Conversations with Thai academics: How they are adapting during Covid-19?
In light of the global health emergency, cities are being shut down and social distancing is becoming a normal practice. This meant that universities can no longer run classes and, in some places, students and academics were not allowed into the campus. This is a situation not only happening in Thailand, but it is affecting universities worldwide.
Thai and UK universities have long been forging partnerships and fostering research collaboration. Amidst the situation where face-to-face interaction couldn’t happen, and Thai universities are adapting their way of working. Change, especially unprecedented, is not easy, and some are turning the challenges they face into opportunities.
The British Council speaks to project leads in our Higher Education Partnership Programme in Thailand about the impact they’ve felt from the COVID-19 crisis on their partnership with the UK universities, and on their day to day classes and what they see as the ‘new normal’ in the coming future.
"Remote and long-distance education for ‘All’ will become a new trend. COVID-19 made universities act quickly and implement this right away. Universities that are able to build proper infrastructure will be able to respond to this quicker."
Dr. Ganjana Lertmemongkolchai - Khon Kaen University
Q: How do you maintain partnerships during COVID-19?
It’s evident that COVID-19 has affected partnerships between your universities.
Dr. Cherdchai: COVID-19 is causing some partnerships agreements and memorandums of understating to halt, but existing partnerships still carry on. We maintain partnerships with the National Institution of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) by setting regular communications using virtual and online tools to connect with its other partner institutions. Personally, I don’t see a downturn on the partnerships between Thailand and the UK.
Dr. Ganjana: At Khon Kaen University, we have established regular communications (with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and King’s College London), and right now, the universities are keen to work on developing proposals and papers to secure funding and to extend its research impacts to a policy level. Our long-standing collaboration with UK universities cannot be breakable even in COVID-19 era.
Ms. Suchita: Currently our planned activity to forge further partnerships with the tourism industry together with Coventry University as part of the Higher Education Partnership Programme have to be postponed due to travel restrictions in Thailand.
Regardless, Walailak University is focusing on the continuation of teaching and learning, and we just announced back in April that we are joining the world in going fully online in teaching and learning.
Q: How are you changing your way of working during COVID-19 pandemic?
Partnership activities are limited, but universities have been active in moving their courses online and managing their classes and labs.
Ms. Suchita: have been reasonably prepared for this (online teaching). Both academic and support staff, have undergone training in online delivery. During the last week of March 2020, we have trained in using the new technologies. A teaching and learning committee have revised new guidelines on online delivery. These efforts were to ensure the smoothness of the new mode of delivery.
Dr. Tanapat: I run a medium size lab with students and postdocs of around 10 people and we maintain a regular schedule of lab meeting and discussion via the Microsoft Teams application. Because all lab work is suspended and students are not allowed to enter the lab building (with only rare exceptions), minimal lab maintenance is done by faculty members such as filling out the required liquid nitrogen to maintain cells.
In my personal view, academic disciplines depending on lab work will bear serious consequence because of Covid-19, and the impact will be felt far beyond the end of the pandemic.
Apart from the huge impact on lab-heavy work which requires physical actions, the outbreak is also likely to have a long-term effect on teaching and learning especially on the hands-on lab teaching where learning by doing is important. In other, they are implementing take-home lab kits for simple and safe types of lab work from their home. Given zero experience with a country lock down, Thai universities will eventually need to adapt and learn from the experience.
Dr. Cherdchai: Our teaching is still fully carried out while impacts are huge on research and thesis conduction. All research is being paused. Scientific research and equipment-heavy lab work is highly affected by the government-imposed lock down, especially in the sampling process; reaching out to samplers (e.g. farmers for agriculture research field) is impossible at the moment.
Q: What are the new norms or opportunities that have arisen during the crisis?
We not only see a swift movement of classes to online, we see new practices and opportunities.
Dr. Tanapat: The COVID-19 crisis is forcing students to adjust to self-learning and distance learning. Once this is a normal way of acquiring knowledge, it may change how students feel about in-class style teaching. We all will get used to a new way of teaching and learning without direct face-to-face communication. However, in the science discipline, where experiments are critical, not much will change; only that we do medical science research at a much faster speed with information sharing and publications of pre-print work.
