February 5, 2024
PHNOM PENH – Since its introduction to Cambodia in 1997, the internet has sparked a remarkable transformation in communication, business and education. Prior to this era, people grappled with exorbitant costs and limited options for global communication, relying mainly on pricey international calls.
The advent of internet cafes, particularly in Phnom Penh, ushered in a new paradigm, providing affordable internet access and reshaping how people engaged with the world. These establishments not only facilitated budget-friendly international calls through VoIP services like Skype but also served as hubs for study and research.
Dum Bunlim recalls how he frequented these cafes over two decades. He would navigate a local website for job opportunities during his college days, while juggling his studies and a part-time role as an English teacher.
Reflecting on that era, he notes that internet usage primarily involved exploring diverse content rather than specific research, as there was little awareness that students could access lessons on dedicated educational platforms.
Now 45 years old and an HR professional, he has witnessed the evolution of the country’s internet landscape. He underscores its expansive nature, describing it as an extensive information source, readily available to people from all walks of life.
“Today, the internet’s vastness is evident. Numerous websites serve as comprehensive sources of information, easily accessible to students and professionals alike,” he tells The Post.
The introduction of the internet made global communication more accessible, not only bridging the gap between Cambodians at home and abroad, but also sparking new business opportunities.
As technology evolved and costs decreased, there was a notable shift towards personal internet access, reducing reliance on internet shops. This change has been particularly influential in education, where the ubiquity of the internet has opened up new avenues for learning and knowledge exchange.
Cutting edge education
Sam Komsan, deputy principal of Preah Sisowath High School and overseer of the high school’s New Generation School (NGS) programme, underscores the pivotal role of both the internet and digital technology in transforming modern curricula, as well as learning and teaching methodologies.
He explains that the Kingdom must develop a highly educated workforce which is skilled in digital technology, to fulfil modern demands.
“At the NGS, we’ve revamped the syllabus, educational approaches and instructional methods, earning us the titles of ‘technology’ or ‘digital school’,” he says.
“We’ve introduced a new curriculum from the seventh grade on, featuring four hours weekly of computer training, with a specific focus on coding to deepen understanding of technological processes,” he adds.
Komsan says technology initiatives in learning and teaching aim to inspire students to pursue careers in science and technology.
He underscores the internet’s transformative impact, noting that in contrast to the past, when students spent a year studying from a single textbook, technology-enabled learning accelerates knowledge acquisition, increasing learning outcomes.
“In the education sector, neglecting to modernise technology and digital practices would hinder our ability to keep pace with contemporary standards and developed nations,” he tells The Post.
The pioneering days
Chin Thomith, a key figure in the telecoms ministry’s “Digital Talents” programme, frequently discusses the integration of technology in education.
He says that after Cambodia emerged from the civil war, technology enabled faster and more efficient development for its people, but that limited internet access in the 1990s impeded the country’s overall progress.
“Two challenges persist: limited internet availability and a digital literacy gap, severely hampering our country’s technological knowledge,” Thomith says.
He explains that this limitation significantly affects the depth of study, as abundant online resources enable students to explore local and global sources of knowledge. Moreover, it has repercussions on the socio-economic landscape, as technology is widely acknowledged as crucial to social development, security and economic prosperity.
“At present, we’re making substantial efforts. Enhanced internet access in the ‘90s would have alleviated many of the challenges we face today,” he tells The Post.
Thomith identified four key benefits that were provided by the early internet cafes. Firstly, they granted individuals, including himself, access to new information and knowledge, opening doors to many new opportunities. Social media also played a crucial role in introducing many young people to the wider world.
Secondly, citizens embraced internet access as the digital age was unfolding, leading to the proliferation of software and digital infrastructure, especially in the early 2000s.
Thirdly, the internet became an informal learning platform, diverging from traditional education methods. Young people often utilised coffee shops as informal study spaces, and even learned through playing games.
