Online Learning Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Blessing in Disguise for Cambodia’s Higher Education

Sethi Cheam
Cambodian Education Forum
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

© 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

COVID-19 has caused disruption and destruction to the whole world, and Cambodia is no exception. Specifically, Cambodian higher education has been impacted tremendously, as universities were ordered to temporarily close. However, the advancement of technology has made it possible for students to continue their academic journey through online learning or e-learning. Along the process of temporarily adopting online learning, it can be seen that this technology-based approach has brought advantages to Cambodia’s higher education, including unprecedented opportunities for disadvantaged students, more spare time for extracurricular activities, self-paced learning, increased student-to-student engagement, and improved digital readiness. Considering these benefits, online learning can be considered “a blessing in disguise.” This chapter argues that online learning is an educational approach that should be fully adopted and, if possible, upgraded in the post-pandemic era.

Keywords: COVID-19; online learning; e-learning; higher education; Cambodia

Introduction

The novel coronavirus (‎2019-nCoV), commonly known as COVID-19, is the world’s predominant health crisis in the twenty-first century. It goes without saying that developing countries with limited resources and capabilities are undoubtedly the most vulnerable to this health catastrophe. Various aspects of these nations have been heavily affected directly and indirectly by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Kingdom of Cambodia, with no exception, has been tremendously impacted on almost all of its sectors, including economy, taxation, tourism, and education. A countrywide closure of public and private educational institutions in response to COVID-19 was announced by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS) on 16 March 2020 (Chet & Sok, 2020). This has arguably placed the education sector, including higher education, in the country in peril.

Amidst the pandemic, technology has made it possible for Cambodian university students to carry on their education through online learning or e-learning. However, due to a lack of experience on the part of university teachers and students, there are many challenges posed by online learning. Based on the Network Readiness Index or Technology Readiness 2019, Cambodia ranked 107 among the 121 countries surveyed, receiving a score of 32.29 out of 100 (Dutta & Lanvin, 2019). This limited technology readiness means Cambodian university students and teachers face many challenges in navigating online learning during the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, this chapter argues that online learning is a blessing in disguise. The chapter begins by offering the definition of online learning. It is then followed by the advantages of this new mode of learning, including unprecedented opportunities for disadvantaged students, spare time for extracurricular activities, self-paced learning, boosting student-to-student engagement, and digital readiness. The chapter also discusses the challenges to this technology-based method. It concludes with recommendations on how to tackle the challenges and better adapt to this new educational normalcy.

What Is Online Learning?


The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to online learning or e-learning. However, the term online learning has been around for many years. According to Roblyer and Edwards (2000, as cited in King et al., 2001), online learning, e-learning, distance learning, or distance education is “the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction, encompassing all technologies and other forms of learning at a distance” (n. p.). The term has been correspondingly defined as an educational field that puts an emphasis on pedagogical methods accompanied by technology aimed at delivering education to students who do not attend physical classrooms (Bušelić, 2017). It also refers to “planned and organized teaching and learning in which learners are separated from teachers or facilitators in time and space” (Zafari, 2020, p. 6).

Despite being defined differently, this method of learning has made it possible for educators and learners to carry out their teaching-learning activities during the difficult time when traditional classrooms or lectures are not possible.

Advantages of Online Learning

Unprecedented Opportunities for Disadvantaged Students

While schools and universities have been ordered to temporarily shut down, students are still able to access education through online learning, thanks to the support and collaboration among MoEYS, UNESCO, private and public universities, and many other non-governmental organizations such as Kampuchea Action to Promote Education, SeeBeyondBorders, CARE, and Aide et Action​, among others. Online learning has made it possible for university students from all backgrounds to acquire standard, if not quality, education during the pandemic. As one would expect, higher education is more likely to be offered or available to students living in the capital city and provincial towns. It is less accessible for students living far from towns or in rural areas. However, online learning has the aptitude to enable “students in small, rural, or low socioeconomic status school districts to take specialized courses” that they do not have access to in their locations (Chaney, 2001, p. 21). This is due to the fact that online learning offers flexibility to students as they are able to choose a place or a time of their choice to study (Arkorful & Abaidoo, 2014).

