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Online learning poses challenges but there is a silver lining
To look at inclusive education in the Cambodian context, we must understand the definition of inclusive education. According to UNESCO, inclusive education refers to systems that remove barriers limiting participation in learning, which should be regardless of gender, age, physical abilities, religion, culture and other factors (UNESCO, 2020).
The initial turning point in Cambodia towards inclusive education was the Convention on the Right of the Child, adopted on 20 November 1989, which recognized a child's right to education based on the equal opportunity of access (UN, 2006).
With the outbreak of COVID-19, which has had a tremendous impact on the world and on a small country like Cambodia, the Cambodian government had no choice but to abruptly close schools in March 2020 for health and safety reasons (Neak, 2020).
Despite the significant impact of COVID-19, the government has worked selflessly to ensure inclusive education by using social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, radio, and television to disseminate preliminary education information and protect students' health (Internation, 2020).
Although face-to-face education has been replaced by online learning, many problems still arise in maintaining inclusive education in the context of the pandemic (Rinith, 2020).
For instance, Cambodia is still behind other developed countries in terms of sophisticated technological infrastructure and equipment.
The slow internet is a primary issue in delivering equitable quality education for all, especially to marginalized groups and disabled people (Nishio, 2019).
Furthermore, the limited knowledge and low living standards of Cambodian people make it hard for them to access education through online means, a situation made worse by the deficiency in skills and expertise of some teachers.
The most concerning groups are marginalized groups and disabled people who are vulnerable as learning online is uncommon and likely to be impossible for them (UNICEF, 2020).
As a result, COVID-19 becomes a barrier preventing the government and other stakeholders from ensuring inclusive education.
Nonetheless, the government has worked closely with development partners to establish educational programs via radio to help marginalized and ethnic groups get access to education (Children, 2020).
They have developed educational programs with body language to help disabled students access education. These actions show that the Cambodian government and other stakeholders have never left anyone behind.
For instance, the Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron held a conference lauding the efforts and adaptation of teachers during the pandemic on the occasion of celebrating World Teacher Day on October 5, last year (David, 2020)..
"Even amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, teachers have managed to invest time and effort into education, via online teaching, and they are essential when implementing education reform," the minister said.
The ministry's theme is "Smart Teachers for Digital Education," in which all teachers have played a predominant role in providing equal education for all levels.
Moreover, even though advanced technology in assisting online learning remains a significant obstacle in implementing equitable quality education, the opportunity is still open for everyone to have access to education.
Some teachers and youth have volunteered to train groups such as disabled and gifted children and other ethnic groups at their homes and in the community. These actions have underpinned the Cambodian government's relentless efforts and those of other actors in ensuring quality and inclusive education to everyone amid COVID-19.
Inclusive education in Cambodia during the outbreak has many challenges for teachers and students. Nevertheless, if we look at the positive side, there is a flash of silver lining.
It could be an initial turning point for Cambodian educators and students commencing their education through online or blended learning. Due to COVID-19, online learning has replaced face-to-face classes, something Cambodians have never done before. Consequently, everyone can adapt to the new environment by using all available resources to keep their education alive.
Neak Piseth is a founder of "The Way of Life Cambodia." He received a scholarship to pursue his master's degree in Non-Formal Education, Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. He has been working as an English Lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Particularly, he is an author of the book "The Genuine Chapters of Life" and a reviewer at Cambodian Education Forum.
This article was originally published by Shape-SEA on October 16, 2020