By Eisen Teo
MOST teachers in the landlocked Himalayan nation of Bhutan are computer-illiterate. Internet connections there are patchy at best, and only one in 10 students has a personal computer at home.
But a group of Bhutanese educators is determined to pull the country into the Internet age.
Ten teachers and five principals from five schools in Bhutan were in Singapore last month to tour the National Institute of Education and School of Science and Technology campuses, to learn how to use information technology (IT) in the classroom.
The five-day programme, from Feb 1 to 5, capped nine years of collaboration between the Singapore International Foundation (SIF) and Bhutan's Ministry of Education and the Royal University of Bhutan. Previously, SIF had organised about 30 volunteer trips to Bhutan, teaching IT and planning IT curricula at seven educational institutions.
The mountainous kingdom, bordered by India and China, lifted a ban on the Internet and television in 1999.
The latest phase of the collaboration, dubbed Bhutan W.I.R.ED (Weaving Infotech Resources with Education), hopes to take IT to a higher level: training teachers from the five partner schools so they can, in turn, train other teachers and students. SIF's goal for the country is 'sustainable development', said Ms Tam Peck Hoon, manager for international volunteerism.
Mr Passang Tshering, 26, embodies that value. He was one of the students in the pioneer batch who took an IT course planned by SIF volunteers eight years ago. Today, he is one of three teachers out of 28 at Bajothang Higher Secondary School, in central Bhutan, who are adept at IT. The school has 502 students, aged 13 to 20.
The father of one has his own blog, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter accounts. He set up a website for the school last year.
In Singapore last month, he was impressed by the school tours. 'We got a lot of ideas, such as giving out homework on Google Docs, and having class blogs.' He planned to share these ideas with his colleagues and students.
Ms Loh Kwai Yin, the head of department of information and communication technology at the School of Science and Technology, is pleased with the progress made by the Bhutanese.
She volunteered to plan IT curricula in Bhutan from July 2005 to June 2006. Compared with four years ago, many schools there now have Internet access and projectors to experiment with using IT to conduct classes, she said.
Mr Tshering's school is one of them. It has 10 second-hand laptops donated by SIF, wireless Internet access, and a projector. He has bigger dreams for his country. He wants IT to become part of the official school curriculum and hopes all schools can be connected to one another through the Internet. The aim is that a wired Bhutan will help make life easier for its people.
He said: 'People would rush to the capital to apply for jobs or file their taxes. Now they can do it online.'
SIF sent a Singaporean volunteer - teacher Germaine Cheong, 32 - to Bhutan on Feb 24 to work with the five partner schools until the end of the year.
Six workshops helmed by Singaporeans are also planned up to the end of next year to help the Bhutanese educators keep up with technological changes.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.