Royal project fails

4 08 2009

There is almost never any criticism published of royal projects. Traditionally, newspapers, magazines and television only ever show syrupy glosses of project successes. This is to stay in line with the propaganda that royal projects – apparently thousands of them – are the significant link between the monarchy and the people, most especially those in the rural areas.

Is this changing a little? The Bangkok Post (4 August 2009: “Satellite learning gets major revamp”) reports that the School Distance Learning via Satellite Project is in serious trouble.

This project currently “uses Klai Kangwon School in Hua Hin district in Prachuap Khiri Khan as a base to broadcast lessons via satellite to schools across the country. It was established 13 years ago and supervised by Khwankeo Vajarodaya, grand chamberlain of the Royal Household Bureau.”

The project is being revamped with the Education Ministry deciding that it must “play a bigger role in its operation to make sure it reaches students in schools struggling to find enough teachers.” The ministry considered that “the project was not being run efficiently and the problem needed to be addressed quickly.”

Education Minister Jurin Laksanavisit said that his ministry “decided to step in because we have found accumulated problems with the project over the past 13 years. More than 20,000 satellite dishes have been bought with a budget of billions of baht, but the schools rarely make use of them…”. The minister described the dishes as being “another school antique.”

In addition, it was found that there was poor targeting and inadequate training. Indeed, “some schools equipped with the satellite dishes were found to have adequate teaching staff and therefore did not need the long-distance learning service…”, and there was a “lack of preparation of teachers and staff to be able to maximise the use of the satellite dishes…” in their teaching.

According to the Basic Education Commission, “3,964 satellite dishes and learning equipment for the project have been left unused.” Jurin said the “ministry would examine the unused sets to see whether they are still functional. If they are in good condition, they can be distributed to schools that have a teacher shortage.”

After spending all of this money, how much is it going to cost to fix the problems? It is reported that the “ministry will spend 3.9 billion baht from its budget to upgrade the project from this year to 2011.”

Is there a whiff of corruption? It is reported that the ministry will relocate the unused satellite dishes and related equipment and will also buy more sets. Significantly, though, “the process for obtaining the new equipment will be changed.” Presently, the Basic Education Commission “allocates funds to the Distance Learning Foundation of Klai Kangwon School for the purchase of satellite dishes. The foundation then buys the satellite dishes and equipment for the schools…”. From now on, “Targeted schools will be given the authority to buy the equipment so they can decide how much they need.”

In addition to state funds, like so many other royal projects, this one receives considerable amounts in private donations (see an example here). These funds are not known to be handled transparently and it is not known if they are subject to any scrutiny.

The Post story says that Grand Chamberlain Khwankeo “could not be reached for comment,” but staff at the foundation blamed others, saying the satellite dishes were not used “because of a lack of incentive for teachers to make use of the equipment. Using the equipment was not part of the assessment criteria for promotion…”.

The same official “insisted the foundation had spent its budget effectively. It spends 200 million baht a year on the salaries of 130 staff members that produce educational TV programmes to feed 15 satellite channels around the clock.” He also said that the “project has been recognised by the United Nations and copied by the Philippines and other countries.”

At present the channels used by the project are from TrueVisions. They are listed as 81-95, DLTV 1-15 (Distance Learning Television), being free-to-air and broadcast from “Wang Klai kang won School Hua-Hin (Klai kang won palace School)” and “Operated by Distance Learning Foundation (DLF) under Royal Pratonage.”

Not that long ago, it seems that the Education Ministry agreed to further funding for this project under its : “Expanding Use of Educational Technologies” as part of a “Focus on Quality Improvements in Education in 2009” (see here). There it stated: “The Thai Ministry of Education and Klai Kang Won School in Hua Hin are exploring ways to expand opportunities for learning and teaching via satellite from the school with a focus on more intensive and interactive learning between learners and instructors. In addition, a 6.3 billion baht budget has also been allocated to a 3 year Non Formal Education Department (NFED) project (2010-2012) to set up a, free e-TV station, separate from the existing cable channel. The NFED is in process of adjusting curriculum to better meet student needs. A course for tourist guides will be included.”

The revelations about the project appear to come from a survey Minister Jurin initiated in May: “Jurin has also instructed the basic education commission survey how many small schools already have satellite dishes, for later consideration on whether the ministry should extend the project (The Nation, 21 May 2009: “Push to boost learning via satellite”).

The funds – some Bt30 million budget from fiscal year 2009 – were to be clawed back from an e-learning project begun by Somchai Wongsawat under in the People’s Power Party government that was to be scrapped.

Jurin then said there were “about 10,000 schools are equipped with satellite dishes for the project,” meaning that almost 40% are now not in use.

For the syrupy treatment of this project, try this royal site and this IT World article (15 July 2008: “Distance learning brings education to rural Thailand“). The latter begins:

“It is not often that one gets to make the acquaintance of a true ‘Renaissance Man.’ Well-schooled and able to converse about multiple subjects in many languages, a Renaissance Man is master of many skills, is widely recognized for his amazing accomplishments, is comfortable around kings and presidents, and always makes his guests feel comfortable as well regardless of their station. Khun Khwankeo Vajarodaya is such a person.

I had the honor of making Khun Khwankeo’s acquaintance in Bangkok, where we discussed the philosophy and technology behind Thailand’s highly successful Distance Learning Foundation. Khwankeo is the chairman of the Distance Learning Foundation, chairman of the Rajaprajanugroh Foundation, and Grand Chamberlain of the Royal Household. We talked for most of the morning, took a look at the satellite broadcast of live classrooms being beamed out to remote schools all around the country, and discussed everything from satellite technology to fine wines.”

Finally, to illustrate that the Bangkok Post story is unusual, check out The Nation’s version (4 August 2009: “Unused devices to be taken back”) where there is no mention of the royal connection, the royal school or the Grand Chamberlain.

What is clear is that there are billions of baht sloshing around in a project that has seldom been subject to scrutiny. How many other royal projects are gobbling up state budgets with little return?



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