Going digital – The second phase of HE transformation – University World NewsCMS
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on higher education institutions globally, including in Cambodia. The physical closure of campuses has meant the rapid adoption of digital technologies to continue the delivery of education to students.
This unplanned move to online platforms and pedagogies has meant a leapfrog into a future of digital learning that no higher education institution was truly prepared for. It has been suggested that, although COVID-19 has disrupted education systems, it has also offered an opportunity for new ways of learning and teaching through the digital transformation of education delivery.
For many higher education institutions in Cambodia this represents transformative possibilities in the form of new paradigms of learning or the second phase of transformation in higher education.
Thomas Kuhn describes paradigm shifts as events or the discovery of new technologies that change the way society and organisations work. Although arguably the internet is not a new technology, the advent of COVID-19 has seen it being deployed in a way that now is transforming the current delivery and pedagogies of higher education.
First transformation of higher education
The first transformation of higher education institutions in Cambodia began in the mid-1990s when privatisation reforms enabled the establishment of private higher education institutions and allowed public and private higher education institutions to offer fee-paying programmes.
Over the past 20 years, the system has been greatly transformed, from only 1% of the college-aged population (18- to 22-year-olds) being enrolled in higher education institutions in 1996 to 12% in 2019. Although higher education enrolments in Cambodia are the lowest in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) region, there are reasons to hope the upward trend in enrolments will continue.
Currently, there are over 200,000 college-aged students enrolled in the 125 higher education institutions across Cambodia, two thirds of which are private. They offer a wide range of programmes from natural science to social sciences and arts and humanities.
The transformation of Cambodian higher education institutions through privatisation, and more recently through the adoption of online learning, has not been without challenges. It has been argued that the first phase of transformation through privatisation and the resulting rapid growth has been at the expense of the quality and relevance of educational programmes.
Contributing to this has been the poorly deployed use of information and communications technology (ICT) in learning and teaching and an overall lack of innovation in higher education institutions.
Rapid change and lack of preparation
Therefore, when the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport instructed all educational institutions to temporarily suspend classes due to concerns around the spread of COVID-19, it caused some anxiety for higher education institution administrators, teachers and students alike.
The urgent need to rapidly implement online learning alongside no prior planning or time to prepare further exacerbated concerns.
The implementation itself also posed huge challenges, as institutions had already closed their campuses, compounding the challenges of having to teach ‘how to do’ online learning ‘online’, given many teachers and students were not yet familiar with online technologies or platforms.
The government’s decision to protect communities from COVID-19 through the closure of higher education institutions was without a doubt the right one and humanistic in nature. However, the focus of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on supporting the general education sector left many in higher education institutions feeling isolated and struggling to respond to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19 alongside the upheaval in traditional methods of education delivery.
At an institutional level, moving towards online delivery has been a huge culture shift for leaders, faculty members and students, with limited prior exposure to digital learning, teaching platforms and pedagogies. In Cambodia, traditional methods of face-to-face instruction in the classroom remain dominant across the sector, despite calls to integrate ICT into higher education since the 1990s.
However, with the arrival of COVID-19, adopting online learning and teaching is no longer an option but a matter of survival. For private higher education institutions, which depend primarily on student fees, their existence now depends on how swiftly and well they can respond to the necessity for online learning.
Therefore, higher education institutions, despite their limited experience and preparation time for online learning, are committed to offering online learning for a second semester. If not, they risk having to close.
Although campuses are physically closed, higher education institutions must continue to pay for the ongoing running costs associated with a campus such as rent, electricity, security and maintenance costs alongside also continuing to pay staff salaries. There has also been pushback from families who argue that the altered delivery of education to students should mean reduced tuition fees.
Exams on a smartphone
Providing the infrastructure that students need for online learning has also been a challenge. Although some higher education institutions, for example, Kirirom Institute of Technology and Paragon International University, have been able to support students’ online learning with subsidised internet subscriptions, this has not been the case for all.
Many students do not possess a laptop and are currently undertaking online learning on a smartphone, including exams. A recent survey of students at the University of Puthisastra found that 35.5% were using a smartphone, 40.9% were using a laptop or computer and 7% were using a tablet. Only 16% of students used or owned more than one device.
In a 2019 survey of medical students at a private and public university in Cambodia, 100% owned a smartphone, 62% a laptop, 27% a computer and 60% a tablet. The huge demand placed on university servers has also created issues, where in one instance the server crashed due to 300 plus students logging in simultaneously to undertake an online exam.
Making the switch
The second phase of digital transformation of the higher education system will enable Cambodia to cope with COVID-19 in the short term and provide a unique opportunity to move towards digitalised and personalised education and Industry 4.0 in the long run.
The following practical recommendations are suggested to support Cambodian higher education institutions in their efforts to move toward online learning and teaching.
