COVID-19 and Cambodian Higher Education: Challenges and Opportunities

Kimkong Heng
The University of Queensland
Brisbane, Australia

Koemhong Sol
International Christian University
Tokyo, Japan

© Cambodian Education Forum 2021
K. Heng, S. Kaing, D. Kao, M. Muong, B. Doeur, & T. Lor (Eds.), Online learning during COVID-19 and key issues in education. https://cefcambodia.com/books/

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic has, no doubt, caused great disruption to human life. The impacts have been multifaceted, ranging from health to economic and educational crises. In education, including higher education, COVID-19 has compelled millions of students to adopt online learning in order to continue their education when physical classes are not possible. In Cambodia, the pandemic has also caused disruption in all aspects of life, and education is no exception. Based on secondary data, this chapter shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has posed many challenges to the Cambodian higher education sector; however, the pandemic has also brought about some opportunities, one of which is the wider adoption of technology in Cambodian education. The chapter then discusses some suggestions to enhance the digitalization of Cambodian higher education. It argues that COVID-19 has offered a unique opportunity for stakeholders in Cambodian higher education to accelerate the digital transformation of higher education in Cambodia.

Keywords: COVID-19; Cambodian higher education; challenges; opportunities; digital transformation of education

Introduction

The last two years have been about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), a virus that causes COVID-19, declared by the World Health Organization in March 2020 as a pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruption to all forms of life. Heng (2021a) argued that the impact of COVID-19 “has been grave and unprecedented, and the anxiety and unpredictability it has caused have far-reaching consequences beyond public health” (p. 3). Not only has it set the global economic recession in motion, but the pandemic has also exacerbated educational inequality around the world (Reimers, 2021). Many schools and universities across different countries have been ordered to close, and some have remained closed since 2020 as part of the measures taken by individual governments to curb the spread of COVID-19 (see Marinoni et al., 2020; UNESCO, n.d.).

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health catastrophe. As of September 2021, it has infected over 231 million people and caused more than 4.7 million deaths (WHO, 2021), and the rate of infection and mortality is expected to increase as the world is currently grappling with new strands of COVID-19, such as the Alpha and Delta variants,  which are found to be more contagious and transmissible than the original COVID-19 variant that was first reported in China’s Wuhan city (Kupferschmidt & Wadman, 2021). The pandemic is also an economic catastrophe. The global economy contracted by 3.5 percent in 2020 (IMF, 2021). In some advanced economies such as the United States and France, their economy contracted by 3.4 percent and 9 percent in 2020, respectively (IMF, 2021). For many countries in Southeast Asia, their 2020 economy contracted about 3.7 percent on average (IMF, 2021), while Cambodia’s economy contracted by 3.1 percent in 2020 (World Bank, 2021). Thus, the pandemic is both a health and an economic crisis.

Despite this, COVID-19 presents both challenges and opportunities to the education sector globally (Marinoni et al., 2020). Key challenges are related to the closure of educational institutions, leaving millions of learners unable to continue their education in normal, face-to-face classroom settings (Marinoni et al., 2020; UNESCO, n.d.). To respond to these unprecedented challenges, schools and universities around the globe have resorted to online learning, creating a phenomenon called “the rise of online learning” (Heng & Sol, 2021; Kayyali, 2020). This phenomenon is a good thing for some countries that do not have an advanced education system where the integration of information and communication technology (ICT) in education is limited. Cambodia is a good case in point. Although COVID-19 has created chaos and disruption to the whole education system in the country, it has presented some opportunities as well. As Heng (2020) argued, COVID-19 could be considered “a silver lining in the crisis” for Cambodia’s education sector (p. 4). In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique opportunity for Cambodia “to strengthen the integration of ICT in education, and foster the digital transformation of its education system” (Heng, 2021a, p. 2).

This chapter focuses on the challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 creates for Cambodian higher education. The chapter argues that, despite the challenges and disruptions posed by COVID-19, there are windows of opportunities for stakeholders in Cambodian higher education to accelerate the digital transformation of Cambodian higher education in order to strengthen the quality of higher education. In advancing this argument, the chapter first discusses the key challenges that the pandemic poses to the Cambodian higher education sector. It then highlights some opportunities induced by COVID-19 for higher education in Cambodia. The chapter concludes with a summary of key challenges and opportunities as well as recommendations to enhance the quality of Cambodian higher education through the greater integration of ICT and blended learning in the mainstream classrooms.

