pupils come out to tell of their struggles during virtual classes. Some have devices that do not support learning tools, or their parents can't afford quality devices, forcing them to quit.

In many cases, teachers blame students for being lazy and inactive in class -- they would rather blame individuals, it seems, rather than questioning flaws in the education system.

Clearly, this is not the students' fault, neither the poor infrastructure nor the digitalisation progress itself. It's the result of an education policy that does not fully address inequality among students, resulting in a lack of support to those who need help the most.

For months, the ministry has sat passively while implementing a policy that does not provide flexibility for online course management.

Many teachers have stuck to pre-Covid performance indicators set by the ministry, forcing teachers to impose long hours of online lectures and overloading students with assignments -- this approach apparently does not work in virtual classes.

These indicators have long been criticised by progressive pedagogues who do not believe in the top-down management style of Thai bureaucracy.

The ministry's approach shows it does not trust teachers to look after their own students. Indeed, teachers nationwide have lamented about the ministry's obsession with assessing teachers.

Instead of spending time with their students, teachers have been forced to do ministry assessments. They must work to meet targets in line with those assessment parameters.

In June, Education Minister Trinuch Thienthong said he would adjust performance indicators to reduce teacher workloads and student study hours. The impact has not been felt, leading to the Bad Students online class strike last week.

It's come too late for those students who dropped out in the past year.

After 20 months living with the Covid pandemic, the ministry this month started transferring 2,000 baht subsidies to all 11 million students, equivalent to 22 billion baht.

It will also provide each a 79 baht monthly subsidy for mobile or home internet use for two months: that sum that won't be enough for a stable internet.

This budget is but a pittance compared to the sums being lavished on stimulus packages encouraging people to shop and travel, showing the government does not prioritise students.

The ministry can do better. The minister must negotiate with the government to provide a free and stable internet to students. The state also must provide learning devices to low-income students.

It should take the crisis as an opportunity to invest in internet infrastructure in rural schools and impoverished communities while establishing effective digital learning platforms and curriculums accessible by everyone regardless of their financial circumstance -- a task the ministry downplayed in pre-pandemic times.

Online learning will continue to be an essential component of education even after Covid, as it will provide access to knowledge and skills for lifelong learning.

The pandemic has shown us the downside of leaving inequality unsolved and responding slowly to the digitalisation of education. We can't let this lesson go unheeded.

Paritta Wangkiat is a Bangkok Post columnist.


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