Preparing young Khmer for life in the digital age

We have just launched the first online ICT course entirely in Khmer, freely available to all Cambodians: http://ictangkor.com

In today’s world, being able to use a computer is almost as important as being able to read and write. Moreover, having access to modern technology during formative years puts students at a significant advantage when the time comes to join the increasingly digitized modern work force.

Cambodian students working on our new ICT program.

Unfortunately, for many Cambodian children such opportunities remain elusive. Cambodia has seen more than a decade of relative stability and was in 2016 upgraded from a low-income to lower-middle income status by the World Bank. Nevertheless, many Cambodians today still live below the poverty line and without access to the most basic services. As late as 2014, only 56% of the Cambodian population had access to electricity, which most people consider a basic necessity.

Access to modern technology remains very limited, even compared to other countries in the region. As a consequence, very few Khmer students get the chance to learn how to use computers as part of their education and little access to the opportunities this provides later in life.

The first steps to ICT literacy

To address this issue, Grok Learning teamed up with Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT) in 2014 with a shared vision of creating a project that would provide disadvantaged youth throughout Cambodia with access to quality ICT education and provide them with the 21st century skills needed to thrive in the knowledge-based labour market.

“The great thing about ICT is that it will make finding a job easier as computer technology is a requirement of most jobs these days. If we get a job in the ICT field then we can work with our minds and not use all of our energy laboring
Chanthou, 17, Samdach Ouv Public High School

The new ICT project was launched in April 2015 in the city of Battambang. We started with an Hour of Code in a single classroom. Today, a total of 4,500 students are registered in the project, including students in grades 7–12 from five public high schools and one teacher-training centre.

In addition to setting up new computer labs, we have developed a unique online ICT curriculum — the first one available in Khmer. The curriculum is based on the Australian model and has been translated and culturally adapted for Cambodia, has a high level of proven educational outcomes and contains engaging content that appeals equally to male and female students.

The challenges of working in Cambodia’s public schools

We have chosen to work within the public education system (and with the Cambodian Ministry of Education) to ensure that ICT becomes an integrated part of the average student’s everyday school life. However, working within the public education system presents a number of challenges.

Students practicing their ICT project presentation.

The secondary school enrolment rate in Cambodia is as low as 34% and just 21% for upper secondary school (USAID, Education in Cambodia, 2016). The education system suffers from a lack of resources, a shortage of qualified teachers, as well as corruption and mismanagement of funds.

Nevertheless, it is our belief that rather than creating a parallel education program that would only serve to compete with the public school system for funds and resources, it makes more sense to improve the public school services to the benefit of as many students as possible.

In 2017 Cambodia was ranked one of the 10 worst countries in the world for growing, nurturing and retaining talent in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index. Ensuring that more young Cambodians get the training and encouragement they need to live out their dreams is what our ICT project is all about.

To address this we started the “ICT Ninjas” program to provide specialized training in advanced ICT skills for the best and the brightest of our students. Students are selected based on their grades and attendance, as well as their enthusiasm for learning ICT. These students then serve as role models for their peers, friends and family, and we are especially encouraging female students to sign up to join the ninja teams.

Students doing robotics as part of the “Ninja team”.

Preparing for the future

It is becoming increasingly clear that Cambodia cannot continue to rely on the labour intensive industries that are currently driving the economy. Key national sectors, such as the garment industry, are expected to decline in productivity as a higher degree of automation among competitors in other countries in the region makes these sectors less viable.

It is evident that Cambodia will have to shift its focus from labour intensive industries towards knowledge-based initiatives in order to maintain the economic development that the country has recently been experiencing.

This has resulted in an increased focus on developing STEM skills, and ICT skills in particular, in the public school system. This is, for example, reflected in the introduction to the Ministry of Education’s newly completed grade 12 ICT textbook, which states that “the world is changing rapidly, with many new careers that did not exist when your parents were your age; this is especially true in the field of technology” (Information and Communication Technology, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports, 2015).

The way forward

The key features of our project are:

  • It is easily scalable to multiple locations;
  • The labs are cost-efficient to set up and maintain;
  • Having government involvement ensures sustainability;
  • The curriculum is online and does not rely on availability of teaching resources.

In phase 2 of the project we will:

  • Expand the ICT project to more schools across Cambodia;
  • Develop more online ICT resources in Khmer;
  • Train more ICT teachers in regional teacher training centres;
  • Assist to digitize local and national government administrative practices.

The skills taught in our ICT program are directly applicable to the modern workplace, and through the program, students are encouraged to pursue careers they might otherwise have considered to be out of reach in fields like science, math and technology.

“Before I knew little about computers, but in the future these skills can help me a lot to find a job because computer skills are a basic job requirement. Now I know a lot about computers and have a good chance to get the job I want as a web designer or an engineer.”
Kannitha, 17, Monivong Public High School

In the long run, the dream is that the students who come through the program will be prepared for life in the digital age, and be able to function successfully in the knowledge-based economy. Moreover, we hope their new ICT skills will help them to play an active part in the development of their communities and their society as a whole.

We would like to thank the Atlassian Foundation for their support of this program. Find out more about the Cambodian’s Children’s Trust at https://www.cambodianchildrenstrust.org