COVID-19 and the Challenges for Cambodian Higher Education

Closure of Higher Education Institutions

To curb the spread of COVID-19, the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) ordered all schools, including higher education institutions (HEIs), to suspend all face-to-face classes intermittently from March 16, 2020. This immediate closure without adequate preparation has posed enormous challenges to Cambodian HEIs as they need to ensure the continuity of their education provision through online learning. The adoption of online learning requires necessary digital infrastructure and learning resources, access to reliable internet connection and digital devices, as well as digital literacy of both faculty members and students, not to mention the pedagogical knowledge and skills needed for navigating online teaching.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education infrastructure and learning resources in Cambodia existed mainly for on-campus teaching and learning. Therefore, when educational institutions were ordered to close, the lack of digital infrastructure and learning resources emerged as a major challenge for most, if not all, HEIs in Cambodia. HEIs have decided to use open-source platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Zoom, and Google Classroom to support the continuity of students’ learning (Chet & Sok, 2020). Many HEIs in Cambodia, however, do not have in place a system for students to access library resources off-campus, so in addition to meager learning resources provided by their teachers, students tend to look for additional online materials, often from less credible sources (Sol, 2021).

As HEIs were closed, access to reliable internet connection and appropriate digital devices, which are indispensable from online teaching and learning, has become another significant challenge, particularly for students from low socioeconomic families. Heng and Sol (2021) noted that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds could not afford broadband and appropriate devices such as computers, laptops, or tablets to support their online learning. In such cases, they are at great risk of being left behind in their learning endeavors. Chea et al. (2020) reported that because of the inability to afford appropriate devices, many students used smartphones to access their online classes and complete their assignments. Faculty members may also have experienced some connectivity issues as they are required to work from home. As Sol (2021) asserted, “even though many parts of the country are digitally connected, there are certain areas where a stable and fast internet connection is difficult to obtain” (p. 53). Thus, if teachers live in areas where access to stable and high-speed internet connection is limited, their online teaching can be sporadically and significantly interrupted.

For many years, Cambodian higher education has taken place primarily on campus. Faculty members and students have relatively little or no prior experience in online teaching and learning. The abrupt transition to online learning prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic allowed no time for all stakeholders to prepare. Faculty members and students were required to take on online teaching and learning without enough guidance, training, and resources (United Nations, 2020). Faculty members were also reported to have limited ICT knowledge and skills and were not familiar with online teaching platforms; all of these were compounded by insufficient understanding of how to teach online (Chea et al., 2020; Leng et al., 2020). Therefore, the “learning by doing” approach is usually practiced (Sol, 2021, p. 53).

Potential Bankruptcy

In April 2020, the Cambodian Higher Education Association (CHEA) warned that 113 private educational establishments could face bankruptcy due to their inability to cover costs of rents, utilities, and staff salaries if schools remained closed for an extended period (Khorn, 2020). Thus far, even though there has been no report on any HEIs going bankrupt, the potential bankruptcy of private HEIs in Cambodia cannot be overlooked or underestimated as they are primarily dependent on tuition fees. Continuous falling enrollments and declining retention rates of students triggered by COVID-19 may have led some private HEIs to be cash-strapped. In such a scenario, some private HEIs may permanently shut down their operation if there is no bailout from the government or financial institutions.

Undermined Quality of Teaching and Learning

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the quality of higher education in Cambodia was regarded as relatively limited due to several interrelated issues such as limited qualifications of faculty members and ineffective delivery of lessons due to the lack of planning and resources (see Dahles, 2017; Hayden, 2019; Kitamura, 2016). When HEIs were closed as part of the government’s measures to contain the spread of COVID-19, a sudden shift to online teaching and learning took place, raising further concerns about education quality. Several factors are perceived to have affected the quality of online teaching and learning in Cambodian higher education amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them include the lack of digital infrastructure and learning resources, connectivity issues, digital divide among students, reduced student-instructor and peer interactions, and limited ICT skills and digital pedagogy among faculty members (Sol, 2021). These shortcomings and the immediate need to make online teaching and learning happen have unarguably undermined the quality of teaching and learning in Cambodian higher education.

