Online learning during COVID-19: Challenges and opportunities

Image: odaopportunities.org

Sun Sokna
Ta Pen Primary and Secondary School
Siem Reap, Cambodia
August 6, 2020

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COVID-19 has forced learning institutions worldwide including in Cambodia to shift from face-to-face learning to online or e-learning. It is a new experience for Cambodian teachers of this generation who remains reliant largely on face-to-face teaching in classes as a means to deliver lessons to students. To continue to provide education during the global pandemic, teachers immediately adopt online teaching without proper training or substantial experience. So what will be the outcome of this online learning?

No doubt, Cambodia is not really ready for online education although this learning mode has for many years been implemented in advanced societies such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States, among others. Threatened by the coronavirus disease, many Cambodian teachers and students face a sudden challenge of having to swiftly make an adjustment to take up e-learning and teaching. This immediate shift is happening across the nation. The key issue concerning this unprepared adjustment is a lack of tools, resources, and knowledge of online learning and teaching. These challenges seem to be more severe in government-run schools, especially those in rural areas. Although some schools are equipped with ICT (information and communication technology), the ICT program tends to focus primarily on basic knowledge of using computer software such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint. Online learning, therefore, may not fit students’ learning styles and backgrounds, potentially leaving some behind as they try to navigate the new online education.

It is worth noting that teaching students through online platforms is an inconvenient task for many teachers. Obviously, teachers need to receive training first to be able to operate online learning programs effectively. For many of them, they will face increased workload as they are required to produce lessons in the form of audios, videos, or slide presentations. They also need to use videoconferencing to communicate with their students.

Students with little experience of using online platforms may find some tools complicated to use to access various learning programs and upload their work online. They could feel restless to catch up with the many activities they need to complete during online learning. For example, having to deal with numerous tasks, students may probably experience less freedom for meaningful interactions with friends and classmates.

The reliability of the internet speed and the availability of the internet access are also a big problem. Technological infrastructure, including the internet connection, remains a huge challenge for many schools, particularly those in the countryside. While online learning is taking place, unequal access to education has been reported. Some students might face grade repetition due to their inability to join online classes while each day is filled with new lessons.  

Online learning, in other words, can cause students to lose self-control. As seen in other countries, some students might, for example, come up with ideas of trolls, sharing explicit images, streaming pornography, drawing crude images over instructors’ slides, and producing interrupting noise while engaging in group conversations. This can make online learning frustrating for some students, potentially making them lose interest in attending online classes and doing assigned work.  Besides, students can possibly cheat when doing exercises or tests online. They can ask someone else to complete the assigned tasks or copy answers from their classmates instead of completing the tasks by themselves.

The introduction of online education is a real challenge as it appears to be in stark contrast to students’ pre-pandemic learning habits, predominantly taking place inside the classroom. Students may expect their teachers to stand in front of the classroom to deliver lessons to them. It has almost become teaching norms that nearly every teacher has to spoon-feed learners who rely heavily on classroom-based instruction designed to guide them through different stages of learning. Given this, participation in online learning during this critical time of the COVID-19 crisis may be like exploring an unknown isolated area for some students. As a result, online learning may not enable every student to acquire knowledge they need because they may experience discomfort, nervousness, and stress when they need to be alone in a quiet room with a computer, an iPad, or a phone to continue their online education.

Despite the challenges, online learning is an alternative way for education delivery enabled by technology. The shift from offline to online learning has however been supported by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport with collaboration with UNESCO, Cambodian Union of Youth Federations, and other private companies as well as non-governmental organizations. These concerned stakeholders team up to create various apps and promote e-learning to provide students with opportunities to continue their education. Though online education is new in Cambodia, there has been a remarkable progress in terms of how teaching and learning can still take place amid the pandemic. Such an alternative learning and teaching method, although not without challenges, will help make learning easier for many students, especially those whose schools are far from their home. Online learning, thus, creates a new way to maintain interactions and education while learning in classroom-based settings is currently not feasible.

For students, one of the main benefits they will receive is independence. They can learn to manage their own learning. They can also gain more knowledge on various subjects and can study whenever they want, including the opportunity to take online courses and tests. Online learning, in a sense, provides students with opportunities to interact with teachers, peers and, other students at almost any time.

Online learning, moreover, provides students with a window of opportunities to learn from anywhere. There are hundreds of online short courses, freely available for learners and other people to access whenever they want. Many courses are offered by famous universities such as Harvard University, the University of Oxford, and the University of Cambridge, among others. With the experience of engaging in online learning, more Cambodian students will be able to access online education​ with confidence. Online learning is, therefore, a safe, cheap, and convenient way to gain more knowledge and skills needed for future careers and further studies.

In sum, online learning offers both challenges and opportunities. But given the lack of experience on the part of teachers and students in using online platforms, online learning is more likely to have produced less positive outcome if compared with traditional classroom-based learning. Nonetheless, with more investment in this alternative educational mode, there will be improvement for online education in the future. To enhance the quality and outcomes of online education, the Cambodian government should improve technological infrastructure, including the internet connection, in schools across the country. It should establish more partnerships with local and international organizations to expand and improve e-learning programs as well as access to them. Specifically, the government ought to strategize ways to make it easier and cheaper for students to afford digital devices such as computers or tablets so that they make reap benefits from online education during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Author

SUN Sokna is an English Program Manager and English teacher at Ta Pen Primary and Secondary School, fully sponsored by Le Don du Choeur. He is pursuing a master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at the University of South-East Asia, Siem Reap, Cambodia. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Teaching English as a Foreign Language from Build Bright University in Siem Reap. He has worked as a senior English teacher for Opportunities of Development thru Art in Siem Reap.

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