In this fourth session of the webinar series on ‘Wellbeing in Southeast Asia’, Dr Apipa Prachyapruit examined the impact of the current Covid-19 pandemic on Thailand’s education system, as well as the responses of relevant policymakers and stakeholders in this ‘new normal’.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Well-being in Southeast Asia Webinar Series
Friday, 4 June 2021 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar on “Well-being among Thailand’s ‘Lost Generation’ of students during the Covid-19 Pandemic in Southeast Asia”, the fourth in the series on “Well-being in Southeast Asia” supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS). The webinar was delivered by Dr Apipa Prachyapruit, Associate Professor of Higher Education from the Faculty of Education, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and was moderated by Dr Kevin S.Y. Tan, Visiting Senior Research Fellow of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The webinar opened with remarks by Mr Christian Echle, Director of Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia of KAS who noted the diverse challenges that the education sector is facing around since the onset of the pandemic. He said that it is important to reflect on the challenges and possible inequalities emerging from this pandemic so as not to leave behind any students in the long run.
Dr Prachyapruit began her talk by introducing the developments in Thailand’s COVID-19 situation. To date, Thailand has experienced three major COVID-19 waves, which resulted in a nationwide state of emergency and mobility restrictions between provinces. Dr Prachyapruit noted that the disruption posed by the pandemic has severely affected the education sector. Public schools across Thailand were closed, with the exception of international private schools. In spite of the easing of restrictions, the 2021 academic term has been postponed in more than 10,000 schools across the country. Nationwide online learning has become the main instructional approach, with greater emphasis placed on enhancing digital and ICT skills and competencies among students and teachers. While education for students in kindergartens and junior high schools are primarily delivered through on-hand (physical delivery of textbooks and assignments), on-air (e.g. distance learning TV) and on-demand (e.g. websites such as YouTube) mediums, education in secondary schools and universities is increasingly transiting to online learning and on-air.
The nationwide school closures and transition to online learning have generated massive implications that span beyond the education sector. Dr Prachyapruit identified three main impacts in her presentation. The first concerns learning losses and aggravation of educational inequality as a result of unequal access to learning materials, low quality of learning materials and fragmented education service delivery. The second concerns students’ safety and well-being, which includes physical health and nutrition. Prolonged quarantine at home not only increases mental stress and anxiety, but also increases the risk of exposure to domestic violence, especially for girls. The transition to online learning also heightens risks of cyber bullying and online exploitation among youth. The third involves economic challenges as a result of unemployment, the reduction of income that reduces family resources for education, and loss of employment among youths during lockdown. Such economic challenges have in turn led to higher rates of school drop-outs as more youth prioritise employment over education. New graduates also face uncertain employment prospects.
Responses from policymakers and other stakeholders to these issues vary between basic education and higher education levels. At a basic education level, policymakers have begun to recognise that diverse students would require differentiated instructional approaches. Policies were deemed to be ill-responsive to the needs of educators and students on the ground, due to a lack of understanding of the contextual realities in running a school.
At the level of higher education, studies have shown that most students prefer in-class learning in tandem with occasional online learning. Therefore, transiting to online learning in higher education is less conducive to students’ expressed needs. Furthermore, there were also the difficulties of coordinating course schedules; unequal access to online learning technology among students; availability of resources and equipment; as well as inadequate digital literacy among students and instructors – which altogether exacerbated the challenges posed by online learning and teaching.
As educators in Thailand and around the world move forward in the ‘new normal’, Dr Prachyapruit suggested some solutions that may be of consideration for policymakers and stakeholders. Firstly, with regards to learning recovery, there is a need to implement additional remedial learning for students, as well as professional development for teachers to improve their digital literacy skills. Secondly, in order to reduce school drop-outs, greater coordination between different agencies could potentially facilitate re-enrolment and back-to-school campaigns in Bangkok and other urban areas with disadvantaged households. Dr Prachyapruit also suggested that auxiliary school fees in Thailand to be waived during this period to reduce financial burden. Lastly, with regards to children’s welfare, she also suggested for continued and better access to student counselling services during the pandemic, along with additional psycho-social skills training for teachers.
In the higher education sector, Dr Prachyapruit proposed that universities offer more short online courses (MOOC) to facilitate upskilling and reskilling. Education curriculum should also be redesigned to become more interdisciplinary, problem-based and community-based to ensure that students are equipped with core literary skills and competencies for the 21st century. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and start-ups are also encouraged to create innovative education media and build infrastructure to support effective learning.
The webinar concluded with a Question & Answer session. The online audience engaged the speaker on a variety of issues: They included the changes to the mental and social wellbeing of students in a post-COVID era compared to the past; the challenge of a digital divide between Thailand’s urban and rural areas; the situation of after-school tuition programmes during the pandemic; and future developments within the education sector in a pandemic-affected world.