“Gaming serves as an informal education, providing ample opportunities for learning. In my younger days, local area network [LAN] gaming cafes were widespread. The games we played demanded strategic thinking, planning, the fostering of interpersonal relationships and in-game leadership skills – akin to informal education,” he says.
The modern tech landscape
Ultimately, the internet’s reach expanded to careers, jobs and the economy, bridging the information gap between urban and rural areas and ensuring equitable access to information.
As of early 2023, according to DataReportal, an online reference library which offers reports into data, insights and trends, Cambodia has witnessed substantial growth in internet usage and social media engagement. Approximately 11.37 million people in the country are internet users, constituting a 67.5 per cent penetration rate.
The country also boasts around 10.95 million social media users, indicating a 65 per cent penetration rate. The online reference library reports 22.16 million cellular mobile connections, more than one per member of the population.
Despite a late start, the Kingdom is swiftly catching up with the likes of China and the US in the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
Thomith spotlights the rise of machine learning technology – a branch of AI and computer science that uses data and algorithms to emulate the way humans learn – as a potentially pivotal tool for Cambodia. This game-changing innovation could play a crucial role in our dynamic landscape.
“Initially hindered by societal issues, Cambodia lagged behind in technological advancements. However, AI has propelled the nation onto an equal footing with others. Embracing it opens up a wealth of opportunities for our country, with both advantages and challenges,” Thomith remarks.
“Effective use of this tech holds exciting potential for significant progress in modern education, but will require both government and public support,” he adds.
Teachers’ changing roles
Komsan says that enhancing teachers’ capacity to manage technology responsibly is crucial. His school uses technology to reinforce knowledge acquisition and facilitate more efficient learning and teaching.
He warned that some students misuse technology, engaging in frivolous pursuits like gaming.
Komsan proposes that students receive specific education on responsible technology use, to leverage the internet for knowledge acquisition rather than entertainment.
Teachers, he says, must adapt to the rapidly evolving technological era and avoid clinging to traditional educational methods.
“The new era of schools must prioritise technological tools to impart knowledge, shaping young individuals into valuable digital assets,” he says.
“Developed nations are increasingly adopting technology, employing machine learning to address social and educational issues and support economic development,” he notes.
Phen Lyna, a mother whose daughter attends both private and public schools, says that the internet aids her child’s learning and simplifies communication with teachers and classmates.
“At my daughter’s private English school, they use a mobile application for studying homework. It enables students to view classmates’ studies and communicate with teachers,” she says.
She says an online group shares homework notifications and other information that young children might forget to share with their parents.
“Since my daughter was young, I’ve permitted her to use my account on her phone, giving me control over the content she views, and allowing her to play suitable games. However, as she acquires more technological skills, I’ll need to reconsider this,” Lyna tells The Post.
“The internet, if misused, has the potential to contaminate society with inappropriate content. This poses a serious challenge, as many people are highly susceptible to social media influence. The prevalence of sharing posts further accentuates this issue,” Thomith concedes.
He observes that almost all job skills are now intertwined with digital technology and innovation. Even in retail sales, proficiency in digital tools is crucial.
“I encourage everyone to broaden their knowledge of digital technology and innovation. To boost productivity and efficiency, Cambodia needs people to be technologically savvy,” he says.
By 2035, the government aims for the population to be digitally literate, and actively participate in the digital government, yet the current level of technological knowledge remains limited.
Thomith acknowledges that achieving proficiency for millions of individuals is not a quick process, but notes that initiatives like the “Digital Talents” programme are working to impart technological knowledge to the masses.
“Telecoms minister Chea Vandeth recently announced plans for tech labs in schools across Takeo province, with plans for expansion throughout Cambodia, although curriculum development remains a challenge,” he says.
“Cambodia should invest in education that integrates technology into the curriculum, while enhancing the capacity of teachers,” he adds, noting that limited teacher development poses a challenge to keeping pace with technology.
“Young people’s adeptness with technology often surpasses that of their teachers. If educators neglect to enhance their technological skills, students may indeed outpace them,” he says.