By Pattama Vilailert
BANGKOK (IDN) — Quality Education and Reduced Inequalities are two Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With 3.3 per cent of Thailand’s population categorized as “disabled”, Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University (STOU) has come up with an innovative program to provide a new lease of life to people who would otherwise be left behind in the sphere of higher education.
There are an estimated 2.1 million disabled people in Thailand, and the Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (DEPD) suggests that 855,025 Disabled are of working age (15-59 years old) that’s 40 per cent of the total number of Disabled.
About 78 per cent of people with disabilities have a disability identification card that entitles them to certain government assistance. But, according to the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council, 463,000 of them could work but don’t have any occupational qualifications.
According to the latest report of the DEPD, most of the persons with disabilities work in the agricultural sector (54 per cent), followed by general labour (23 per cent) and public or private sector employees (6 per cent).
The Disabled with identification cards are entitled to 800 baht (21 USD) allowance per month, and they could also borrow money from the Disabled Fund of up to 120,000 baht (3,158 USD). They are also eligible to attend vocational training free of charge at the Centres of the DEPD and free education from primary to bachelor’s degree along with technology, facilities, media, and educational support services.
< Dr Kamolrat (left) Dr Thiraphat (right)
Dr Thiraphat Iamnirun, Chairman of the School of Communication Arts at STOU told IDN that they offer education in eight areas that cover disabilities of students: Visual Disability, Hearing Disability, Physical Disability, Mental Disability, Intellectual Disability, Learning Disability, Spectrum Disorder, and Multiple Disabilities.
“In 2020, there were 30 graduated Disabled students. Currently, there are 500 Disabled students making STOU a university with the most numbers of Disabled students in Thailand,” he points out, adding, “in addition, we offer scholarships to the Disabled provided that they have got all S (Satisfaction) in all subjects while they are studying at STOU.
In line with the law, Disabled people are entitled to free education. Thus, STOU established Disabilities Support Services to cater for disabled students, added Dr Kamolrat Intaratat, Director of the Research Centre of Communication and Development Knowledge Management at STOU.
“It has long been our motto to provide a happy learning approach to students so they graduate with quality”, Dr Kamolrat told IDN. “COVID came as a positive push for people to become more digitally savvy. Thus, this year (2022), we have launched STOU Modular program.”
This so-called ‘People Academy’ program allows everyone to study online and earn the degrees or certificates that STOU has tailored to best fit their qualifications and professions.
People Academy, which has just kicked off in 2022 under the School of Communication Art at STOU, is different from the old education system as it is a credit bank system. The credit bank is where students can accumulate their learning units and competency and later can transfer them to the STOU education system. If a student learns 1 module, it equals three units. To this, 15 learning hours equal one unit.
The students only need to be literate when they study in the program so they can accumulate their study credits. “We can tailor the level of study for students ranging from primary school to postgraduate degrees. We can transfer the level of degrees with our networks of Thailand Professional Qualification Institute, Vocational College or Thai MOOC (massive open online course is a model for delivering learning content online to any person who wants to take a course, with no limit on attendance). They can also transfer the credits to us,” explained Dr Kamolrat.
“Our network is large; we corporate with both public and private sectors, the Redemptorist Foundation for People with Disabilities is one of our active networks.”
Dr Thiraphat said that ‘People Academy’ has extended from the existing long-distance learning of the STOU education system. “We have 3 learning types for undergraduate school: self-study, online tutorial with self-study, and blended learning (self-study, online tutorial with online practised activities)” he told IDN, pointing out, “our learning method emerged before the pandemic, therefore when COVID hit Thailand, it was a great chance for us to improve and extend our system”.
“Our course is cheap, and students can study from anywhere with happiness; I personally think that in the post-COVID, students do not need to sit in class and listen to the lecturers; they can study online and get a degree,” added Dr Thiraphat.
He argues that their ‘People Academy’ model is competent for the Disabled. “In daily life, they face difficulties in commuting; we have our Call Center and SISA Application, which the Disabled can download easily for IOS and Android, together with the Open Chat to support Disabled students. Disabled people are very smart and digitally savvy, quite a number of them are online vendors, and thus we have tailored our Bachelor’s degree and certificates to meet their capacity for digital communication,” added Dr Thiraphat.
STOU is at pains to point out that students can take a course that aligns with their occupation and passion. “This is a new trend in education whereby students do not need to spend four years studying only,” argues Dr Kamolrat. “People Academy is emerging on the basis of happiness and capacity, our education is for life, and students can learn when they are ready.”
STOU has taken into account the fact that the Disabled sometimes are not well to study continuously; they can study in this program when they are ready. Education is only at their fingertips; at present, the Open University is discussing with its network partners, such as the Thailand Professional Qualification Institute, the methodology to provide professional certificates to their students.
The Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation has joined forces with a start-up company to introduce the National Credit Bank System (NCBS) in accordance with Thailand 20 year National Strategy. The NSCB will promote Lifelong Learning by supporting skill development for all ages. With the system in place, learners without students’ status can turn learning outcomes from various subjects, courses, or work experiences into credits that can then be accumulated at the National Credit Bank.
Using sufficient credits at the NSCB, learners can apply for a degree from Thailand’s higher educational institutions. During a recent press conference, Government deputy spokeswoman Ratchada Thanadirek said that within the next two years, around 150 public and private universities would participate in NCBS.
“Our People Academy aligns with Thailand’s 20-year National Strategy that focuses on driving education in the midst of the digital age,” notes Dr Kamolrat. “Education becomes life-long learning so when you are ready to pursue your study, you can check how many credits you have in your credit bank and pursue your education while you are working.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 05 November 2022]
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This article was produced as a part of the joint media project between The Non-profit International Press Syndicate Group and Soka Gakkai International in Consultative Status with ECOSOC on 05 November 2022.
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