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Closing the Urban-Rural Higher Education Quality Gap with Blended Learning in a STEM Course at Three Cambodian Universities

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Governments have identified higher education as a major driver of economic competitiveness and have invested substantially on improving the access of their population to higher education. While the improvement of access through the expansion of
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  Chapter 12 Closing the Urban-Rural Higher Education Quality Gap with Blended Learning in a STEM Course at Three Cambodian Universities Cher Ping Lim, Tianchong Wang, Bunlay Nith and Ngoy Mak Abstract Governments have identified higher education as a major driver of economic competitiveness and have invested substantially on improving the access of their population to higher education. While the improvement of access through the expansion of universities has helped to build a foundation for the development of the higher education sector in developing countries, there are quality gaps  between universities, especially between urban and rural ones. This chapter presents a case study of how blended learning has been adopted to close the urban-rural quality gap of a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) course at three universities in the Kingdom of Cambodia. T he country’s flagship university in the city worked collaboratively with two provincial universities to design and develop a STEM course with online resources and activities that were then implemented at all three universities using a blended learning approach. This chapter examines how the blended learning approach is adopted in the rural university contexts to address the existing quality and access challenges of teaching and learning in the STEM course. It documents the impact of the blended learning approach through interviews and focus-group discussions with the key stakeholders. Based on the enabling and hindering factors identified in the study, the chapter discusses and suggests the blended learning strategies to close the urban-rural quality gap of STEM teaching and learning in the Cambodian higher education context.    __________________________    C. P. Lim ( ✉ ) The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China e-mail: clim@eduhk.hk  12.1 Introduction and Background In a world that is becoming increasingly complex and knowledge-based, where demands of the job market are ever changing, there has been a growing consensus among economists and educators that human capital of “know - how” and “know - why”  plays a key role in a nation’s  socio-economic development. Countries around the world have given high priorities to develop and transform their higher education sector to prepare such qualified human capital. The Kingdom of Cambodia is of no exception. Cambodia is an emerging economy located in the southern region of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. Over the last two decades, Cambodia has achieved remarkable economic progress towards middle-income countries (MICs) status, with Gross domestic product (GDP) growth at an annualised rate of approximately seven percent (ADB, 2018). As the country works its way towards the transition from a labour-intensive economy to a knowledge-oriented one, human resource development through higher education is among the driving forces to move away from an over-reliance on low-skilled, low-wage, and low value-added industries (MoEYS, 2015). The Royal Government of Cambodia has committed to improve access to quality higher education. For example, with financial support from donor agencies, it has enhanced access to higher education by establishing new provincial based universities. The number of public universities grew from fewer than 10 in the 1990s to 39 in 2014 (MoEYS, 2015). With better understanding of the labour market and better coordination and links with the industries, the government has  been seeking to enhance the quality of higher education and its relevance to emerging industries. For example, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) courses and programmes that develop problem-solving and critical thinking competencies have become one of the focal points of The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport (MoEYS)'s Education Strategic Plan (ESP) (MoEYS, 2014a), and large-scale projects such as the Higher Education Improvement Project (HEIP) (MoEYS, 2017). A number of STEM related undergraduate and  postgraduate degree programmes have been implemented in universities across the country to develop the competencies of Cambodia’s young popul ation to meet emerging needs of the labour market. Cambodia’s higher education, however, faces several challenges and issues. One of them is the quality gap between urban and rural universities (MoEYS, 2014a; 2014b). For example, there is a lack of qualified teachers in rural universities; the majority of them possess only a master  ’ s or bachelor  ’s  degree as compared to those teachers in