Whether you’ve been hiding in your man-cave (or lady-cave) for the last few months, in quarantine, lockdown or under curfew, you’ll be aware that Thailand, like the majority of other countries on this planet, has been going through a major pandemic which it’s now slowly recovering from. This has resulted in shops, malls, markets offices and schools closed for several weeks.
In this blog, I’m going to look at how Thailand has been impacted by a lot of changes, particularly in education, make some predictions about what those changes might be, as well as how they’ll affect Thai students and the many foreign teachers working in the space.
Before leaving Thailand to spend a decade working in the Middle East, I spent 10 years teaching in Thailand and wrote about my experiences in my first book “Watching the Thais”. Given the transitions mentioned above, it will be interesting to look at Thailand’s changing educational landscape and to highlight some of the major changes that have already taken place, or are about to.
While Thai schools were closed, much of the teaching has taken place on Zoom, See-Saw, Skype or similar online learning platforms. Many are predicting that this is the future, that the old model of “the sage on the stage” is dead, (much like Nietzsche predicted in the 19th century that, “God is dead”) but this may be overblown. The thinking is that the old model where the teacher stands in front of the classroom giving instructions may no longer be the dominant model.
Moreover, with a shift towards online and/or distance-learning, there will be a major change from face-to-face instruction to synchronous or asynchronous learning: learning that is done at the same time or at a later time. Personally, I think the shift away from a teacher standing in front of a class is a long way away, but I do see hybrid classrooms coming where there’s a mix of online and face-to-face instruction.
While I think it’s a great idea that Thailand will focus more on a richer, more technology-based educational experience, I do also worry about the many upcountry schools that cannot afford this tech, and that they will be disadvantaged.
In Thailand, 52 universities have pledged to reduce tuition fees to relieve pressure on students, so that’s definitely a step in the right direction. You have to hope that the government will also chip in and provide the necessary funds so that upcountry state school students are included in this drive for a greater use of technology.
In Indonesia, Thailand, and Cambodia, less than 60 percent of the population has access to the internet, so more needs to be done to bring a greater number of students into the “gig economy” as it’s been called nowadays. Even having access to the right kind of technology, it’s always a worry that students and teachers have adequate skills to engage successfully with software and learning technologies. Where they don’t, sufficient training needs to be provided for them.
But you also have to ask yourself what is being lost in this drive towards online learning? A question worth asking is, what will this do to Thai society? One known for its smiling, friendly, gregarious people? If the future generation of citizens, the children of a country, grow up separated from each other and from their teachers and elders, how will they be socialized into society?
When I did an A Level in Sociology many moons ago, I learned that school was the secondary socialization element for children, your parents being the primary one. Isolating children from one another long-term is therefore sure to have some impact on society. Separated from each other via face masks, hand gels and plastic screens, will these children grow up caring, compassionate, altruistic citizens, or will they end up having the same criticisms levelled at them as the millennial generation: selfish, lacking in compassion, with short attention spans and uninterested in their own communities?
The latest news is that international schools have already opened up in Thailand, and government schools are due to open up on July 1st. The government has introduced a raft of precautionary measures to ensure there’s no “second wave”, perhaps the most common phrase you hear in the mainstream media nowadays. These measures include: social distancing, increased handwashing, temperature checks, and continual cleaning of communal areas in the schools e.g. toilets, classrooms, educational Realia, and other items.
Whether these measures will prevent a second wave or not, is another matter, but you do have to wonder how this will impact education in Thailand, not often praised for its quality?
Young children are often naturally tactile. They like to mingle and hug each other and play games that are often physical, so getting them to adopt social distancing measures will not be easy. Given they’ll also be separated from each other most of the time, there will be very little peer teaching going on, so this will probably impact their learning. Of course, the government is right to introduce measures, but you have to ask yourself if it’s safe for these children to return to the classrooms, should we not try to provide as normal a learning space for them as possible?
Should a second wave erupt, I think it’s inevitable the government will provide more opportunities for online learning, and less opportunities for face-to-face, on campus learning. But doubts linger about the quality of online education. Is it as good as face-to-face education? Many say a resounding NO! These concerns are magnified in countries with a lack of internet infrastructure e.g. like Thailand.
For example, an Indonesian survey of 1,045 students showed that 48% of them needed more time to get used to internet-based learning, despite the availability of teaching applications. Along with the usual issues of a lack of internet access, students and staff indicated they were not used to such environments or did not have the skills to make optimal use of such platforms.
With student reviews mixed for the recent transition to online courses, some issues cited were the following: difficulty staying focused, the belief that online lectures are less effective, and struggles interacting online with lecturers and peers. We therefore should be aware of these shortcomings and not put all the educational eggs in one basket. If we do, we risk losing a generation of students ill-equipped for the demands of high-tech living in a modern society.
The supply of teachers...
While they’re only rumors at this stage, there’s been a lot of talk on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others suggesting that many teachers, not just in Thailand, but in Southeast Asia, will re-evaluate their teaching careers in the region, and that when the airlines are back to normal, and the borders open up, many will return home to their countries to be with their families.
According to the Times Educational Supplement (TES), there is a distinct possibility that many teachers will decide to makes career changes: “In confronting it (a desire to move away, to take risks, to think about future opportunities) a significant number of school leaders and teachers are starting to think that life is too short to keep doing only what they have been doing, and that if they do not move now (or, realistically, as soon as is practical), then when? CVs are being dusted down, and teachers are reaching out, looking for guidance and support ... where might they go in this brave new world?” https://www.tes.com/news/what-will-international-teachers-do-after-crisis
Nobody can say for sure if this will happen or not, but in the event it does, how for example, will Thailand replace a number of teachers who do this? In Thailand, there’s always been a shortage of western teachers anyway, so this will exacerbate the situation further.
Other questions abound. Will Thailand take this opportunity to improve the working conditions of teachers in the country? Salaries in Thailand, for example, have hardly changed since I started teaching in Thailand in 1997 with the average salary being between 30,000-45,000 baht. Given the cost of living in Thailand has risen dramatically in the last few years and is likely to increase further due to damage to food and other supply lines, increasing salaries or providing a government mandated minimum wage for foreign teachers, would help Thailand recruit the highly skilled teachers needed to develop the country post COVID-19.
Another improvement would also be to look at some of the excessive immigration rules, not just for teachers, but also for the many westerners that decide to work in Thailand.
It might be a perfect time to regulate many of the Byzantium regulations that hold the country back. There’s already been good news in that the TM30 no longer needs to be completed every time a foreigner moves from one place to another within the country. This is a start, but there are many other entangled problems such as visa and immigration issues that need solving. Now may also be the time to allow highly skilled teachers who may have retired, like me for example, and allow those on Thai retirement or marriage visas with a wealth of experience, to work part time and help plug the gap that might arise from teachers leaving the country post COVID-19.
While nobody knows what the future holds, there’s no doubt we’ll all have to get used to this “new normal”.
Tom Tuohy has written journalism articles for The Guardian, Bangkok Post, Al-Jazeera, the Nikkei Asian Review and the South China Morning Post. He was also the English Language Gazette‘s Thailand Education correspondent for 7 years.
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