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Analysis

A mixture of IT solutions may be best way out of One Tablet scheme

The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) will very likely decide tomorrow whether to scrap the One Tablet Per Child scheme, a brainchild of the ousted Pheu Thai-led government.

The suitability of this scheme was much questioned even before its launch.

So when NCPO deputy chief Admiral Narong Pipattanasai, who now oversees the Education Ministry, ordered a review of the scheme, there was no protest.

Narong, after all, has insisted that any decision made will be based on crucial findings and information. He said he needs to determine if the scheme is worthwhile.

If it is not, he insists the country would be better spending the money on other educational projects. In 2013, the One Tablet Per Child project got a budget of well over Bt5 billion.

The latest development suggests that there is a greater chance of the Smart Classroom project being launched.

Previously proposed by then-Vice Minister Pavich Thongroj, the Smart Classroom is a well-equipped lab for students. The concept appeared in news reports earlier this year when then-caretaker Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang hinted at the possibility of the One Tablet Per Child project being scrapped.

But even if the Pheu Thai-led government were still in place today, this possibility would be low.

This project, after all, was introduced in response to the Pheu Thai's much-touted electoral policies. Children, especially those from cash-strapped families, were of course excited about the project. Tablets would be out of the question had the government not handed them one.

Several educators, however, are not impressed with this populist scheme.

They warned the government that use of such devices from a very young age could hurt child development in other areas and potentially hurt their eyesight.

Despite the warnings, the government launched the project in 2012 but quickly encountered problems. The project has run into procurement problems for two years in a row.

In the 2012 academic year as Prathom 1 students eagerly awaited the tablets, the project faced delayed delivery of the devices. In the end, it took the supplier nearly two years to send all of the more than 800,000 tablets to Thailand.

For the 2013 academic year, relevant authorities decided to change the procurement approach. Instead of buying a large number of tablets via one purchase contract, they decided to divide students into four groups based on the zone of their schools.

Four separate e-auctions were held for the four zones. Yet, problems still arose and most students have not received the tablets.

One supplier has not delivered any device and asked for the deal to be terminated. Another supplier was so late with delivery the Office of Basic Education Commission had to cancel the purchase contract and started moves for a new e-auction to get a new supplier.

When the NCPO took power, one zone still had no supplier.

On top of procurement problems, the scheme has also had complaints over teachers not knowing how to use them and maintenance issues.

But despite so many problems, a survey by the Education Ministry has found that students showed greater interest in IT after receiving tablets.

The Smart Classroom project, which already has Narong's attention, would see the installation of smart boards, servers and modern tools at each school. Some 30 tablets would be part of each Smart Classroom. If the Smart Classroom is launched, not all students in Prathom 1 or Mathayom 1 will receive a tablet.

To many parents, the Smart Classroom will ease their worries about their children assessing inappropriate content while not being supervised by a teacher.

Narong has promised to weigh the pros and cons of choices available before making a decision.

While the students' best interests are at the heart of the issue, decision-makers should take into account all relevant information. There is no need to choose "A" or "B". Sometimes it may be a good idea to concoct an A and B mixture.

Do not forget that there are about 10,000 small schools in Thailand, each with less than 120 students.

Do all these schools need a Smart Classroom, which would require between Bt400,000 and Bt1 million to set up? And do all these schools have teachers who can make the utmost use of IT facilities and conduct a great class? Some of these schools are very small and have only a few teachers.

Like it or not, it is undeniable that Smart Classrooms - even when built at some schools - will be left to gather dust sooner or later. Many small schools will have difficulty maintaining the IT facility. As one size can't fit all, it is best that relevant authorities determine what will suit each school best.


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