People entrenched in traditional educational institutions are surprised to learn of the so-called Bamboo School in rural Northeast Thailand where students have a major say in the running of their school.
This innovation begins with all school purchases, procurements and audits done by students. Selection of incoming students as well as teacher selection, community service and student businesses are also the work of students.
In this system of "democratic education", students have greater responsibility over their own future, presenting them with an opportunity to think for themselves at an early age. Classes are designed not only to develop professional skills but also to foster an interest in becoming future teachers and social entrepreneurs, capable and willing to make an impact on the world around them.
The school was established to be a model for future rural Thai education and presents an out-of-the-box approach to rural Thai education. For instance, the school requires no monetary tuition fees from students or their parents, most of whom are involved with low-income agricultural practices.
Instead, the "payment" takes the form of the planting of 800 trees to replenish the community's natural surroundings and 800 hours of community service, half performed by parents and the other half by students.
The Mechai Bamboo School was founded not only for secondary school students, but also for all members of the community who have a desire to learn. Whether it be agriculture, purification of water or clothes-making, ICT or solar energy production, preventive health measures or family planning, the school will find instructors to teach them. The school is run as a life-long learning centre for all and serves as a hub for community development in poor surrounding areas.
School programmes are designed not only to cover required academic subjects but also life and occupational skills. These equip students with what they need in order to assist their communities to improve the quality of life for others.
This focus on life skills translates into a firm belief that ICT must be a fundamental part of school curricula in the 21st century, particularly in underprivileged communities. This is particularly true in rural areas where technology can be a powerful tool for bridging the digital divide, increasing employability and achieving positive social mobility.
Our desire to build a strong ICT programme at the school has led us to forge a longstanding partnership with Microsoft to bring the full benefits of technology to youth development.
Internet-based learning is thus a key feature of the Bamboo School curriculum, and students are encouraged to seek out new knowledge and shape their own studies through wi-fi coverage across the campus. Microsoft volunteers teach students and teachers to master office software in order to share coursework in the cloud, facilitate classroom management, and expand the scope of the student experience beyond their very remote classrooms.
This increased capacity for productivity has already inspired some students to create computer-assisted crafts such as custom-designed mugs which are sold to individuals, institutions and corporations, thereby leveraging technology to build other "life skills" like entrepreneurship.
These simple innovations represent but one part of the equation in our mission to transform education for rural students. Through Microsoft's Youth Spark Project, a global youth development initiative that is approaching its third anniversary in Thailand, students and teachers from many schools are able to take advantage of Microsoft's resources to receive IT and business skills training, gain access to professional-class software and more.
Technology can help, but cannot replace the teacher. Great teaching is still the cornerstone of the educational experience, but given the needs of the 21st century, and the vast opportunities that digital literacy can offer, teachers must be equipped with the skills and resources to impart that literacy to future generations. Microsoft's long-running Partners in Learning programme not only provides educators with the required training and resources, but also connects them to a global network of innovative teachers and school leaders to explore and share best practices.
Microsoft and the Bamboo School are working with the Association of Small Community Schools of Thailand to expand this model to academic institutions across the country. Through this cooperation, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) and the Bamboo School will work with Microsoft to act as mentors to improve the use of technology education in 46 schools within the coming year, and 150 schools in the next three years with financial support from IKEA and the Ikano Group.
This somewhat unusual school represents PDA's vision for the future of education - a centre of learning that imparts 21st century skills, knowledge and opportunity to a community that needs them most.