urban universities who have at least a master  ’ s degree and increasingly a PhD (MoEYS, 2015). Many of these teachers adopt teacher-centred “chalk and talk” approach es due to large class sizes in small classrooms. There are no professional development opportunities available for these teachers to enhance their capacity for quality teaching and learning. Such constraints are likely to compromise the effectiveness of higher education teaching and learning where students do not have opportunities to learn in different modes and learn at their own   pace. The quality of teaching and learning resources is also questionable due to an over-reliance on outdated textbooks. Blended learning, the deliberate fusion of online and face-to-face contact time between teachers and students and/or among students in a course (Graham, Woodfield, & Harrison, 2013), provides universities with opportunities to enhance access to quality teaching and learning. For example, blended learning may  positively affect quality where teachers use up-to-date and high-quality online learning resources to meet the diverse needs of their students. Appropriate use of  blended learning may create a 'learner-centric' learning environment where students are provided with opportunities to learn at their own pace, chart their own learning  paths and interact with their teacher, fellow students and online resources (Boelens, Voet, & De Wever, 2018; Broadbent, 2017) While the potential of blended learning to enhance quality higher education is well documented in the literature, how effective blended learning is in enhancing quality teaching and learning depends on the context it is implemented and supported (Garrison & Kanuka, 2004). In a developing country context where  blended learning is a relatively new teaching and learning approach, it is worth exploring how blended learning may close the urban-rural quality gap in higher education teaching and learning. Based on a case study of a STEM course in three universities in Cambodia, this chapter examines how a partnership-based approach to blended learning adoption, implementation and support could close the urban-rural higher education quality gap in a developing country. 12.2 Literature Review This section first identifies and explains the challenges facing Cambodia’s higher education system with a focus on the unequal access to quality education between urban and rural areas. It then discusses how these challenges could be addressed through the blended learning approach to teaching and learning and urban-rural educational partnerships as a means to co-design quality courses. 12.2.1 Urban-rural Divide in Cambodia and the Access to Quality Higher Education Teaching and Learning Reports on the quality of Cambodian higher education (Chet, 2009; Un & Sok, 2014; Vann, 2012) have highlighted significant urban-rural disparities in terms of financing, infrastructure and human resources. Despite the strong commitment to improve the country's education system as a whole, demonstrated by the various initiatives by the MoEYS, and the establishment of Accreditation Committee of Cambodia (ACC) as a national independent higher education quality and assessment body, a considerable gap still exists in terms of higher education quality  between universities (Rany, Zain, & Jamil, 2012). First, over-crowded classrooms with poorly equipped facilities in under-funded universities may not support learner-centred activities. Second, the regular salaries of teachers, as low as 6 USD  per teaching hour (especially in the rural universities), are not based on performance and may not encourage improvements in teaching and learning (Sothy, Madhur, &  Rethy, 2015). The resulting poor quality of teaching and learning in these universities could lead to learning disengagement and high repeat and dropout rates among students. These repeating students in the freshman and sophomore years may further contribute to the problem of overcrowded classrooms. Third, access to quality higher education may also be caused by the unequal distribution of qualified teachers between urban and rural areas. Many rural universities experience a lack of qualified teachers (Chet, 2009; UNESCO, 2011). Although teachers in the rural universities may be compensated by the MoEYS in terms of hardship and housing allowances, qualified teachers who have graduated with a PhD often choose to stay in the city (Tandon & Fukao, 2015). These teachers are reluctant to work in rural and remote areas due to the prevalence of larger class sizes, double-shifting or multi-grade teaching, poor living conditions, transportation challenges, and a general lack of support (UNESCO, 2011). As a result, many universities have to employ 'contract teachers' - locally recruited and sometimes with questionable teaching qualifications - as an interim strategy (Nith, Wright, Hor, Bredenburg, & Singh, 2010). While the frequency of such arrangements has significantly been reduced, and the MoEYS has developed specific goals towards eliminating 'contract teachers', their services are sometimes still in