During Thailand’s national elections last year, Yingluck Shinawatra, the opposition prime ministerial candidate, made several campaign promises. She pledged to raise daily wages, increase the government-guaranteed price of rice for paddy farmers, and reduce taxes for first-time home and car buyers. Among these promises, one was slightly unusual — a tablet computer for every school-going child in the country.
Now, a year after becoming prime minister, Shinawatra has discovered that distributing tablet computers is easier said than done, at least in Thailand. The plan has become a contentious issue as academicians, bureaucrats, and opposition politicians are debating its efficacy when barely a year ago, a survey revealed that the majority of schoolchildren, especially in rural Thailand, hardly knew what a tablet computer was. In short, these days the word ‘tablet’ draws a passionate opinion from almost everyone in the country.
The prime minister though has shown a steely resolve to distribute at least a million tablets to schoolchildren during her tenure. After many delays, the first batch of 10,000 tablets made by China-based Shenzhen Scope Scientific Development arrived in Thailand recently and Shinawatra distributed those to primly dressed Grade 1 pupils at a much-publicized event in Bangkok.
Ardent Shinawatra supporters argue that the tablets will transform the country’s education system, especially in the rural areas where good books and other educational resources are hard to come by. Dr. Olarn Chaipravat, an economic and educational advisor to the prime minister, says that tablets will help put an end to the current Thai education system of “one-way communication where students have to memorize textbooks and pass exams, but never learn to think.”
But opposition politicians are not buying the argument, criticizing the scheme as a sheer waste of taxpayer money. They point out that Thailand’s primary education has structural problems that cannot be addressed by doling out a tablet computer to students. For one, classrooms typically have so many students that teachers have a tough time remembering the names of all their pupils. Moreover, some 70% of Thailand’s 450,000 primary schoolteachers are in the 40-50 age group and training them in computer tablets before they can teach children how to use the device will be a humongous task. The poor state of Thai schools shows in many studies. News agency Reuters has reported that despite spending almost 4% of its GDP on education, Thailand is ranked a lowly 47 in the world in terms of educational attainment, according to the Switzerland-based Institute of Management Development (IMD). Even neighboring Singapore, which spends only 3% of its GDP on education, is ranked 13th, according to the IMD.
Skeptics also wonder whether spending on tablets will substantially improve Thai education given the fact that tablets are best used with the internet and Thailand lacks on that count too. With an internet penetration of just 31%, Thailand is fourth among the five major southeast nations based on this parameter, according to the market research firm AC Nielsen. Only densely forested Indonesia is below Thailand on the list.
But Shinawatra and her advisors seem unfazed about any criticism toward the tablet computer program. The prime minister has claimed that her administration aims to not just distribute tablets but also create the ecosystem needed for their effective use. In fact, Thailand’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) ministry has already instructed the state-owned telecom firm to provide 50,000 Wi-Fi access points to 30,000 schools. The program is expected to cost over $275 million, but the government is convinced that the project is worth every cent.
Thailand is often referred to as ‘The Land of the White Elephant,’ but it seems only time will tell if Shinawatra’s pet project does not end up as one.
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