As the famous journalist Sydney J Harris once wrote, “The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows.” This quote carries the significant meaning that education has the power to open doors and pave pathways to newer opportunities that we wouldn’t have experienced without education.
For Geeks in Cambodia, we feel that this can be attributed to the New Generation School (NGS) initiative by the Kampuchean Action for Primary Education (KAPE) – a local NGO in the education sector of Cambodia – the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS).
Currently implemented at Sisovath High School in Phnom Penh, this programme is a key element of the 15 national reforms by MoEYS, and as a result, received 1 Million dollars in funds by the ministry. The goal of the NGS is to create schools that will develop and prepare the Cambodian youths for the competitive 21st Century marketplace by strengthening their skills and learning of STEM subjects.
To do so, the programme offers students extended hours of teaching
for subjects such as Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Information Technology. In addition, under this initiative, Sisovath High School also had a modernization of their facilities, in which they integrated 2 new computer labs, a renovation of 5-6 science labs, modern classrooms, and a library.
Aside from the facilities, the teachers also undergo various trainings and workshops to learn and improve skills in computer (such as Microsoft Office), leadership, planning, principles of youth empowerment, and more. NGS also abolishes the concept of paid private classes, where teachers provide students with extra classes outside of school hours and receive monetary incentives, to provide a high quality education without charge.
Geeks in Cambodia had the opportunity to sit down with the ICT in Education Advisor of KAPE, Ariel Rozenblum, to find out more about the positive impact the NGS initiative would have on the education sector.
The following interview has been edited for clarity, length and flow.
Could you please share with us how this 1 Million Dollars in funding from MoEYS would help in the development of the New Generation School (NGS)?
A: In reality, it’s going to help the whole education in Cambodia, not just the NGS. What we are trying to do is provide quality education, similar to the private sector, where everyone can afford it. It’s free and everyone can access it. Sisovath High School is the one in Phnom Penh and we have two other schools in the provinces – Kampong Cham and Svay Rieng. The one in Svay Rieng is very rural, about 20 minutes off the main road. However, that computer lab there has 32 computers and the electricity used to run on solar energy, although now it has been running on electricity for a bit more than a month.
But if you think about it, 1 Million dollars is not that heavy of an investment, since our targets are big. So we are trying to show locals that: “Look, we can produce a private-standard education and it’s free.” The school in Svey Rieng looks very similar to the one in Phnom Penh, which is very out of place in the rural area. Imagine seeing a library, a computer lab with 32 computers, science labs among the rice fields… It’s a big thing! And a lot of the money goes to the infrastructure; I think we spent about $10,000 for the labs. We also have to provide extra salary to the teachers, so we are stretching the funding as much as we can.
We are also planning to start working on 6 schools this year, and the government has a long-term plan to have 2 NGS per province.
What are some plans the NGS is planning to or has implemented to make it an IT-equipped school, aside from the computer labs?
A: Now, we are trying to implement coding into the curriculum. That’s going to take awhile because it is not easy to actually implement it into a national curriculum. There are a lot of study hours that we need to use for something else, so coding is currently not our priority. But I hope slowly, it’ll become a priority. We do have a coding club and an ICT club, where they make videos and movies, use Photoshop… It’s entirely up to them. It’s a club by the students, for the students. But the idea is to become a more IT-oriented school. We use tablets, we have research stations, the labs have 4 iMacs that the students can use, and now we have a new auditorium. In time, we will have a media centre.
We encourage the use of technology all the time. Teachers must use projectors for classes and we give all teachers who join the programme a laptop, where we will train them how to use it. The key is to train people how to use it. You can’t just give it to them.
Are you someone who trains these teachers?
A: Sometimes. We do trainings on Microsoft Word and Excel, and we have to be very patient. It depends on where we are located in the country. Some teachers would not know how to use the Khmer Unicode, so we would have to start from there. Then we go on to Office and Windows.
We have to show them why this is useful. Sometimes it is perceived as extra work. It’s normal; we are trying to move from the 19th Century to the 21st Century and we are skipping the 20th. It is not easy; it is overwhelming for them sometimes and it is understandable.
How long are the trainings usually? Across a few months or?
A: Yeah. They have trainings almost every Saturday. I think they already had 2 trainings on Microsoft 365, but they’ve reached the point where they can use Office. We’ve helped them to create Gmail accounts, taught them how to use computers, create passwords… It’s very basic sometimes.