Worsening of Skills Gaps and Educational Inequality

The abrupt transition to online learning brought by COVID-19 has exacerbated digital divide and educational inequality between advantaged and disadvantaged students (Heng, 2021b), potentially widening and worsening skills gaps among them, an issue of great concern since before the pandemic. As online learning is made possible by the use of the internet and appropriate digital devices, this means that not all students would be able to access online learning. For example, students from low socioeconomic families and areas of limited digital coverage may have their learning significantly interrupted due to the lack of access to digital devices and a stable and high-speed internet connection, not to mention their limited prior online learning experience. Furthermore, online learning has been found to be not applicable for particular disciplines such as sports, engineering, and medical studies, all of which require hands-on experiences as part of the instructional process (Adedoyin & Soykan, 2020). As Heng and Sol (2021) emphasized, teaching such practical disciplines online is indeed a challenge. To a considerable extent, these factors have taken away opportunities, particularly among disadvantaged students, to build up the knowledge and skills required for competition in the job market.

Mental Health Issues

In the Cambodian context, online teaching and learning is a relatively new phenomenon that took place suddenly and unprecedentedly during the pandemic, creating psychological effects for all stakeholders, particularly faculty members and students (Leng et al., 2020). From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty members were immediately tasked with implementing online teaching, often without adequate training and resources. Adding to the lack of online teaching experience, this has brought about an unexpected workload for faculty members who need to learn to teach online, use new teaching platforms, adapt teaching contents and resources, and replan learning assessments to fit the new context of online learning (Heng & Sol, 2021). This immediate requirement has caused a high level of stress and anxiety for faculty members (MacIntyre et al., 2020), not to mention the omnipresent concern for their families and themselves during the pandemic. There were also reports on pay cuts among private educational institutions during the school closure (Khorn, 2020). In such a time of uncertainty, the decline in income has generated additional worries and insecurity among faculty members.

Students have also experienced some psychological issues, which can be expressed as stress, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and frustration, among others. Some of the causes include the lack of online learning experience, the feeling of isolation due to reduced peer interactions and support, the increasing need for independent study, and technology-related issues (Heng, 2021b; Heng & Sol, 2021). These psychological issues, if not adequately recognized and addressed, could have long-term consequences on students’ health and education (Browning et al., 2021; Lischer et al., 2021; Sahu, 2020). 

COVID-19 and the Opportunities for Cambodian Higher Education

Digital Transformation

Despite the enormous challenges posed by COVID-19, HEIs in Cambodia, to some extent, have been able to make online teaching and learning possible through a rapid digital transformation that was previously thought to be arduous or impractical for the Cambodian context. Considering the fast-growing context of a more digitalized world, COVID-19 has provided an excellent opportunity for Cambodian HEIs to integrate ICT into their education programs. As Heng (2021a) advocated, “the infrastructure and experience accumulated during the COVID-19 crisis will act as a strong impetus for the greater utilization of ICT in Cambodian education in the future” (p. 5).

Building upon the current momentum of digital transformation made possible by COVID-19, this initial digital transformation has also created a great opportunity for Cambodian HEIs to further develop their digital infrastructure and learning resources capable of offering both on-campus and online education. According to Sol (2021), digital infrastructure and learning resources “include but are not limited to a wide range of digital devices, e-learning platforms, technology-enhanced classrooms, high-speed internet connectivity, digital libraries, comprehensive learning management systems, data privacy and security, quality digital contents and resources, and constant technical support” (p. 51).

In response to COVID-19, several HEIs, such as the Paññāsāstra University of Cambodia and the National University of Management, have begun digitalizing some of their services, ranging from enrollment application to paying school fees and course registration. This digitalization induced by COVID-19 is argued to enhance the efficiency of service delivery among Cambodian HEIs.  

Improved Prospects of Blended Learning

When educational institutions were instructed to close temporarily, online learning in Cambodia has gained remarkable momentum as an alternative to face-to-face teaching and learning, allowing education to continue for students. The growing investment in necessary digital tools and Learning Management Systems (LMS), the transformed learning resources developed and made available by HEIs and faculty members, and the experience gained through online teaching and learning during the school closure will improve blended learning in Cambodian higher education post-COVID-19 (Heng, 2021a). Considering the unexpected disruption caused by the global health crisis like COVID-19 and the context of Industry 4.0, blended learning will become ubiquitous as a vital part of modern education because the reliance on traditional face-to-face teaching and learning alone is no longer a viable modality. Therefore, online teaching and learning brought about by COVID-19 will provide a foundation to accelerate blended learning in Cambodian higher education.

Improved Collaboration and Partnerships

Facing the widespread outbreak of COVID-19, the educational activities of most HEIs worldwide have been shifted online. With that being said, there are plenty of opportunities for HEIs in Cambodia to establish collaboration and partnerships with both local and international institutions as they are also looking for opportunities to diversify their students’ learning experience and involve their faculty members with the wider community, for example, through online exchange programs or webinars. Moreover, with grave disruption to the entire education system, education stakeholders such as MoEYS, local and international development partners, and the private sector appear to shift more support to the education sector (see Heng, 2020). This trend has created more opportunities for Cambodian HEIs to collaborate with these key stakeholders to ensure that continuing higher education for students, regardless of the mode of delivery, is of high quality capable of producing a skilled workforce for the future.