Dr. Cherdchai: There’s an opportunity during the time of crisis. Universities have more time to focus and concentrate on their own development. We are working on the new research proposal development and keeping everyone in the loop for brainstorming through emails and online channels for new ideas on research papers and development.
Dr. Ganjana: Thai Universities including Khon Kaen University have now stepped in to help society combat and respond to COVID-19. Our group has been working with Chiang Mai University and the hospitals to provide Covid-19 testing called the Drive Thru. Furthermore, the University is running active surveillance tests for industrial estates working with National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan and Lamphun Provincial Public Health. We can also see an increasing number of research agendas on COVID-19 established so far.
Q: How will higher education have changed after COVID-19?
Many are saying that classroom will look very different from now.
Dr. Tanapat: Online learning may be a major tool for future education. University infrastructure needs to be put in place and the instructors must learn ways to teach and evaluate students without face-to-face contact.
Dr. Cherdchai: We can see high-quality education decentralization emerging. Students may choose to study in provincial or local areas as big, tourist-destination cities have a higher level of risk and impacts (e.g. for health pandemics).
Universities in provincial areas will respond by improving the standard of their curricula and quality of teaching. However, there are still some gaps in integrating online aspects in the university courses that needs to be addressed.
Dr. Ganjana: Remote and long-distance education for ‘All’ will become a new trend. COVID-19 made universities act quickly and implement this right away. Universities that are able to build proper infrastructure will be able to respond to this quicker.
Students may be concerned about studying abroad and online solutions will become an option. This can result in an increased demand for education that has no limit on ‘age’. New skill sets will be required for upskilling and we will become life-long learners.
Ms. Suchita: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is widespread and it’s too soon to measure its impact but what will happen after Covid-19 is reflected in how universities are responding now. We’re already seeing new ways of working and we are beginning to witness change faster than we’ve ever seen as a result of the disruption.
There are definitely lessons for universities to learn from the crisis, and at the same time there are new opportunities that they can gain from the situation. As Professor Dr Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, President of Walailak University has said: “It was no denying that there were areas that needed improvement as far as technology and new skills for staff and students were concerned, but the current situation should be viewed as a new opportunity in higher education, particularly for the young students who will grow even deeper into the world of digitalization”.
About the Higher Education Partnership Programme
Thai-UK Higher Education Partnerships (Thai-UK HEP) programme was developed in partnership with the Office of the Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation. The programme was designed in alignment with national policy to equip academic and staff at all levels to meet industry demands and enable internationalisation of the education environment.
We selected Thai-UK partnership projects from a pool of eligible candidates that were previously funded by the British Council aiming to foster and to also develop fresh partnerships and networks between different Thai-UK partners in the programme.
The programme succeeded in building on these two existing transnational education links and extending four research partnerships under the Newton Fund Institutional Links, which has increased the level of engagement with the industrial sector and boosted social benefits. Universities and industries learned to collaborate in order to translate research findings into practices which improve economic outcomes and quality of life.
Thank you to Thai project leads from the British Council’s Higher Education Partnership Programme
- Dr. Ganjana Lertmemongkolchai is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Associated Medical Sciences, Khon Kaen University. She’s working with London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) on development of novel diagnostics and vaccines against melioidosis, tuberculosis and other mycobacterial infections.
- Dr Cherdchai Phosri is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Science, Nakhon Phanom University. He’s working with the National Institution of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) on developing a joint research programme and partnership for managing the rhizosphere microbiome for sustainable crop production in the central Mekong River Basin.
- Dr Tanapat Palaga is a Professor at the Faculty of Science, Chulalongkorn University. He’s working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) on development of novel diagnostics and vaccines against melioidosis, tuberculosis and other mycobacterial infections.
- Ms. Suchita Manajit is a Lecturer at Walailak University International College, Walailak University. She’s working with Coventry University on Embedding Work-Integrated Learning in Global Tourism, Hospitality, and Wellness Management Curriculum.