Spare Time for Extracurricular Activities

Online learning also “offers the possibility to learn from anywhere, anytime, in any rhythm, with any means” (Dhawan, 2020, p. 6). With this benefit, students are granted more time as they do not have to travel from home to school back and forth. Also, students “can take online classes anywhere as long as they have access to the internet and they can do two things at once” (Xhaferi & Xhaferi, 2020, p. 98). University students are, therefore, able to partake in extracurricular activities in order to unlock their potential, as there are certain self-development opportunities that can only be grasped outside the classrooms. Similarly, as Christison (2013) argued, partaking in extra-classroom activities “contributes to adolescents’ character development” and “is beneficial to students’ social development” (p. 18). Therefore, by studying online, students are able to continue their education and engage in other extracurricular activities.

Self-Paced Learning

Apart from being able to engage interactively with their classmates via online classes, students also have the opportunity to control their learning to become self-directed learners through self-paced learning (Tullis & Benjamin, 2010). Self-paced learning is a learning technique that enables learners to study at their preferred speed and proceed to another topic when they have mastered the previous topic, or bypass topics if they can display mastery of the topic by a pre-test (Highland, 2015). Thanks to the convenience brought about by technology, lessons taught online can be recorded and watched by students at any time that they want. In the context of Cambodia, Chhoeurm (2020) noted that “Over 200 video lessons are available on MoEYS’ official Facebook page, YouTube channel, and other e-learning platforms, including its related partners such as Kru Cambodia and Komar Rien Koma Cheh” (p. 3). This makes it feasible for students to select how, when, and how long to study. In fact, “these self-regulated aspects of learning have important implications for the effectiveness of their learning efforts and achievement in education” (Dunlosky & Thiede, 1998, as cited in Tullis & Benjamin, 2010, p. 109). Furthermore, through online learning, students are also able to choose to study at their own pace, which “increases satisfaction and decreases stress” (Arkorful & Abaidoo, 2014, p. 401).

Student-to-Student Engagement

Online learning also surprisingly creates an engaging atmosphere for students to interact with one another. Talking in front of others is a common phobia for students and shyness often turns their mind blank or makes them forget what to express (Baldwin, 2011, as cited in Putra, 2018). Through online learning, this issue tends to be reduced as students do not talk directly in front of their classmates. Arkorful and Abaidoo (2014) stated that “e-learning helps eliminate barriers that have the potential of hindering participation including the fear of talking to other learners” (p. 401). It also encourages learners to interact with one another, interchange ideas, and respect each other’s viewpoints.

Digital Readiness

In preparation for the digitalized era, technological competencies are very important for any individuals, especially when it comes to a demanding-yet-competitive labor market. As the Cambodian Supreme National Economic Council (2021) noted,

“Cambodia Digital Economy and Society Policy Framework 2021-2035” sets out a long-term vision to build a vibrant digital economy and society by laying the foundations for promoting digital adoption and transformation in all sectors of society – the state, citizens, and businesses – to promote new economic growth and improve social welfare in the “new normal” (p. ii).

This statement clearly demonstrates the Royal Government of Cambodia’s intention to integrate technology into its economic development trajectory. Consequently, it is essential for university students to prepare themselves and be ready for such a challenging journey. With the adoption of e-learning, university students are becoming familiar with the use of technology (see Sey, 2021). This helps build a foundation for them, which will be, in due course, beneficial for them when they are to use technology in their future careers.

Challenges to Online Learning

Though seen to be rewarding, there are, undeniably, certain challenges decelerating the application of online learning, as students are forced to shift from a traditional learning approach to an online one in just the blink of an eye. Some learners, who do not have access to reliable technology and/or the internet, have a hard time partaking in e-learning; this gap is seen across countries and between income brackets within countries (Li & Lalani, 2020). A study conducted by Sarkar et al. (2021) on Bangladeshi university students’ perceptions toward e-classes revealed that most of the students had difficulty gaining access to e-classes and interacting with their lecturers and peers during classes. It was also found that Bangladeshi students living in rural areas faced problems of low internet speed and blackouts. Another similar study conducted in Algeria demonstrated that students encountered obstacles attending e-classes because of the lack of technological devices (Blizak et al., 2020).

