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Digital transformation of Non-formal education: key learnings from a flexible learning project in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam

Digital transformation of Non-formal education: key learnings from a flexible learning project in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam

Limited connectivity to the internet, lack of electronic devices, and limited digital skills of teachers and learners – such were the key challenges facing digitalization of education programmes as reported to UNESCO by the conclusion of the initiative, ‘Increasing Access to Basic Education for Out-of-School Children and Youth in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam Through Flexible Learning Programmes’ (hereafter ‘Increasing Access to Basic Education Project’). The Increasing Access to Basic Education Project, which ran from July 2020 to September 2022, was supported by the ASEAN-ROK Cooperation Fund and managed by Good Neighbors International, in collaboration with the UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok.

Implementing countries of the project developed learning management systems (LMS), digitized existing learning materials, and created digital learning contents, videos and assignments to make educational contents accessible to more out-of-school children and youth, especially those in lower secondary education. Another important activity was to train teachers, school trainers, and personnel of community learning centres (CLCs) in how to most effectively use these digitalized learning environments and digital solutions created in the project. 

Filming online learning content in Cambodia, Photo credit: Department of Non-Formal Education, Cambodia
Filming online learning content in Cambodia, Photo credit: Department of Non-Formal Education, Cambodia

A key learning outcome from the project was that the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure in the local learning facilities, i.e. in schools, CLCs, pagodas, factory sites, and so forth, urgently need improvement. Indeed, in addition to the need to secure stable internet connectivity, there is pressing need for electronic devices, whether personally owned or shared with others, in many regional communities. 

What does blended learning mean? 
Structured opportunities to learn which use more than one teaching or training method, inside or outside the classroom, through which at least part of the content is delivered online. This definition includes different learning or instructional methods (lecture, discussion, guided practice, reading, games, case study, simulation), different delivery methods (face-to-face or computer mediated), different scheduling (synchronous or asynchronous) and different levels of guidance (individual, instructor or expert led, or group/social learning). More commonly, blended learning refers to a combination of face-to-face teaching and technologies. http://www.ibe.unesco.org/en/glossary-curriculum-terminology/b/blended-learning 

Another key learning outcome from the Increasing Access to Basic Education Project was that basic digital skills among both trainers and learners needed to be ensured before anyone might be expected to make effective use of digital learning environments. The widespread lack of digital capacities among participants was an unmistakable obstacle to making swifter progress in digitalization of methods and materials. In addition to the need to teach digital skills and tools, the use of blended learning modalities, the skillful selection of pedagogical methods, and the ability to make didactical choices called for solid training and practice. Blended learning refers to the combination of in-person and online instruction and learning. One of the benefits of blended learning is that in addition to learning the content knowledge, learners have an opportunity to practice self-monitoring and self-management skills. 

Survey for non-formal education teachers in Lao PDR, Photo credit: Good Neighbors International
Survey for non-formal education teachers in Lao PDR, Photo credit: Good Neighbors International 

Project feedback from learners was characterized by their commonly expressing appreciation for the opportunity to continue learning or re-enrolling to education; additionally, learners valued the increased flexibility offered by blended learning programmes. Based on the comments from learner-participants, the opportunity to watch pre-recorded videos multiple times; to practice at one’s own pace; to note questions for teachers and peers that would then be discussed together, in real time, whether online or during in-person circumstances, considerably improved their learning, as well as learners’ efficient use of their time – and generally made learning more enjoyable. To make flexible learning or equivalency education programmes sustainable and successful, systematic practices of prior recognition of learning and formative assessment to support learning,need to be further developed. 

Transforming traditional learning by employing flexible learning methods, such as blended learning, does not come without challenges. The context of non-formal education having an uneven relationship with formal education, and certain kinds of confusion within informal education – not to mention differences among platforms of various education companies in certifications and variety of learning programmes offered pose challenges to public service providers in the communication and marketing of flexible learning programmes. Simultaneously changing over from traditional learning methods to digital ones and changing from the classroom setting to online or hybrid formats requires sustaining dynamic channels of communication. In this project, the prior existence of strong ties among local non-formal education departments and local communities was a key factor for increased participation in such programmes. Coordinated marketing and communication actions will be necessary for increasing awareness of the availability of equivalency education, or certified non-formal education programmes, which will improve understanding of blended learning modalities and drive the motivation to re-enroll or continue education for learners on a much larger scale. 

