MAE CHAN, THAILAND – In a rural classroom in the Thai highlands, hill-tribe children energetically slide their fingertips over tablet computer screens, practicing everything from English to mathematics and music.
The disadvantaged students are part of an ambitious project by Thailand to distribute millions of the handheld devices in schools, in a move supporters hope will boost national education standards. For opponents, however, it is an expensive gimmick designed to boost the popularity of the ruling party among parents — and the next generation of voters.
At Ban San Kong school in Mae Chan, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, 90 children received a tablet computer last year as part of the “One Tablet Per Child” policy pledged during the ruling party’s 2011 election campaign.
Previously, the school had only a few desktop computers with limited Internet access. Now, with headphones over their ears for an hour a day during class, the students use the devices for such activities as singing songs in English, watching cartoons about the life of revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and playing math games.
With the school year just beginning, and the new tablet content yet to arrive, they are left to review the previous year’s lessons as their teacher, Siriporn Wichaipanid, sits and watches. She has received no specific training for using the devices and seems at a bit of a loss.
“I have some knowledge. At home, I use an iPad,” she said. But “if I don’t understand, I don’t know how to teach the children.”
For the students — mostly from ethnic minority Akha hill-tribe communities that don’t speak Thai as their mother tongue — using the tablets has been a positive experience, according to the school.
“The students cannot speak Thai very well but they can hear sounds more clearly from the tablets and repeat them,” said their instructor from the previous year, Wannawadee Somdang. “Some of them dare not ask questions. It’s easier when they listen to the tablets.”
For now, only two of the 90 students are allowed to take the computers with them after class to use at their homes, which often lack electricity. “They don’t have Wi-Fi and it’s not convenient for them to charge the batteries. And most importantly, their parents have no knowledge about the tablets,” said school Principal Uthai Moonmueangkham.
But using devices that would normally be out of reach for the kingdom’s poorest children is still progress, even if it is only just one hour per day, he said, because it gives them “the same opportunities as those in the city.”
Reducing the education gap between the urban rich and rural poor is one aim of the project, said Surapol Navamavadhand, an advisor to the minister of information and communication technology. By the end of 2014, the government plans to give out handheld computers to 13 million pupils at a cost of about $100 each — a total of $1.3 billion — and replace them every two years.
Around 850,000 Chinese-made devices have already been given out, and the government says it will soon launch a tender offer for another batch of 1.7 million tablets, in what it has described as the world’s largest handout of tablet computers for education.
Experts warn, however, that the gadgets offer no guarantee of enhanced education standards.
The tablets are “just another tool,” like a pencil, for example, according to Jonghwi Park, a Bangkok-based education technology specialist with UNESCO. “It’s not about what to use, it’s about how to use it,” she said.
Critics of education in Thailand say far more radical changes are needed.
“If you want to deal with the education in Thailand, I can tell you that the whole system must be demolished,” said Somphong Chitradub, an associate professor who specializes in child education at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “Our classrooms are passive, tiring and boring.”