Similarly, as of 2015, only one-third of the Cambodian population (not limited to students) used the internet for reading and writing (Phong et al., 2016). This constitutes a great challenge, as the internet is a must-have component for implementing an e-learning approach. Moreover, a study conducted by Crews and Parker (2017) with 43 participants (40 students and 3 teachers) at one university in Cambodia showed that Cambodian students lacked technology literacy, especially for educational purposes such as creating and using email for educational purposes. Likewise, this does not only apply to learners but also educators. The sophistication of educational platforms like Zoom or Google Classroom, along with the deficiency of digital literacy, has made it problematic for both students and teachers (Chhoeurm, 2020). Besides, the rapid and unexpected universities’ e-transformation operations give huge workloads to the ICT unit of each university to construct e-platforms, incorporate current external applications into their systems, and complete migration into external applications (Adedoyin & Soykan, 2020). Educators are also exposed to the burden of sharing additional workload as they are responsible for renovating course/subject contents, assessments, and learning resources to fit virtual platforms (Heng & Sol, 2020).

Recommendations

Online learning is an educational approach that should be widely adopted and, if possible, upgraded even in the post-pandemic era. In order to ensure a progressive route for this adoption, more work is necessary to enhance both educators and learners’ knowledge, skills, and confidence to get ready for effective online learning (Crews & Parker, 2017). In the Cambodian context, MoEYS should continue to provide training to its higher education personnel with the use of related technological tools so that they can better manage and utilize online learning. Besides, it is important to create and implement new university curricula that are symmetric with online learning patterns. MoEYS should also consider injecting digital-related courses into upper secondary education, so the students can prepare themselves for their post-secondary education and future work.

Other stakeholders such as the private industry, higher education institutions (HEIs), and development partners also have a vital role to play (Heng & Sol, this volume; Sam, 2016). However, as Heng (2021b) noted, “research has shown that stakeholder involvement in the higher education sector in Cambodia, and more likely in the whole education system, remains very limited, which poses severe impediments to the development of the sector” (p. 175). In this sense, the Royal Government of Cambodia should follow the footsteps of other countries in the region, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, by offering financial assistance and policy implementation that stimulate collaboration among these stakeholders to pursue progression in the education sector. The government, through MoEYS, is duty-bound to grant HEIs increased independence vis-à-vis institutional governance and operation (see Heng, 2021b).

Moreover, students themselves also need to better prepare for this technology-based education. They should make use of their technological devices to explore, learn, and become more familiarized with e-learning and online learning platforms so that there will not be many challenges when it comes to online learning in the future. Finally, for parents, they should be open-minded toward the adoption of technology in education and support their children in their learning progression, both emotionally and financially.

Conclusion

Taking everything into account, COVID-19 appears to bring about the wider adoption of online learning in Cambodia and globally. Through online learning or e-learning, students who are disadvantaged due to their geographical areas can still access higher education like those who are in the city or provincial towns where the internet connection is more stable and accessible. Moreover, online learning allows students to choose their preferred learning pace and engage actively with their classmates, especially for those who fear talking in front of others in person. More importantly, online learning allows students to prepare themselves for the digitized era, in which technology literacy is a must-equipped skill. Hence, the adoption of online learning is a blessing for the Cambodian education sector and COVID-19 is, in a way, a catalyst for the digitalization of Cambodian education needed to contribute to the future development of this country (Heng, 2021a).

In the digital era, transforming the education system by integrating technology is a must-taken action for Cambodia, or else this developing country will continue to stay behind its neighbors and other regional countries “in terms of education quality, research and innovation capacity, competitiveness performance and human capital development” (Heng, 2020, p. 5).

Therefore, moving forward, all stakeholders in higher education in Cambodia need to embrace online learning. They need to invest in developing online learning platforms, including Learning Management Systems, to ensure that Cambodian students have ample opportunities to access e-learning during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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