Formal education students in Lower secondary of Lao PDR, Photo credit: Good Neighbors International
Formal education students in Lower secondary of Lao PDR, Photo credit: Good Neighbors International 

Regarding the regional context of Asia-Pacific, the 2nd Asia-Pacific Regional Education Minister’s Conference (APREMC-II), organized by UNESCO Bangkok and regional partners in June 2022, in Bangkok, recommended a set of actions for learning recovery and transformation of education systems in the conference outcome, the ‘Bangkok Statement 2022’. Of special concern on that occasion was the need to attend to the region’s most disadvantaged groups, and the urgent need to engage in digital transformation of education systems. Globally, the UN’s Transforming Education Summit (TES), organized in New York in September, raised concerns over the rising digital divide, especially between rural and urban areas, but also between genders and between learners of divergent socio-economic contexts, when currently two thirds of school-aged learners entirely lack access to the internet in the family home. Also, in Asia-Pacific, only 37 per cent of rural households currently have internet access, and even in urban areas, 30 per cent of households similarly lack connectivity. 

Challenges encountered during this project’s implementation are common both regionally and globally. A notable other challenge of recent date is the emergence of private solution providers and platforms, with growing control over the market, and with limited data ownership and governance policies. Given such challenges, the Transforming Education Summit’s call to action, ‘assuring and improving quality public digital learning for all’, aligns the importance of 1) Content, which is defined as public, centralized platforms and curriculum aligned content; 2) Capacity, as in pedagogies and human coaching; and 3) Connectivity, as in ensuring universal access via connectivity.

ICT facilities in local school in Lao PDR, Photo credit: Good Neighbors International
ICT facilities in local school in Lao PDR, Photo credit: Good Neighbors International 

The Increasing Access to Basic Education Project aimed to study the scale and causes of OOSCY and develop alternative approaches to increasing access to education, focusing on disadvantaged and marginalized groups. Before the pilots of blended learning projects were launched, the scale and causes of OOSCY were researched, and related policies analyzed, based on which policy recommendations were given for each of the participating countries. In Asia-Pasific, there are currently 18 million children and youth out of school. According to the situation analysis during the project, in Cambodia, 190,000 children and youth lack access to education entirely; in Lao PDR, 145,000 youth are out of lower secondary school; and in Viet Nam, even where efforts are being made to provide education to all, every tenth youth, especially in marginalized communities, is left out, with many more in danger of dropping out entirely. Equally notable, according to recent figures provided by CONFINTEA VII, is that more than half of all adults living in Asia-Pacific have been unable to pursue their education to the tertiary level. 

Ensuring education for all and increased flexibility and digitalization of education is not only an obligation from a human rights perspective; in addition, these goals enhance the resilience of education in the event of future crisis situations, and they collectively constitute a necessity for fostering and fortifying future digital societies. Education is the best investment possible by regional governments, not only for humanitarian purposes, but for economic well-being. Indeed, costs accompanying out-of-school populations are estimated at 282 million in Cambodia, 17 billion in Indonesia, 1.7 billion in the Philippines, 6.5 billion in Thailand, and 474 million in Viet Nam. Strategic and forward-looking action should be taken to ensure that every child and youth finishes, at the very least, lower secondary education. Additionally, countries must make greater efforts to ensure young learners the opportunity to continue to the tertiary level and further, if the region is to achieve quality lifelong learning and skills development opportunities for all. 

Local children coming from school in Cambodia, Photo credit: UNESCO Bangkok
Local children coming from school in Cambodia, Photo credit: UNESCO Bangkok

Reported by Ilja Riekki, Junior Professional Officer, Lifelong Learning and Literacy, Section for Educational Innovation and Skills Development, UNESCO Asia and Pacific Regional Bureau for Education, Bangkok.

If you wish to contribute to scaling the current project pilots nationwide, or contribute to or partner with UNESCO in providing educational opportunities for all in Asia-Pacific, contact: i.riekki(at)unesco.org.


More on the project:
https://www.aseanrokfund.com/news/regional-webinar-on-increasing-access-to-basic-education-for-out-of-school-children-through-flexible-learning-programmes 
https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/unesco-supports-access-non-formal-education-flexible-and-blended-learning-disadvantaged


For more on the topic:
https://equity-ed.net/ 
https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/policy-brief-digital-transformation-education-asia-pacific
https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/blended-learning-quality-higher-education-introducing-new-self-assessment-tool-asia-pacific 
https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/expressions-interest-2023-gem-report-regional-report 
https://bangkok.unesco.org/content/policy-brief-digital-transformation-education-asia-pacific


Main photo credit:  Department of Non-Formal Education, Cambodia