Online courses give Cambodia’s poorest young adults access to higher education without spending a cent
The newest wave of online education to reach the Kingdom is connecting impoverished rural students with overseas university teaching, for free.
Massive open online courses (Moocs) entered Cambodia earlier this year, and its advocates hope the free online teaching platform will revolutionise higher education in the Kingdom.
“Moocs teach us and let us think and practise,” said Eon Tokla, a 24-year-old food and chemical engineering student at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC) who recently completed a digital course from Madrid’s IE Business School.
To complete the six week economic policymaking course, Tokla spent his evenings after classes viewing streamed video lectures. Although Tokla has never set foot in a foreign university, the course was delivered to him remotely by the IE Business School professor who designed the Mooc.
“I didn’t have that subject at university, but I could get that knowledge from the Mooc,” he said.
Tokla, who is in his final year of university, comes from an impoverished farming background in rural Banteay Meanchey. His father died when he was a child, leaving him and his sister to care for their infirm mother by tending the family paddies by themselves.
But with the help of the NGO Enfants du Mekong, the young man has access to courses designed by dozens of the world’s most elite schools including Harvard University, the University of Edinburgh and the France University Schools of Management.
Enfants du Mekong, whose partners scout the countryside for impoverished students with high potential, found Tokla attending a provincial university in Sisophon. He is among 40 students at the NGO’s Centre Docteur Christophe Mérieux in Tuol Kork, which aims to provide Cambodia’s poorest young adults with housing, educational and financial support while they attend university.
“If the family owns one motorbike, [the student] is too wealthy to join,” said centre coordinator Jean-Luc Grzegorczyk on the selection process.
Although the centre was founded four years ago, it only started its Mooc program in March.
Moocs, which gained popularity in 2012 in the United States, are e-education courses that allow an unlimited number of students to enroll. Regular examinations are scored automatically, eliminating the need for a live person to evaluate student progress.
Grzegorczyk said he was inspired to use Moocs at the centre after reading about them in a French newspaper in January. The format, he realised, was well-suited to Centre Mérieux’s needs.
“I realised it’s exactly what we need – six week to eight week [courses], one to two hours a day – exactly the time our students have at [Centre Mérieux],” he said, adding that he decided to inaugurate the program using students in their final year.
A major downside to Moocs is that the lack of supervision makes cheating easy, thus many employers do not take the certificates seriously. To circumvent this problem, some Mooc providers offer digital exam monitoring via webcam for a fee.
Grzegorczyk said the centre had yet to enforce controls on the course examinations, but may do so in the future.
“My idea was more at the beginning to push [students] to think about their [educational] formation on their own,” he said.
But Grant Knuckey, chief executive of ANZ Royal Bank, said his company may take Mooc certification into consideration when hiring employees if the courses grow more common in the Kingdom.
“I think the content of some of those [courses] is getting increasingly sophisticated and relevant and cannot be ignored,” he said, adding that major employers in the US and Australia are beginning to take Moocs seriously.
Sok Cheng, general manager of the human resources service provider Employees Benefit Management, said that reputable e-education platforms can be equal in value to traditional institutions of higher learning.
“If you graduate online, it’s the same,” she said, adding that she was unaware of Cambodia’s Mooc presence.
Ultimately, said Grzegorczyk, the centre’s Mooc program aims to spur initiative in the students.
He said: “Autonomy and initiative: I’ve heard these two words so many times in the employers’ mouth, most of the time to regret a lacking in their staffs. That’s why I used the Moocs to foster these two qualities.”
Although Enfants du Mekong has partnerships with five local universities, Centre Mérieux is the only institution in the country to regularly use Moocs.
“We are more or less bypassing the public system,” said Grzegorczyk, adding that Enfants du Mekong is actively encouraging universities to put Moocs into the classroom.
“Sometimes, [professors] do not have the resources to give good courses, so it is much easier to say to a teacher to use the Moocs.”
Noy Sophannra, a 20-year-old ITC civil engineering student who recently completed a Mooc course in entrepreneurship provided by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that exposure to a course from one of the world’s leading universities provided him an educational experience he would not otherwise find in Cambodia.
“In Moocs, we have real materials that let us think by ourselves, that really help us know our society,” he said, adding that the Mooc had him create a simulated business plan over the course of six weeks.
“I don’t think we have that kind [of education] in Cambodia.”
Tokla, who said his friends at school are intrigued by the concept, predicts that it is only a matter of time before they are widely adopted by Cambodian students.
“I think if we recommend Moocs more widely, many more students will want to join. Maybe they will think like me, and think it is very important for us.”
WHAT IS A MOOC?
The courses, which typically last six to 10 weeks, are taught via digital video streams and are accompanied by online forums that allow students to interact virtually.
Exams, which are graded automatically by a computer, are regularly administered and the students receive a certificate upon the course’s completion. Some Mooc providers are experimenting with peer-reviewed test grading among students, although this has proven controversial.
The courses are primarily offered by three US institutions: the non-profit edX, owned jointly by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the for-profits Coursera and Udacity. All three operate on a “freemium” business model that allows users to access the Moocs at no cost, though some courses may include optional course materials and other features for a premium.