Of course, we also try to hire new teachers. Freshly out from the National Institute of Education because we see that they are hungry for innovating the country and learning. But for older teachers, it is not easy to break their old habits of teaching in Cambodia. We completely eradicated private classes in Cambodia in schools, which is a big plus for us, and if we catch any teachers having private classes then they are out.
Like I said, it has to be free education. That is the key. At some point, this will turn into a sustainable project and we want the parents to contribute whatever money they are able to keep the project running. But again, this is dependent on where they are located. Maybe $30 to $40 a year, which is reasonable. And the parents, I can guarantee you, would agree to it. I’ve seen it. When they come to see the school, they are happy to see the school and they think it’s worth it. This is because they finally see their children having access to a computer, to a library, tablets, Internet. Hopefully, things will only go up from there.
But more specifically, why is it important for all the students to start learning to use and apply tech in Cambodia?
A: Because there is a big gap between Cambodia and most other Asian countries! There are not many human resources and specialists in the fields of biology, science, maths… That’s why we are focusing on STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects because Cambodia desperately needs professionals.
What was the motivation to start an IT-equipped school in Cambodia?
A: Well, I wouldn’t call it an IT-equipped school, but rather a STEM school. IT is one of the focuses, but as I mentioned, science, match, physics, biology are important too. The motivation is that there is a lack of these professionals in a lot of fields in Cambodia, and if you don’t start in high school then when are you going to start?
Well, we are trying to start a primary school actually, so maybe from there! We will probably have an NGS Primary, and are aiming to have a full-track at some point. We are going to have scholarships, and provide a whole road to university. A NGS student would, hopefully, be guaranteed to enter university, no matter where they come from.
I think we are lucky as well to have the support of the ministry. The current minister of the Minister of Education has been very open to having an NGO, KAPE, to implement and oversee the NGS. Our first school in Kampong Cham was called the Beacon School Initiative (BSI), which was the model for the NGS project.
From my understanding, KAPE encourages self-study in students to help them with their learning.
A: Yeah, we do encourage them to help each other. They have a lot of group projects so it is a lot of project-based learning. We also try to train our teachers in different kinds of instruction techniques such as differentiated instructions and project-based learning. We also have a programme where the kids will read 10 books a year and present them through a book fair. Some of them even wrote their own book!
And all these initiatives come from the teachers and students. We realize that we only need to open doors, we don’t have to do more than that. Once we open the doors, the students have a lot of ideas, a lot of drive by themselves. When we started coding, I didn’t show them much. I just showed them the basics, and I think a month later, they went to the Philippines or Indonesia for a competition and came out third behind Singapore! It was just a month’s learning, and they already know more about coding than me. It’s impressive. Cambodian kids are just as capable as any other kids; it is just the lack of facilities.
What do you hope to see more of in the EdTech scene in Cambodia?
A: More coding, and more app development. I want the kids to come up with ideas. In my case, I am too old already and they probably have a lot of ideas that I would not have come up with to improve many things that I would not have thought of. And that’s what I’m hoping to see – that they (the students) believe they can be leaders. They can push things. They can think about being entrepreneurs and professionals. Hopefully, I get to see it in a few years, but I have to be patient. Maybe 10 or 20 years? It is a generational change, so when you have that, you have to be patient because you are trying to change a culture – the culture of learning and teaching. Right now, I think we are planting the seeds.
And that concludes our insightful and informative interview with Ariel. Indeed, patience is definitely key when it comes to creating such a large, impactful change.
Ariel also shared some interesting upcoming news with us that certainly got us hyped! He mentioned that the teachers in the NGS programme are currently developing their own ICT book for the curriculum, which includes more practice-based activities that would present learning in an investigative way. For example, instead of telling students how to do a certain tasks, questions on how to perform functions are presented and students would have to find out through their own means.
Additionally, KAPE is also developing an ASEAN game in a quiz format, available in both Khmer and English. When students play the game, and get an answer wrong, an explanation would pop up, allowing them to learn through play. They are looking to expand this to other subjects such as Mathematics, History and Geography.
With so much lined up for the education tech scene, Geeks in Cambodia is looking forward to what NGS holds for the future of students across the nation.