Reforming Cambodia’s school system? There’s an app for that

The BEL L1 teaching app that allows teachers and students to hear accurate English pronunciation
The BEL L1 teaching app that allows teachers and students to hear accurate English pronunciation. Eli Meixler

Reforming Cambodia’s school system? There’s an app for that

Want to reform the problem-riddled Cambodian education system? There’s an app for that. Actually, there’s two.

Issues like marking inaccuracy, teacher bias and poor pronunciation of English are being targeted by two apps funded by Development Innovations, a USAID project promoting technology. One is already in teacher training colleges.

The team behind the in-development TEST, which allows grade one and two students to ditch pens and complete assessments on smartphones provided to them, blame the inaccuracy of paper exams for inaccurate data about literacy in Cambodia.

Sokchanna Chhay, an ICT specialist at World Education Cambodia, which created TEST (Technology for Education System Transformation) with CamMob, said they had found many students could not read well despite completing grades one or two.

Some teachers give students extra time in assessments to answer questions, help them during the exam or inflate grades to ensure results do not reflect badly on their teaching, explained Sam Ng, director of innovation at Development Innovations.

TEST automatically marks exams and theoretically eliminates the opportunity to give extra time.

“In class it’s hard to say, ‘Stop, put your pens down!’, but doing it through an electronic device, the question can just disappear after 10 seconds,” said Ng.

If a student fails an assessment, a learning game will appear on the screen and the student can redo the assessment once they have learnt the necessary skills. The final version of the app is expected to be finished by the end of May 2015.

TEST could help provide a more accurate data set for reading competency in Cambodia, said Ng, who added that literacy rates in the country are falsified by inaccurate exams.

Another app, which allows teachers to look up sections of textbooks and listen to the proper pronunciation of English words, is being tested among grade four, five and six English teachers in two teacher training colleges in Stung Treng and Kratie.

Basic English Language Level 1 (BEL L1) was developed by Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) and will form part of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport’s supplementary materials to support the English curriculum.

Trials will soon start in seven more training colleges and developers hope it will be extended to all of them – potentially reaching a combined total of more than 2,000 teachers and covering almost every school in the country.

The aim is to ensure students in classrooms where teachers may have had little exposure to native English speakers are learning to say words correctly.

“Teachers lack the confidence to teach English effectively in public schools, as their own level of English is often poor,” explained Ng.

Ros Salin, a spokesman at the Education Ministry, said: “When I was young I studied with my teacher, he was Cambodian, and for us it’s a little bit hard to pronounce words learning from this teacher.”

Schools using BEL L1 have all been offered speaker systems to play digital audio recordings of the app audio – in case there is limited access to smartphones.

Basic English Language Level 2 is in the process of being recorded, and Basic English Language Level 3 will be completed early next year, while the BEL L1 app is already available to download for free on Android devices.

But digital solutions may take some getting used to. Not only do the same problems that plague those who rely on technology worldwide exist here in Cambodia, but teachers need to be trained to use new technology.

Pamela Hughes, VSO Education and English Language Adviser, recalled one example of a teacher who had just been given a speaker system to play the audio recording of the BEL L1 app.

The teacher had carefully followed the instructions to turn on the speaker system but still could not get it to work. It turned out he hadn’t pressed the power button.

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