COVID-19: A silver lining in the crisis for Cambodia’s education sector

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Heng Kimkong
The University of Queensland
Brisbane, Australia
July 5, 2020

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As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. This means that every bad or unpleasant situation can have a positive side to it.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the worst disasters the modern world has ever experienced. It has wreaked havoc on multiple dimensions of human life. Not only has it brought the global economy to a standstill, but it has also triggered unprecedented global travel restrictions affecting the movement of people and goods across the world. As of 5 July, more than 11 million people have been infected by COVID-19. Of these, over half a million people have died and some six million have so far recovered.   

However, looking at the bright side, COVID-19 can be a silver lining in the crisis. In the case of Cambodia’s education sector, despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, the virus may figuratively be described as a silver lining.

In Southeast Asia, Cambodia ranks towards the bottom of the list when it comes to quality of education, innovation capacity, competitiveness performance, global talent competitiveness and scientific publications score. As an example, Cambodia is ranked 117th out of 132 countries in the 2020 Global Talent Competitiveness Index. The country’s information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure ranking stands at 100th and its technology utilisation is 94th out of 132 countries featured in the Global Talent report.

According to a Scopus analysis conducted by the author, Cambodia is ranked 8th among the 10 ASEAN countries in terms of the total number of research publications published within the last 10 years and indexed in Scopus, one of the world’s largest abstract and citation databases.

Specifically, Cambodia published 3,521 Scopus-indexed documents between 2010 and 2019, while Malaysia, ranked 1st, published 277,866 documents, Thailand (4th) 143,507 publications and Vietnam (6th) 53,907 publications.

None of Cambodian universities were found in the list of Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020, while Thailand has 16 universities (the most in ASEAN), Malaysia 13 and Vietnam 3.

Overall, Cambodia lags behind many of its peers in the region when considering its performance in education, research and innovation.

As COVID-19 has forced the closure of schools and universities across the world, there has been an unprecedented shift from in-person classes to online teaching on a global scale. For Cambodia, a country with 9.7 million internet users (about 58% of its 16.7 million population), transitioning to online learning and teaching is a real challenge and a difficult adjustment for many students, teachers, administrators and parents. However, at the same time, such a transition provides a unique opportunity for the digital transformation of the country’s education system.

Cambodia’s education system, particularly secondary education, has undergone a series of unprecedented reforms in recent years. Notable positive developments are the introduction of anti-cheating measures to  the Grade 12 National Examination, the implementation of New Generation Schools and the adoption of various initiatives to improve the quality of teaching and managing in schools. 

For higher education, increasing efforts have been made to improve student enrolments, quality of education and staff capacity. Notably, the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) have endeavoured to promote research by developing and implementing a number of research-related policies. They include Policy on Research Development in the Education Sector (2010), Sub-Decree on Appointing Professors in the Field of Health (2010), Master Plan for Research Development in the Education Sector (2011) and Policy on Higher Education 2030 (2014).

MoEYS has implemented and concluded an unprecedented US$23 million initiative funded by the World Bank. The project, called Higher Education Quality and Capacity Improvement Project (HEQCIP), was initiated to improve the quality of teaching, research and management as well as to support disadvantaged students.

Recently, MoEYS has embarked on another more ambitious initiative, called Higher Education Improvement Project. This is a 92.5 million project also funded by the World Bank. The project which is supposed to be completed in June 2024 aims to promote the quality of teaching and research in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and agriculture.       

Despite these positive developments, there are other issues that demand new initiatives and policy attention, particularly from the Education Ministry itself. One of the issues is the utilisation of technology in the classroom. While ICT has been widely and increasingly adopted in schools in urban areas and in the capital Phnom Penh, schools in rural and remote areas suffer from the lack of technological infrastructure, internet connection and human resources 

The COVID-19 pandemic has left no choice for all schools and universities across the country but to move classes online or at least, in the case of MoEYS, to offer lessons on television and online through social media platforms (mainly Facebook), YouTube and websites.

The delivery and dissemination of lessons on TV and virtual platforms by MoEYS is temporary and likely to cease when schools reopen, potentially in November or as early as August for some privileged private international schools. However, the transition from in-person classes to online learning and teaching has provided valuable lessons for students, teachers and school administrators to understand the challenges, opportunities and feasibility of fully adopting and integrating ICT into school settings. 

In a sense, COVID-19 has ushered in the temporarily digital transformation of education in Cambodian schools nationwide. This phenomenon was seriously lacking prior to the pandemic despite the government’s efforts to integrate ICT as a teaching, learning and knowledge sharing tool through the development of a new policy and strategy on ICT in Cambodia. Therefore, from a positive point of view, the COVID-19 pandemic may be a silver lining in the crisis for Cambodia’s education sector. 

The experience of designing and conducting lessons and classes remotely or electronically is invaluable. The insights gained from such ad hoc initiatives and experiences will have a positive impact on the assumptions, beliefs and attitudes towards e-learning and blended learning both in schools and universities. 

The first-hand experience with e-learning and e-teaching during the pandemic should serve as a foundation and inspiration for future adoption of technological tools to enhance learning and teaching in schools and, to a certain extent, in universities where the use of ICT should be further encouraged and embraced.

Therefore, policymakers, educational institution leaders and those in senior leadership roles should take advantage of the unexpected opportunities generated by COVID-19 by continuing to utilise ICT in ways that enhance learning and teaching in schools and universities across the country even when the pandemic is over. 

To maximise the use of ICT, more attention, innovative policy interventions and increased investment should be directed towards encouraging and supporting the integration of ICT in the classroom settings, especially in rural areas where the digital divide and educational inequality are more pronounced.

To bridge the digital divide, both technological resources and human resources have to go hand in hand. Investment in both is a must if Cambodia is to truly realise the digital transformation of its education system. 

Undeniably, in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Cambodia cannot afford to pay less attention to the digital dimension in its education system. Neither can it continue to lag its neighbours and other countries in the region in terms of education quality, research and innovation capacity, competitiveness performance and human capital development.

Cambodia must continue to increase its investment in education, and it must begin to aggressively invest in digitalising its education system to meet the needs of students who need to live and succeed in the digital world.

Other less developed ASEAN countries may also consider these suggestions.

HENG Kimkong, a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship, is a PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland in Australia. He is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a founding co-editor of Cambodian Education Forum.

All views expressed personal.

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