Better Preparation for Future Crises 

Despite some considerable limitations, the digital transformation made possible by COVID-19, including technological infrastructure, digital learning resources, and online teaching and learning experience, will not only enhance the relevancy and competitiveness of Cambodian higher education but also build digital resilience for future crises. In such a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, on-campus teaching and learning are not possible due to restrictions of human interactions, requiring a sudden switch to online mode. With some digital readiness forged by COVID-19, the teaching and learning process will not be badly interrupted as recently experienced. As in many developed countries, their digital readiness and well-established blending learning practice have helped them to cope well with the impacts of COVID-19 on their educational front (Cahapay, 2020).

Suggestions to Keep the Momentum of Digital Transformation of Higher Education

To keep the momentum of digital transformation in higher education, different stakeholders have an essential role to play. The following sections discuss how each key stakeholder in higher education in Cambodia can contribute to accelerating the digitalization of the Cambodian higher education system.

The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport

First, as Heng (2021a) argues, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) needs to invest in the digital transformation of the education system, particularly the higher education sector. This investment involves the provision of capacity-building opportunities to upskill higher education staff, the integration of ICT into the education programs, and the allocation of technical and financial support to ensure the wider adoption of ICT and blended learning in higher education. MoEYS also needs to be willing to support research or projects that aim to understand how ICT can be effectively integrated into the classrooms and how university students and academic staff perceive blended and online learning.

Second, MoEYS needs to find ways to engage other stakeholders, particularly the private sector, to mobilize resources to support higher education development post-pandemic. At present, the government-university-industry relations, or the so-called triple helix model, are still weak (Sam & Dahles, 2017); therefore, it is vital to enhance the public-private partnership and collaboration in order to bring about critical forces to change the current higher education landscape, confronted by poor stakeholder involvement, limited research capacity, and limited quality of education and training (see Kwok et al., 2010; Sam & Dahles, 2017; Vann & Ziguras, 2017).

Third, MoEYS should work with individual universities to establish their own LMS to ensure that universities are equipped with necessary learning and teaching systems that can facilitate online and blended learning, particularly in the post-pandemic time. The establishment of the Centre for Digital and Distance Learning and the introduction of an e-learning application called MoEYS E-Learning are welcome initiatives (see Heng, 2021a). However, a lot more needs to be done to build a culture of independent learning among Cambodian students and to promote digital education.  

Development Partners

Development partners and donor agencies have played a pivotal role in supporting the development of higher education in Cambodia (Sam & Dahles, 2017). They serve as an important source of technical and financial support. Thus, given the many challenges posed by COVID-19, development partners and international organizations such as the World Bank and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) need to continue to provide unwavering support to help MoEYS and Cambodian HEIs to accelerate the digitalization of the higher education system. So far, various initiatives have been introduced by the development partners to enhance research facilities and information technology infrastructure in Cambodian higher education (see SIDA, 2021), but more support on similar projects is needed to introduce positive changes to higher education.

The Private Sector

The role of the private sector in supporting the development of higher education in Cambodia is undeniably vital. However, prior to the pandemic, this actor was less active in contributing to the quality of higher education and research (Sam & Dahles, 2017). Although the private sector, particularly major private companies, has increased their involvement and support to help MoEYS implement online learning effectively (see Heng, 2020), there is a need for more involvement and collaboration from this important player in Cambodian higher education. While the private sector needs to strengthen its partnership with HEIs, it also needs to be more willing to invest in LMS, professional development opportunities, and research.

Moreover, as research has indicated prevalent skill gaps among Cambodian university graduates (Madhur, 2014; Peou, 2017), the private sector, including wealthy people, needs to invest more in higher education to ensure that university graduates are equipped with the necessary skills needed in the workplace. In fact, private companies and industries are the users of graduates produced by HEIs. In this sense, they have a crucial role to play in supporting HEIs to train students to be ready for the job market. Due to skills gaps, some of the major companies have to spend a larger amount of money on skills training, including English language training. This investment can be channeled to universities in the form of scholarships, fellowships, or internships to help students with excellent academic or disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue higher education. These sponsored students can then be employed by the sponsoring companies on an agreed contract or specific employment conditions.