Leadership: It is vital that higher education leaders have a genuine commitment to adopting online learning as a key complement to in-person classes in the post COVID-19 era, although not a total replacement for them.
This would support moves towards blended learning and flipped classroom models and move the focus from content driven learning to one where students are engaged in learning through multiple modalities.
This process needs to be supported by online working groups, preferably led by a member of the senior management, to provide directives, guidelines and support for administrators, faculty members and students.
Institutional leaders must be ready to invest in facilities and resources to support this transition and transformation.
Management at the operational levels, ranging from academic departments, libraries, student affairs and IT to the global engagement office, should be informed and well-prepared as cross-unit collaboration is needed to ensure success during the implementation process.
Digital infrastructure and literacy: Building smart classrooms is both a short- and long-term solution for all higher education institutions, enabling them to use a range of free online resources, such as e-books, journals and courses and digital platforms such as learning management systems, including Moodle and Google Classroom.
Access to a stable internet connection is essential for students and faculty members and it is an advantage that many parts of Cambodia are digitally connected, with over 15 million Cambodians subscribing to the internet through both mobile and fixed services.
However, access to the internet does not equal access to the digital technologies needed for online learning, with the recent few months highlighting the digital divide for many Cambodians.
Therefore, it is important that higher education institutions provide support in the form of devices (such as tablets or laptops) for students from lower socio-economic communities who may not have access to digital technologies. Basic digital literacy is also important for the successful implementation of online learning and thus each university should establish a technical team to orient students and faculty members to online learning platforms.
Pedagogy: Digital platforms are a means, not an end in themselves. Therefore, a range of capacity development training programmes should be established to ensure that all faculty members will adopt the right teaching methods to fit with the online tools.
Approaches to online learning and teaching need to be focused more on students rather than relying on teacher-dominated lectures so that students are engaged and take responsibility for their learning.
This is easier said than done as, for many teachers, it is already a challenge to maintain student engagement in in-person classrooms, let alone online learning. The challenge is to not just transpose traditional didactic learning and teaching methods to an online environment, but rather to underpin online teaching with pedagogies that increase student engagement and attention (instead of just measuring attendance) and with innovative ways to undertake assessments that also increase engagement and attention.
Presently, many higher education institutions rely on multiple choice questions to test knowledge (or recall). Although these can be used in online learning environments, it is a good idea for universities to consider other methods of assessment, such as online discussion forums moderated by students, case studies, pop quizzes, information packages and presentations for particular disciplines.
Higher education institutions need to ensure that resources are allocated to working parties, faculties, departments or individual teachers so that they have the knowledge, skills and time to design different ways to assess students’ online learning and programme outcomes.
Support for students and faculty members: It is important to understand that the distinction between home and the school or workplace is now blurred, with students having to juggle family schedules with other distractions and, for many, loneliness while still attending to their learning online.
Student affairs offices should develop orientation programmes for students to cope with the new patterns of learning and life during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The same kind of support is also needed for teaching and non-teaching staff, who must also juggle their family responsibilities, including home-schooling their kids, with working from home.
An e-community of students and staff with clear activities and schedules (both academic and extra-curricular) should be developed to maintain their online social communications and
Attitudes to teaching and learning: All students should become independent thinkers and lifelong learners and, thus, teaching them to have more leadership and ownership of their studies should be the end goal of education.
In addition to online and-or traditional campus learning, each institution should instil in students a culture of reading, discussion and debate for their personal and professional growth.
Likewise, faculty members should be prepared to be open to this change, which offers a wealth of new teaching techniques, the resources to deliver high-quality courses and an opportunity to stay abreast of the recent developments in their disciplines.
Above all, they need to be able to feel secure that a shift to an online environment will bring an added value to student learning rather than being a road to their own redundancy.
Government support: The government and potential development partners, including the World Bank, need to assist Cambodian higher education institutions by providing loans or grants to strengthen their ICT capacity, including building smart classrooms for online learning.
Another priority is the establishment of nationwide development and training programmes for teaching and non-teaching staff to increase their confidence and competency around online learning and teaching methodologies.
The government should encourage all Cambodian higher education institutions to work together to share their experiences and resources related to online learning. This could include, for example, the establishment of a nationwide online inter-library system.
We believe such steps will offer Cambodian higher education institutions the opportunity to adapt to the current context of online delivery and enable them to be ready for the post COVID-19 era when blended education (online and on-campus learning) will become ubiquitous.
To quote Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”
Dr Phirom Leng is president, Kirirom Institute of Technology, Cambodia. Dr Sothy Khieng is vice-president, Kirirom Institute of Technology, Cambodia, and Dr Tineke Water is director of research, University of Puthisastra, Cambodia.
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