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.
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 computersnot
to mention electric lights to allow study in evenings after
a days 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.
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
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
residentsand most other people too.
Rural telephone coverage has been
promoted at least since the Fifth National Social and Economic
Development Plan (19821986). 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, 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
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 Thailands success story will
provide inspiration for other developing nations of the world
which have yet to provide universal access to distance learning.
_____. (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.
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.
8 www.stou.ac.th (Acessed: 18 December 2001, 15:30).