Poor, Rural Students in Laos Lack Tech to Learn From Home

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laos-school.jpg A primary school in Pak Lay District, Xayaburi Province, Laos, pictured in 2019.
Citizen Journalist

COVID-19 has forced Laos to join countries around the world in closing schools and using online distance learning. But rural and urban poor students in the Southeast Asian country not only lack computers and access to the internet -- some even live in homes without electricity.

The ninth poorest of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in terms of GDP, Laos’ underfunded education system has been struggling since long before the coronavirus started spreading in the region. In 2018, 91.49 percent of school-aged children were in in school, according to the Trading Economics website.

Families with students in the town of Vang Vieng, Vientiane province, told RFA’s Lao Service that the students in their households lacked access to smartphones or computers while they are being told to study at home.

“The students stopped learning since schools closed down. They can’t use YouTube to learn because our village doesn’t even have electricity,” one Vang Vieng mother who requested anonymity to avoid legal trouble for speaking to foreign media, told RFA Wednesday.

But despite not being connected to the grid, she said the family is making the best of the situation.

“They will just keep doing their homework assigned by their teachers before the closure. We parents must help them to do their homework,” she said.

Another Vang Vieng mother who requested anonymity told RFA her children and other students in the village cannot learn online because unlike the students in big cities, they have smartphones, laptops or tablets at home.

Teachers were caught off guard by the government’s announcement that schools were closing, so they hastily made homework assignments without knowing how long the schools would be closed.

A Vang Vieng public school teacher who requested anonymity on fear of reprisal told RFA, “The education department notified us one week before the closure, so we provided students with a set of homework including some readings and questions. They can learn and do some research at home. When they come back to school we can check their answers.”

Students in the more affluent and well-connected cities are at an advantage over their rural peers.

“About 80 percent of students are learning on smartphones or computers at home. The teachers are conducting lessons on [the messaging platform] WhatsApp,” the father of a student at a private international school in the Lao capital city Vientiane told RFA.

But even in the cities, there is a disparity between rich and poor, and the latter’s limited access to tech is making distance education difficult.

“The rest of the students are not able to learn online because they don’t have those devices,” the father said.

A teacher at the international school explained how those who have no access to tech have been faring, saying, “Parents who have smartphones and computers can forward homework to their children. They can do their homework, which the parents can then send back to the teachers.”

“If the teachers find any mistakes, they verbally correct them on the app telling students the answers are incorrect. This is how we do it,” said the teacher.

The teacher added that all the teachers had advised the students and their parents that they have to do their homework and send it back or else they would not receive marks and would lag behind.

Students that have been distance learning have complained that it is ineffective.

“Learning online is more difficult than learning in the classroom or in front of a professor. It’s a lot harder to understand,” a student at the National University of Laos told RFA.

The student said that each professor sends two or three homework assignments per week.

“We don’t have video conference calls. The professor only posts video clips on WhatsApp and then the students can learn from home,” the student said.

The Ministry of Education and Sports ordered all schools closed from March 19 to at least April 21.

As of Friday morning, Laos has reported 16 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. It reported its first two cases on March 24.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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