(KPL) Lao schools and universities have still not reopened: they have been at a standstill since mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The health crisis undoubtedly poses difficulties for higher education institutions. However, it is also a good opportunity for academic actors to think differently and develop new approaches. More than 60 representatives of universities and teacher training colleges in Laos gathered around an online conference on the prospects for a medium-term strategy in this area.

Moderated by Dr Silinthone Sacklokham, General Director of the International Relations Department of the Ministry of Education and Sports, the webinar took place on 14 May 2020.

“Higher distance education is a new concept for Lao universities. The national television channels give priority to school education instead. Internet access is difficult, if not impossible, for students in remote areas, while in the big cities, the connection is very expensive,” Assoc. Prof. Dr. Saykhong Saynasine, Director General of the Department of Higher Education has drawn up an inventory of higher distance education in Laos. He also announced that a legal framework for distance education was being developed by the Ministry and would soon be available.

Many issues were discussed at the meeting. The institutions shared the major challenges they face, including the capacity of students to adapt to this new mode of learning, the lack of experience of teachers, limited online resources and inadequate infrastructure, etc. The meeting was also an opportunity for the institutions to share their experiences in this field. “According to statistics, 70% of our students are unable to follow distant teaching. According to the statistics, 70% of our students are unable to follow distance learning courses,” said Ms. Somchanh Bounphanmy – Vice-President of the National University of Laos.

Universities have also expressed their concrete needs in terms of government policy, guidelines and tools for e-learning, transfer of expertise, capacity building, quality insurance and infrastructure, etc.

All participants agreed that e-learning, beyond the context of the health crisis, will be necessary in the future. Universities must, more than ever before, change their approach to distance education and adapt very quickly to the developments of the digital world.

Following these exchanges, the representative of the Ministry of Education and Sports of Laos, and moderator of the working session, insisted on the relevance of the implementation of accompanying measures by the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie (AUF), in the short but also medium and long term, to help Lao universities in the organization of distance education.

“Alongside the difficulties linked to regulations and Internet connection, the mastery of e-learning tools, the training of teachers in this type of innovative teaching, and quality assurance are the major challenges we still have to face together,” the AUF Regional Director, organizer of this webinar, Mrs. Ouidad Tebbaa, closed the session by announcing that training offers would be made available to Lao universities in the coming days, in order to put in place adequate responses to the difficulties they face. This, she recalled, is the approach that the AUF as a whole, wishes to undertake as part of its new strategy 2021-2025, by promoting a constant and fruitful dialogue with its members, to be as close as possible to their needs.  “Let’s try to turn this health crisis into an opportunity to advance in the development of digital literacy within the universities of Laos. “She concluded.

Organized in the within the frame of the AUF special action plan – Pandemic COVID-19, this meeting was organized by the AUF in order to set up an support that is as close as possible to the real needs and expectations of its members.

It is also within the framework of this plan that the AUF Vientiane Office has been implementing, for several weeks now, a training to French-speaking teachers in the use of free distance learning tools such as Google Classroom and Zoom and a contest on the ” Bibliothèque Numérique de l’Espace Universitaire Francophone” (https://bneuf.auf.org/#!/) for French-speaking students. The aim of this contest is to get them used to this tool, which offers more than 11 million free and open-access resources.   

KPL