The high cost of technology means ICT education is making slow progress to the provinces
PHOTO COURTESY UNESCO
Rural schoolchildren learn to use computers.
As the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport continues work on a master plan to incorporate ICT into schools nationwide, officials are grappling with how to best reach rural provinces, which are markedly less connected than their more developed counterparts.
Sun Lei, education program specialist for Unesco, which is working with the ministry to develop the Master Plan for ICT in Education, said recently that she expected it to be finished "sometime in 2009". But she said efforts to encourage the use of ICT in rural schools had been hindered by the limited nature of knowledge about ICT's benefits, as well as a pervasive lack of infrastructure.
Financial limitations, too, have proved a considerable barrier, she said.
"ICT is very costly," she said. "At this point, I think it'd make more sense to mobilise resources from the civil society and the private sector [rather than rely on government funds]."
Progress made in bringing ICT to rural schools has been slow, a point borne out by a 2006 Unesco report that assessed ICT access in seven provinces: Banteay Meanchey, Kratie, Mondulkiri, Oddar Meanchey, Preah Vihear, Ratanakkiri and Stung Treng. The study concluded that "very few schools" were using ICT in the classroom; that ICT training was needed for both teaching and non-teaching staff; that access to computers was quite low; and that girls were being "disproportionately" affected by the urban-rural digital divide.
Sun Lei said this report, produced between 2004 and 2006, had provided the most recent relevant data, though she said there was little reason to believe the situation had improved since then.
The greatest challenge lies in equitably sharing the benefits of economic growth.
The ICT in education effort mirrors the broader push to promote ICT in rural areas, according to industry experts, who said in recent interviews that the Kingdom has a long way to go before it can achieve universal ICT access.
Ken Chanthan, president of the ICT Association of Cambodia, pointed to a handful of needs that have yet to be met, including a pro-ICT policy framework, infrastructure investments, the translation of applications and content into the Khmer language, and widespread education and training.
Eric Lim, project director for Gateway Communications, singled out financial resources as the biggest hurdle.
"There has been a lot of talk of using ICT to increase the telecom infrastructure, but it's a very slow process," he said. "In outlying areas, for example, it becomes very difficult because it is a very costly affair."
Benefits to Cambodia
Ken Chanthan said ICT expansion would bring a range of benefits to the provinces, improving everything from education to government to business.
"The community-driven use of information communication technology has the potential to help underserved citizens throughout the world to learn new skills, find new opportunities and improve their lives," he said via email.
In particular, he said, ICT could help businesses become more efficient, collaborate with other firms and expand market research efforts to better understand their customer base.
Lim said expanded ICT in rural areas would also aid government officials based in Phnom Penh. For instance, in an incident such as last year's conflict over Preah Vihear temple, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of National Defence could have a live feed directly to the fight, he said.
Wisal Hin, poverty reduction unit leader for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), said Cambodia's ability to meet its poverty targets would depend on its ability to diversify the economy in just this manner.
"Agriculture will continue to be one of the main drivers of the Cambodian economy...but will not provide sufficient growth on its own," he said.
In remote rural areas, the poverty rate was 45.6 percent in 2004, according to the 2005 interim assessment of Millennium Development Goal progress published by the Ministry of Planning.
"Since more than eight of every 10 Cambodians reside in rural areas, the greatest challenge lies in equitably sharing the benefits of economic growth, centred mainly in urban areas, with those rural communities," Wisal Hin said.