Higher Education Institutions

No doubt, higher education institutions (HEIs) are key players in the process of digitizing the higher education system. Not only do they need to invest in LMS and other online learning platforms, but HEIs also need to be proactive in engaging other actors such as development partners and the private sector. They need to also find innovative ways to encourage faculty members to integrate ICT into the classrooms more widely. This can be achieved through improved library resources, internet connections on campus, and flexibility in teaching delivery. Also, as Heng (2021a) argued, the integration of ICT or blended learning in the mainstream classrooms “requires effective leadership, strong commitment and institution-wide collaboration” (p. 6). Thus, HEIs need to ensure that administrative and academic staff are on the same page when it comes to promoting blended learning or ICT use in the classrooms.

Furthermore, there is a need for HEIs to offer training and professional development opportunities to their staff, particularly the teaching staff, to make sure that they have the necessary technical and pedagogical knowledge and skills required to deliver online lessons effectively. In designing online learning content, it is crucial that HEIs seek input from the academic staff who are key players in implementing and integrating ICT or blended learning in the mainstream classrooms. In addition, HEIs need to consider revising their existing curriculum to make them more aligned with the teaching and learning model of online or remote learning. The curriculum revision needs to take into account the assessment tasks and techniques as well as the delivery of learning content. The goal is to ensure that the whole curriculum is compatible with the online learning model or blended learning.

Other Stakeholders

Other key stakeholders, especially university lecturers and students, also have a pivotal role to play in facilitating the digital transformation of higher education in Cambodia. What lecturers can do is to improve their technological skills by familiarizing themselves with new learning tools and platforms, such as Edmodo, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Schoology, and Zoom, among others. They also need to introduce these digital learning tools and platforms to their students so that the students can take their time to explore and take advantage of these technology-based learning resources. In addition, lecturers need to be more open to change to adapt to new ways of teaching and learning more successfully.

For students, they also need to be more open-minded and view online learning positively. Although online learning poses many challenges to them, including stress, anxiety, and fatigue caused by prolonged exposure to screens, Cambodian students need to understand that online learning is the future of education (Meng, this volume). In developed countries, online or blended learning is not something new. University students are often required to log onto their university’s LMS, such as Moodle and Blackboard, to engage in class discussions or submit their assignments. In Cambodia, these activities can be new to students before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, after two years of online learning, many students have become more familiar with this mode of learning (see Heng, 2021b). Therefore, students need to embrace online learning and develop positive attitudes toward it. They also need to seek any opportunities to learn to navigate online learning tools and platforms so that they can take full advantage of technology to facilitate their learning process and enhance their knowledge and skills required to succeed in the workplace.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this chapter has discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the higher education landscape in Cambodia. It has shown that the pandemic has posed great challenges to the higher education sector. COVID-19 has particularly forced Cambodia, as also true elsewhere, to temporarily close all educational institutions, creating many issues, including potential bankruptcy of private educational institutions, undermined quality of teaching and learning as classes are offered online, worsening of skills gaps and educational inequality, and increased mental health issues. Despite the challenges it has created, the pandemic has offered a number of educational opportunities, such as the unique opportunity to digitalize the Cambodian education system, improved prospects for the integration of blended learning in the mainstream classrooms, improved collaboration and partnerships between different higher education stakeholders, and better preparation for future crises.

This chapter has also discussed the lessons learned from the pandemic, focusing on what different stakeholders in higher education can and should do to support the digital transformation of Cambodian higher education. The suggestions for MoEYS centers around the need to invest in digitalizing education, providing capacity-building opportunities to enhance the digital knowledge and skills of higher education staff, and supporting research exploring the integration of blended learning and ICT in the mainstream classes. Moreover, this chapter has put forward suggestions for other key higher education stakeholders, such as the development partners, private sector, HEIs, faculty members, and students.

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities for higher education in Cambodia. While the challenges and problems are inevitable during the pandemic, all stakeholders in Cambodian higher education need to look on the bright side and take advantage of the pandemic to transform and digitalize the higher education system. As Heng (2021a) has argued, the COVID-19 pandemic has “brought the opportunity to not only deepen educational reforms but also strengthen the utilization of ICT and modern technologies in education” in Cambodia (p. 7). In this regard, the Cambodian government, through MoEYS, needs to find ways to build on the positive momentum induced by the pandemic regarding the wider integration of ICT and technology in education, especially in higher education. This is necessary as it not only contributes to improving the standard and quality of higher education but also promotes digital education that Cambodia needs to equip its next generations with the necessary knowledge and skills required to compete and succeed in the digital era.

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