Some two million students in rural areas cannot access the government’s recently launched E-Learning and Distance Learning programmes after schools in the Kingdom were ordered shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This is because the students either do not have smartphones [for E-Learning] or their households have not installed satellite dishes [for Distance Learning] that allow them to receive such broadcasts.

When attempting to substantiate this, Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport spokesman Ros Soveacha declined to confirm or deny the figure.

Instead, he said the ministry does not have any plan as yet to help students in rural areas to gain access to its learning programmes via smartphones or television.

“The ministry encourages students who cannot study through smartphones and television to learn with those who have such equipment.

“This means for families that do not have televisions yet, the ministry encourages them to follow the educational programmes at their neighbour’s houses with less than 10 people and practice hygiene measures in line with advice from the Ministry of Health,” he said.

But that’s not good enough, says Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association president Ouk Chhayavy.

“Not all students in rural areas have televisions as we all know. Even I as a teacher do not have a computer or television at home. So what about people who do not have money? They work hard to survive day-by-day, how will they afford a television?

“The distance learning that the ministry wants students to access will fail because many of them cannot access it. And even if they can, they don’t have the encouragement to study as their parents are poor and they need to help them earn an income.

“I think even though the ministry is doing the right thing by encouraging E-Learning and Distance Learning, the knowledge students receive is not even 20 per cent. Distance Learning is like ‘taking a cow to watch a movie’. What they do not know, they still will not know,” she said.

On March 14, the government ordered all schools – from kindergartens to university level – to shut down.

Lessons were initially moved online, and on April 19, the ministry signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry of Information to make classes available to students who do not have smartphones to access Distance Learning programmes via television, which it launched with newly established channel TVK2.

Students living in rural areas were told to access the channel via Decho TV (DTV) which is owned by Cambodian DTV Network Ltd, a subsidiary of the Thai Shin satellite company.

Information and broadcasting director-general Phos Sovann said that based on a 2008 census, 2.4 million households have televisions in the Kingdom.

He said television channels are accessible via free to air, cable, or satellite dishes. However, the first two options are not available to rural areas and only satellite television is widely subscribed there.

Sovann also confirmed to The Post that televisions in rural areas “will not receive the educational programmes if the households have not installed the satellite dishes”.

“Households in rural areas are only able to access the government’s Distance Learning programmes if they subscribe to DTV.

“While we have expanded broadcasting of educational programmes through satellite and cable television across the Kingdom, villages and communes in some provinces do not have full coverage for cable television.

“So the gap is filled by DTV, and if they don’t install it, they cannot access the educational programmes,” he said.

Sovann said there are seven licensed satellite television providers in Cambodia but only three are fully operational – DTV, Skyone, and OneTV.

A teacher tending to students learning the use of computers at the Coconut School at Kirirom national park in Kampong Speu province. AFP

Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia spokesman Im Vutha said currently there are 20 million mobile phones or sim cards being used in Cambodia, which comprises of 2G, 3G, and 4G subscribers.

However, he said the number does not mean that the 16 million Cambodian population has mobile phones as each person can own more than one.

He said only about 53 per cent of the country’s geographical area is covered by high-speed internet.

“The internet only works well in urban and commercial areas, but its accessibility in rural areas is limited.

“The coverage for high-speed 4G internet connectivity is only about 53 per cent of the total geographical area in the Kingdom. So for some villages and communes, there will be no internet,” he said.

This clearly affects a large chunk of E-Learning students from rural areas too.

Cambodian DTV Network Ltd marketing manager Som Pavong Somphorn said since 2008 to date, his company had installed 900,000 satellites dishes across the Kingdom, with 80 per cent of them (720,000 dishes) installed in rural areas.

“Some 9,000 satellite dishes were installed in mixed urban and rural areas as the signals were strong enough for them to receive the broadcasts.

“However, most subscribers are in rural areas since they cannot access cable television. About 15-20 per cent of subscribers are in the provinces, and 80 per cent are outside urban areas.

“Those living about 10-15km from the provincial towns will subscribe to satellite television if they can afford it,” he said.

Even though this may be the case, and satellite television services are widely available in rural areas, each dish costs $85, plus an additional instalment fee. But unlike cable television services, users of satellite television do not have to pay any monthly fee.

Still, many cannot afford to subscribe to such services or even purchase a television.

Take Khem Yeurn, a 66-year-old grandmother living in Khvav commune in Takeo province for example.

She is now having to care for her five grandchildren – three of them studying in grades 2, 3, and 5. But now they cannot study because she does not own a television.

“I heard the children saying they can study through television, but I don’t have one. I don’t know where to send my grandchildren to study,” she said.

Yeurn said some of her grandchildren went to watch television with the neighbours. But sometimes the owners preferred to watch entertainment programmes or do not switch on the television to save electricity.

“I regret and worry that my grandchildren will slowly become illiterate. I’m upset and concerned that they cannot study anymore because I just don’t have money,” she said.

When asked what she would do if the school closure is extended further, Yeurn said she will have to find money to purchase a television because she does not want her grandchildren to give up schooling.

The Ministry of Planning’s National Statistics Institute estimates that in 2017, Cambodia had 3.4 million households with 2.7 million of them living in rural areas. It did not provide figures for the number of students living there.

However, UNESCO press room English editor Roni Amelan said in 2017, the Kingdom had some 3.33 million students in pre-primary, primary, and lower and upper secondary schools. “Seventy-seven per cent or about 2.56 million of them live in rural areas.

“As such, we estimate that only 1.23 million primary and secondary school students [out of an average of three million] would benefit from the E-Learning and Distance Learning programmes initiated by the education ministry,” he said.

This means some 2.07 million will be left out.

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