Thai Tales: Taking Computers to Schools
Computers for schools and web sites for students. That's the dream of an ambitious project being promoted in Thailand, known as SchoolNet. This project has notched up some impressive figures (some 4300 schools connected to SchoolNet, with some 1500 having their own web sites).
But that's only part of the story. How it worked its way to achieving its goal, including taking some bold steps like using the GNU/Linux free operating system to back up its plans, makes this project stand out from other ventures aimed at taking computers to schools.
SchoolNet Thailand was launched by Bangkok's National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre (NECTEC) in 1995. Its goal: providing universal access to teachers and students. "Or, more specifically, schools all over the country can access the network via a dial-up modem, using access number 1509, and pay only three baht [about $.07 US] per call," says its promoters.
It all started around 1995, initially just taking a piggyback-ride on the country's university network. "In the beginning, we just called in 50 leading schools, where they understood that having access to the Internet would be beneficial. We offered schools training that would allow them to start off with an Internet server," recalls Dr Thaweesak Koanantakool of Thailand.
Dr Koanantakool, the US-educated director of the Bangkok-based National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre, told this writer that most of the schools initially chosen were located in his country's capital. In its first year, SchoolNet got 20 schools connected.
"When news spread out, schools outside Bangkok said they wanted to use it. But they couldn't afford even a week's cost of the telephone line. So we asked them to work with a university close by their schools. But that was not convenient. In 1998, we introduced (the King's) Golden Jubilee Network, for the citizen to access an Intranet within Thailand for a year, without charge," he adds.
Soon, this was scaled up to 1500, the maximum capacity of the access infrastructure, in 1999. That year, the Cabinet okayed expanding to 5000 schools. Under this plan, all secondary schools--except those without electricity or telephone lines--and over 1000 primary schools too, will have access to the Internet.
Currently, there are some 4300 schools that are connected to SchoolNet, with approximately 1500 having their own web sites.
The idea is that Internet access for schools throughout Thailand will mean that IT, and the Internet, could help create more equal opportunities in education. This could lead to boosting the educational standards of the country.
But after the network infrastructure was successfully launched, it was found that the Internet was still hardly being used as a tool for education and learning in many schools. So, the programme's scope was extended to cover content and human resource development. The latter meant training of teachers and trainers.
Project authorities were "not happy with the way teachers and children made limited use of computers". So they decided to try and introduce more Thai-language content in the schools.
Around the same time, Thailand also created a digital-library toolkit. This allows teachers to get on their work after undergoing a short training--say of two hours or so. After this, the teachers can put up their own web site or teaching material on the web.
"Once it's on the Web, anyone can access it. Teachers can mark themselves as the authors, and we will protect the content for them, so that they always own it. But the content can be used and reused by anyone (for educational purposes)," says he. Today, there are hundreds of teachers using this, resulting in thousands of web pages being generated.
"Ultimately, our aim is that every school can create new knowledge from existing ones, or what we called the Complete Knowledge Cycle," says Dr Koanantakool.
"We allowed every school to use this nationwide network. We pay for Internet connection and internal bandwidth. We managed to provide for a capacity of 1500 schools in all. It's a sort of free ISP, but limited to schools," says Dr Koanantakool.
It varies a great deal. Some 10 to 15 schools proved to be very good. These institutions provided great teachers who created content and activity for their students. Soon, some of these teachers were awarded at SchoolNet Day functions, so that they could act as role-models for teachers.
A couple of years back, the project got their budget expanded to cater to some 5000 schools. Each school is allotted 400 hours of connect time. Capacities vary. Some small schools have just a single PC, large educational institutions have 400 to 500, says Dr Koanantakool.
Old PCs that "barely run Windows" but allow for TCP/IP connections to work fine. "Even an old 486 could be used as a server, because the line-speed is slower than the CPU anyway. Many schools, which have a greater number of computers, run really great data centres," says Dr Koanantakool.
Some teachers however remain "afraid" of computers. But, good schools know how to put even just a couple of computers in the library, then bookmark examples of good sites, and let students use the PC to search for information for their projects.
Along the way, Thai computer scientists developed an easy-to-administer web-controlled GNU/Linux-based schools Internet server, he told this correspondent during a recent UNDP/APDIP workshop on using ICTs for development, held in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.
SchoolNet has developed a Linux School Internet Server (Linux SIS) to be promoted and distributed to schools "as a cheaper alternative to using an expensive server software".
Since its introduction, Linux-SIS has been very popular in Thailand. Project implementors say this has been due to its "excellent documentation in the Thai language, its simple-to-install CD-ROM and web-based server management" that allow one to manage it without the need to know any UNIX commands. "SIS training courses are always in constant demand from schools looking for a reliable internet server at the lowest cost," says Dr Koanantakool, who is director of Bangkok's electronics and computing centre NECTEC. (More info on the Linux-SIS at www.nectec.or.th/linux-sis/
"Initially we used Windows NT on a straightforward PC. Then we developed the Linux schools internet server. We now have our own software, running GNU/Linux, which is managed via the Web, using the Thai language. That means, to run it the user hardly need to know anything of UNIX. This runs on just a PC. Compared to it, we could not afford a Sun Microsystem box and router for each school, for example," says Koanantakool.
GNU/Linux and a simple PC allows the schools to run an FTP server and "virtually everything out of one box". Says he: "It's far cheaper too. You just get a modem, and put on Linux. Even an old PC can replace a router."
"We started working first with the server side (using GNU/Linux) since the desktop is more difficult. One barrier was that almost nobody knows UNIX commands (among school teachers in Thailand). So we wrote out a web-based simple administration system. This means, any school can run this after a very little training. There's hardly any need to talk to the GNU/Linux console (the terminal that requires difficult and initially complex commands). But, using the Web, one can delete files and carry out other commands routinely needed," he adds.
Koanantakool says the Thai language web-administration tool became "some kind of a breakthrough" that helped teachers to run a school network at the lowest cost. In addition, the Thai-language extension of the project started last year. Version 4.1 was released in March 2002.
"When you boot the machine, it comes to a point that makes it seem like a user-friendly version of Windows. Many Thai computer companies are eager to pre-load the Version 4.1 onto their computers, because they're afraid of anti-piracy campaigns. Since February, the Thai Language Extension (which calls itself Thalay, meaning ocean in the Thai language) has been making it to the headlines. Almost on a day to day basis," says a proud Dr Koanantakool with a smile.
Incidentally, a Thai junior encyclopedia has also been brought out, in both CD-ROM and Net versions. This involves cultural data collecting, the use of computers and software among cultural centre network groups in that country. "If left alone in a cyberspace dominated by English content, the language barrier will discourage most teachers and students from using the Internet," as the project promoters realise.'
GLOBE is an activity that allows teachers and students in SchoolNet@1509 (the four-digit number is used to access this network) to collaborate with their counterparts across the globe.
Schools take part in the Internet-based global education programme called ThinkQuest. This provides a highly motivating opportunity for students and educators to work collaboratively in teams, and learn as they create material while sharing with one another. This challenges young learners to create high quality, innovative and content-rich web sites.
One of the schools--Sri Wittaya Paknam--has a site that draws a hit rate higher than that of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, says Koanantakool, with a hard-to-hide smile. The teacher uses this site to teach English through the Web.
Say the project promoters, cautiously: "There is no guarantee whether SchoolNet Thailand will succeed in the long run. However, it is undeniable that this project has already made a significant impact on many schools in Thailand."
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