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As the importance of life-long learrning grows, not only are more people desiring to study beyond basic formal education, but education providers also have to provide high quality courses that are made as accessible as possible. This issue of CDTL Brief examines some of the issues surrounding Continuing Education/Distance Learning.

March 2002, Vol. 5 No. 1 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Learning to Go the Distance: A Decade of Expanding Opportunities for Distance Learning in Thailand
 
Associate Professor Chongchit S. Robert
Department of Mass Communication
Mr G. Lamar Robert
Senior Advisor, Humanities Academic Center
Chiang Mai University
Chiang Mai, Thailand
 

The value of distance learning for rural development has been well known for some time (e.g. Parker and Hudson; Saunders, Warford, and Wellenius; Williams; Hudson; and Pool). Starting a programme of distance learning in a nation requires a synergistic critical mass of private and public infrastructure investment including electricity, telecommunications, television, and computers. The following paragraphs describe how, between 1990 and 2000, Thailand was able to achieve that critical mass and successfully introduce distance learning throughout the country, including virtually all rural areas.

Electricity

For nearly all distance learning programmes, electricity is a basic requirement, both to get the educational material to the target group and to receive responses from that group. Electricity is needed to operate radios, televisions and computers—not to mention electric lights to allow study in evenings after a day’s work or regular schooling. There are, of course, exceptions to the need for electricity: radio programmes are often received on battery-operated radios in rural areas. Even television in remote areas can be (and frequently is) operated using truck batteries for power. However, although responses of learners to specific courses can be sent to the teachers by mail, depending on batteries for reception of distance learning programmes is less than optimal for continuing distance education programmes (i.e. distance learning is greatly facilitated by electricity).

At the beginning of the last decade, all major urban areas in the country and most rural towns were included in the national electric grid. However, as of 1994, total rural electric use by households (exclusive of the Bangkok metropolitan area) was only 7.4 billion gigawatt hours. By 1998, that figure had grown to 11.9 1 billion.

Television

With electricity came television: in 1992, there were 7,056,800 sets in rural areas; by 1998, the total was 11,669,900 2. Channel 11, which features both formal and informal education programmes, could be received in virtually all areas of the country.

Telecommunications

Telephones are a vital part of most distance learning programmes such as calling to discuss specific aspects of courses with the instructor. In addition, land line telephone service is needed to allow Internet connections between distance learning students and instructors (see Computers below). Again, there are technical exceptions. For example, computers connected to satellite phones can access the Internet from virtually any location in the world without telephone land lines or cellular service; however, the costs of satellite communication, both equipment and service, makes this impractical for rural residents—and most other people too.

Rural telephone coverage has been promoted at least since the Fifth National Social and Economic Development Plan (1982–1986). In 1986, there were only 999,000 phone lines nation-wide. 3 In March 1996, there were only 6.24 lines connected per 100 people, and the distribution was not even: density in Bangkok was 27.2 lines per 100 people, while rural areas had only 2.87 lines per 100 people 4. But those numbers do not give the full picture: most rural telephones (i.e. outside Bangkok) were located in provincial capitals and district towns. Requesting a telephone line in provincial towns required several years of waiting. In many rural areas, obtaining a telephone connection was virtually impossible. By 1998, the total number of lines had risen to 5,037,500. 5 In addition, the Telephone Organization of Thailand under the SchoolNet Program plans to connect 24,267 primary schools with a fixed line to allow internet connection. 6

In addition to land lines, cellular phones are now operational in virtually all rural areas. These phones allow easy voice communication between distance learning students and teachers. However, connecting cellular phones with computers to provide Internet access, although technically possible, due to cost and other factors, is not a viable option.

Computers

Computers, specifically computers connected to the Internet, are a vital link in most distance learning programmes. Students and teachers can exchange messages by email, examinations can be transmitted, etc. Radio and television distance learning can be supplemented with internet communication. Even entire distance learning programmes can be conducted exclusively over the Internet, without recourse to either television or radio. As noted above, internet communication normally requires access to telephones service.

The average income in rural areas is about 6,807 baht (approximately US$155) per month, a figure that effectively precludes the purchase of personal computers by the vast majority of the rural population. Purchasing a computer to be used almost exclusively for distance learning programmes would obviously not be cost-effective for most households.

To provide computer access in rural areas, another government programme was recently initiated. The Ministry of Education plans to spend 300 million baht (approximately US$6.8 million) to buy computers for primary and secondary schools nation-wide. 7

Distance Learning Programmes

The final piece required for successful distance learning is the distance learning programmes themselves. In Thailand, various state and private universities now provide a variety of degree and non-degree programmes. For example, Sukhothai Thammatirat currently offers non-degree programmes in various skill areas such as English for Communication, Secretarial Training, and Printing as well as masters and bachelors degrees in Education, Management, Health Science and Economics. 8

Conclusion

The upshot is that a combination of government programmes and private sector demand has, over the course of a single decade, resulted in the creation of the opportunity for virtually all rural areas of Thailand to take advantage of distance learning programmes through radio, television, and/or the Internet. It is hoped that Thailand’s success story will provide inspiration for other developing nations of the world which have yet to provide universal access to distance learning.

Bibliography

_____. (1999). Key Statistics of Thailand 1999 (Special Edition). Bangkok: National Statistical Office, Office of the Prime Minister.

Bruns, Bryan; Chongchit Tiam-Tong; Robert, G. Lamar; & Saroj Aungsumalin. (1996). Towards Universal Access: Socioeconomic Impact Study of Rural Telecommunicatons in Thailand. Bangkok: Asian Development Bank.

Hoffman, Mark S. (Ed.). (1989). The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1990. New York, NY: Pharos Books.

Hudson, Heather E. (1984). When Telephones Reach the Village: The Role of Telecommunications in Rural Development. Norwood, New Jersey, USA: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

McGeveran, William A., Jr. (2001). The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2001. Mahwa, New Jersey: World Almanac Books.

Parker, Edwin B. & Hudson, Heather E. (1992). Electronic Byways: State Policies for Rural Development Through Telecommunications. Boulder, Colorado, USA: Westview Press.

Pool, Ithiel de Sola. (1990). Technologies Without Boundaries: On Telecommunications in a Global Age. Cambridge, Mass., USA: Harvard University Press.

Saunders, Robert J.; Warford, Jeremy J.; & Wellenius, Björn. (1994). Telecommunications and Economic Development (2nd ed.). Baltimore, Maryland, USA: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Williams, Fredrick. (1991). Infrastructure for the Information Age: The New Telecommunications. New York: The Free Press.


Footnotes:

1 Key Statistics of Thailand 1999 (Special Edition), p. 34.

2 Ibid, p. 78.

3 Hoffman, p. 758.

4 Bruns, et al., pp. 1-1 -- 1-2.

5 McGeveran, p. 848.

6 The Bangkok Post, 18 December 2001, p.3.

7 Ibid

8 www.stou.ac.th (Acessed: 18 December 2001, 15:30).

 
 
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Distance and Distributed Learning in Continuing Education: Notes from the Front Lines
   
Continuing Education through the Online Graduate Programme at the University of Calgary
   
Life-long Learning: What Does It Mean for Us?
   
Continuous Education/Distance Learning: GSMS Graduate Diploma Programmes
   
Continuing Education in Dentistry
   
Learning to Go the Distance: A Decade of Expanding Opportunities for Distance Learning in Thailand