E-Learning slow to progress in Thailand

national December 02, 2013 00:00

By Chularat Saengpassa
The Natio

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Cyber university project hindered by the lack of online programmes

Launched more than a decade ago, the Thailand Cyber-University Project has continued to expand over the years, albeit rather slowly. To date, only nine higher-educational institutes have arranged the full set of online programmes, and yet these 50 programmes are just a small part of the institutes’ services. 
“Thailand still doesn’t have a real cyber university,” Vice Minister for Education Pavich Tongroach said yesterday, “None of the Thai higher-educational institutes have focused only on cyber programmes.” 
These cyber programmes refer to e-learning programmes, where students are not required to sit in the classroom. 
“If we can efficiently deliver e-learning, Thailand will enjoy many benefits. Educational opportunities will increase significantly. Working people will be able to easily access extra courses, allowing them to equip themselves with additional skills and additional knowledge,” Pavich said. 
He was speaking at the Thailand e-Learning Initiative seminar, which was a part of the Smart Education academic event held recently. 
During the seminar, Pavich said that Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University offered distance-learning courses that were similar to e-learning.
“But this university still relies heavily on documents, so it’s not quite e-learning yet,” he said, adding that he hoped the university would gear up for cyber-learning in the future. 
According to Pavich, several Asian countries have already made real progress in developing universities specialising in cyber-learning. In Malaysia, for example, 16 state universities joined forces to establish the Malaysian Open University, which only offers e-learning programmes. 
“This university even offers an engineering programme and students studying it have access to the labs of state universities involved in the programme,” Pavich said. 
He lamented that Thailand’s prestigious state universities showed little enthusiasm for developing the full package of e-programmes. However, he is hopeful that an offer by South Korea to assist Thailand in developing its Cyber University Project is a positive step in the right direction. 
South Korea founded the Asean Cyber University, which aims to strengthen higher education in the Asean region through e-learning, and consolidate ties among Asean members in cyber learning. 
Pavich insisted that Thailand should embrace the Cyber University concept – not just because it offered many benefits – but because cyber learning was an increasingly important field of study globally. 
“We have to learn to operate more effectively in the cyber world,” said Pavich. 
He pointed out that the Thailand Cyber University Project had resources to support Thai institutes interested in offering the cyber programmes. 
Asst Prof Thapanee Thammetar, who heads the project’s office, said some universities turned to the cyber programmes after they were forced to abandon their off-campus centres on grounds that some facilities – such as libraries – were inadequate. 
“We have often found that lecturers are themselves not familiar with digital tools,” Thapanee said, “Most lecturers are those who have already reached retirement age”.
She said the Office of Higher Education Commission, which also supervised her office, would enforce stricter regulations for the cyber programmes in a bid to ensure quality.
“The new criteria are designed to ensure that the quality of all e-learning programmes are of the same standard as those delivered in the classroom,” she said. The new criteria also address IT support, curriculum, and more. 
However, Thapanee said the attitudes of students, lecturers and employers towards e-learning also created problems for the programmes. 
“Employers, for example, will generally prefer to hire graduates who have physically attended classrooms, rather than hire someone graduating from a cyber programme,” she said. 
Thapanee said exam cheating was also another cause for concern in Thailand, despite the fact that cheating in others countries was not considered a problem, even though students of cyber programmes were allowed to take their tests at home. 
“When I asked how officials could be so sure that students did the exams themselves, they looked at me with surprise. They then wanted to know why I was asking,” Thapanee said. “Cultures are different – they are so certain that students won’t cheat.” 
In Thailand, Thapanee said even institutes that offered full cyber programmes still require students to take tests at designated spots.
South Korea, which launched its first cyber university in 2001, now has 19 such universities with a combined number of students of around 90,000. Indeed, many South Koreans have embraced e-learning as integral part of education for people or all ages. 
“Many South Koreans decide to enrol in cyber programmes even after following another career. It’s usually when they have decided what it is they really want to learn,” Thapanee said.
However, at some universities in Thailand, such as Rangsit University (RSU), there are signs that e-learning is growing in popularity. RSU Cyber University’s chief Kanda Wongwailikhit said the RSU had started its cyber programmes nearly five years ago. 
“Most of our students are working people,” she said. 
Presently, the RSU Cyber University offers three programmes – one at bachelor’s degree level and the rest at master’s. Kanda said lecturers were well-qualified with a solid knowledge of the subjects they taught. 
“They have also taught programmes in regular classroom environments.” She added that to ensure students of the online programmes really understood the content, lecturers of the RSU Cyber University would meet with them regularly – between one to two hours a day.
“They keep regular contact via email too,” Kanda said. 
To date, the RSU Cyber University has produced a total of 126 graduates. 

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