6 June 2024

During the COVID-19 pandemic, online learning became an important part of children’s education around the world. Many have spent a lot of time in front of screens, to the point that human interaction seems to be in regression. So, when it’s time to return to on-site activities, they might struggle and feel distant in the real world.

In the Ummao (อุ่มเหม้า) and Sok Maew (โสกแมว) communities, in the That Phanom district of Nakhon Phanom Province, where there are few public spaces or recreational activities, most kids do not have opportunities to spend time engaging in hands-on experiences. So they have become addicted to their devices and reportedly struggle to concentrate and find it harder to interact with other people around them.

“One problem that occurs [with a long period of online learning] is the amount of time children spend on their phones. Usually, we would limit it to not more than 2 hours. [During online learning] teachers and children are separated…children started consuming inappropriate content and games. It is a big challenge for schools. Even though our school is in a remote area, we still consume the same world of social media [as people in urban areas do],” Sok Maew school director, Weerachai Kanin, explained.

Discovering, Co-designing and Recovering Learning

Ummao community leader, Jittra Tawangtan, did a household survey about mobile usage by children during the COVID-19 pandemic and their online learning and found that most parents said their children are addicted to phones and mobile games. Jittra has to deal with the issue on two levels, as she is also a mother. She said that her son was addicted to the phone and was quiet around his friends.

To recover the concentration and interaction skills of her son, as well as other children in the community, Jittra sees her own Phu Thai ethnic heritage as having potential first-hand experiences which can be taught interactively, to pull kids away from mobile devices and get them closer to their heritage.

She asked the elderly in the community to teach children meticulous skills, which are a part of their ethnic heritage,and bring various groups of locals into the process of educating the next generation.

“The Phu Thai tribe consists of 3 villages. The members of the committee who collaborate on learning design are from Thai Ummao, three heads of the villages–Ummao, Yangkham and Nual-Ngam. They talk and co-design with teacher Pam and teacher Am. Also, there are recreational activities organised by a youth community network of high-school students,” she said.

After bringing children into cultural activities, Jittra saw an improvement in her son’s human interaction skills. She said that her son started playing local musical instruments with friends more and now he barely takes his phones to school.

Once a Child of the Community, Now a Volunteer

Not only does the head of the community see the problem, but Wutthikon, a volunteer who was born and raised in the Ummao community and is now a university student who regularly engages in volunteer work, realised that his community lacks hands-on learning activities. So, he spent his summer co-designing cultural learning, with other teachers, the locals and UNICEF volunteers, and began hosting onsite activities for children.

“Our community’s strength is that we have various cultural activities. Most kids in the community barely know what we have. We have the Phu Thai tribe’s cultures. Each tribe has more activities, such as making Phi Phon masks (a spirit in Phu Thai legend) for performances, or natural tie-dying,” said Wutthikon.

He added that, when children get to spend their time on these beneficial and meaningful activities, they realise that, if they only go online scrolling, that is all they will get from it. All these activities let them spend more time with friends and people in their community.

Learning Assessment

Voluntary activities, however, often fall into the trap of being a “one-time fun activity”, but the volunteer team realised. They worked with education specialists from UNICEF to incorporate the rubrics of learning assessment, to make sure children develop their abilities into a project called “Learning Together”.

Nipattra Wilkes, Communication Officer for UNICEF Thailand, explained how learning indicators can be matched with meaningful activities. She strongly believes that, once the power of the community is combined with the right method to deliver learning activities to children, they could achieve the goal of learning recovery.

“We use the [indicators] from OBEC (Office of Basic Education Commission). They do have very strong indicators for the success of students in each grade in Thailand. Our volunteer leaders are mentored by education specialists and volunteer teams to build the capacity of their team, to conduct activities with children and to include learning that has a strong impact on students as well,” she said.

Teachers at the school also contribute to this learning by participating as volunteers and later adapt the activities and assessment and integrate them into school lessons.

Challenges in this learning recovery for the community lie in how to bring children back from scrolling to learning in a way which is not just fun, but is meaningful to their cultural roots.

Challenges for volunteer work lie in how to make the learning practical, academically accessible and sustainable – to create volunteer work that doesn’t just sound good.