need where there is an acute shortage of qualified teachers. This is particularly the case in STEM courses. After receiving poor quality instruction from less-qualified staff, students may lack the competencies required to succeed in the labour market. Beyond issues caused by resource-related inequities, the gaps in the quality of Cambodia’s higher education follow deeply entrenched socio-economic divisions within the country, particularly those between poor and rich, and male and female. Poverty pushes many students out of higher education because many  parents, especially in rural areas, cannot afford direct costs such as tuition fees and indirect costs such as food and transportation, as well as the opportunity costs of not having an extra pair of hands on the farm. Full-time students generally have no income, and many families need their children to help at home with domestic chores and field work. Traditional gender roles further limit their children's options for entering higher education (UNESCO, 2013). This issue is particularly marked in STEM disciplines. Another issue is attracting students to higher education. Many  public universities offer programmes at a relatively low fee and sometimes provide scholarships or subsidies, but there is still an obvious lack of interest among young  people from poor, rural villages. One reason that young people are unmotivated to attend any STEM programme is because they believe it still will not help them find a job, given the high rate of unemployment among university graduates (Un & Sok, 2018). This perception may be due to the mixed quality of universities in Cambodia, where some programmes have failed to develop a relevant set of competencies for the fast-changing labour market and economy (CDRI, 2013). These setbacks form  part of a cycle in which the quality of teaching and learning results in low enrolment, which in turn affects the financing of the universities.  12.2.2 Blended Learning for Access to Quality Higher Education Blended learning has been responsive to new developments in higher education and has evolved over time (Dziuban, Graham, Moskal, Norberg, & Sicilia, 2018). Research studies suggest that the optimal adoption of blended learning may enhance student learning engagement and outcomes (Al-Qahtani & Higgins, 2013; Kiviniemi, 2014; Lim & Morris, 2009; López-Pérez, Pérez-López, & Rodríguez-Ariza, 2011; McKenzie, Perini, Rohlf, Toukhsati, Conduit, & Sanson, 2013; Vo, Zhu, & Diep, 2017). Studies also show that well-implemented blended learning encourages active learning by engaging students in online discussion and reflective  journals, along with more active participation in face-to-face lessons (Aspden & Helm, 2004; Bower, Dalgarno, Kennedy, Lee, & Kenney, 2015; McKenzie et al., 2013; Snodin, 2013; So & Brush, 2008). Blended learning may also stimulate student deep learning through communities of learners engaged in peer coaching, sharing and support (Castaño-Muñoz, M. Duart and Sancho-Vinuesa, 2014; Ginns & Ellis, 2007; McKenzie et al., 2013; Owston, York, & Murtha, 2013). Blended learning through synchronous and asynchronous activities supports personalisation and learner autonomy as it provides students control over and management of the learning process (Spring, Graham, & Ikahihifo, 2018; Yoon, 2016). 12.2.3 Bridging Quality Gap through Partnerships and Co-design of Courses for Blended Learning While the potential for access to quality higher education of blended learning is well established, its adoption in unconducive environment can pose enormous challenges for its effectiveness, not to mention its sustainability and scalability (Lim & Wang, 2016). Meanwhile, modern-day constructivist approaches to learning have challenged the traditional understanding of the role of the teacher, the students’ learning processes, and learning environments in general (Jonassen, 2011). Such gradual shifts, together with emerging technological landscape within education, have resulted in new and more demanding requirements that repositioning of teaching as a design science (Laurillard, 2013), and teachers as facilitators who create effective conditions for learners to learn (Mor et al., 2013). These challenges can be further amplified in developing countries such as Cambodia, where there is a considerable access and quality gap in higher education. Case studies in developing countries have shown that when there are urban-rural partnerships and co-design strategies, these challenges could be overcome (Draxler, 2008; Verger, 2012). Urban-rural partnership is based on shared interests. It is a tool to achieve goals that would otherwise be difficult to achieve. Co-design, in the context of  pedagogical innovation, is a highly-facilitated, team-based process in which teachers, researchers, and developers work together in defined roles to design an educational innovation, realise the design in one or more prototypes, and evaluate each prototype’s significance for addressing a concrete educational  need (Law, Yuen, & Lee, 2014).
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