In Lao PDR, a digital transformation of education has begun
Students and teachers attend the first ever Youth Digital Literacy Camp in Vientiane capital.
There’s an air of excitement at the SOS Boarding School on the outskirts of Vientiane capital, Lao PDR. The school bell rings and a line of adolescent girls in crisp white colored shirts and black Lao ‘sin’ – a traditional patterned skirt - file through the classroom door with giggles and smiles. They know that class will be different today.
Teachers are also gathered and enter the room. On this day, their job is not to teach but also to learn. And as they all take their seats, a jovial young facilitator has everyone erupting in laughter with ‘warm up’ games, getting ready for the sessions to come.
Thirty-two students and their teachers are part of today’s class, representing a mixture of girls, boys and teachers from lower and upper secondary levels of the Vientiane SOS Boarding School.
They have gathered to be part of something very new to Lao PDR – the Ministry of Education and Sport’s first ever ‘Digital Literacy Camp’. The students are introduced to tablets, the national e-learning platform, Khang Panya Lao, important topics like online safety and are given space to share the most pressing learning needs and priorities of their generation and in particular, those of girls. This camp was made possible through Skills4Girls thematic funding.
It was not long ago that such a ‘camp’ was unimaginable in a public boarding school in Lao PDR. Digital literacy rates are particularly low in Laos, especially among girls. According to the 2017 Lao Social Indicator Survey (LSIS), the most recent major household survey, only 11 per cent of young men and 9 per cent of young women (aged 15-24) engaged in at least one ICT activity in the last three months.
And while the explosion of the internet and the emergence of low-cost ‘smart’ computing devices has revolutionized teaching and learning around the world - particularly post COVID-19 - this IT revolution is yet to take root in Lao schools.
In fact, there are hardly any computers or smart devices in primary or secondary schools and even less so in rural areas where some schools still lack access to electricity. No digital literacy classes are offered and as a result, very few girls and boys carry out any ICT activities.
This is changing, however, under the leadership of the Lao Ministry of Education and Sports (MoES) and thanks to partners like UNICEF and the European Union. Indeed, as a response to the pandemic, lockdowns, and prolonged school closures, MoES and UNICEF with the support of the EU, established the first ever national digital teaching and learning platform, Khang Panya Lao. Khang Panya Lao houses all national curriculum content and a large suite of national and international learning resources available in Lao language.
 The LSIS-II survey collected a list of computer-related activities and individuals were invited to respond whether they carried out these activities or not in the last three months. Source: MICS-EAGLE Laos Country Report, 2020, using LSIS-II data, 2017
 Khang Panya Lao is based on the Learning Passport, a partnership between UNICEF and Microsoft. Khang Panya Lao translates to “Lao Wisdom Warehouse.”
Despite the low literacy levels and significant barriers to digital learning in Laos – including the high cost of internet – Khang Panya Lao has grown considerably. By December 2022, it had 111,000 registered users
and an estimated 333,000 total users nationwide, demonstrating that despite the barriers, children, adolescents, teachers and parents in Lao PDR are ready for digital learning.
This includes the adolescent girls and boys of the SOS Boarding School who recognize the importance of digital literacy for their future careers and embrace the digital literacy camp. They willingly share their views on how UNICEF and partners, working with MoES, can help support adolescents and what learning priorities are most important to them.
“I want to learn more about sex education,” shares one female student via post-it notes shared during a group session. “Sex education is limited in Laos. With more sex education, our generation will be able to protect themselves,” she reads.
“I want to learn more about software programme development,” reads another. The notes continue: “I want to know more about child rights.” “I want to know more about LGBTQI issues.” “I want to know more about gender issues and gender-based bullying.” “I want help to study English,” and “I want to understand more about technology and the internet,” reads another.
For 16-year-old student, Sengmany, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the value of digital learning and the ongoing challenges to both girls and boys becoming digitally literate in Laos.
During the pandemic, schools were closed across the country for many months throughout 2020 and 2021. Students were instructed to continue learning from home. As Sengmany explains, the internet is often unstable and expensive for her family. To continue remote learning, she needed to pay for the internet herself, making online learning difficult
“And, when we got more familiar with online learning and studying for our exams at home, then schools reopened again, so it was a confusing time,”
Nonetheless, Sengmany dreams of a future as a successful businesswoman specializing in e-commerce, for which digital literacy skills are crucial.
To help adolescents like Sengmany follow their dreams, MoES, UNICEF and the EU are providing tablets, laptops, Smart TVs and projectors to target schools across the country, as well as digital literacy trainings for teachers to support improved access to digital learning both at school and at home.
Digital literacy camps, with a focus on the learning needs of adolescents, particularly adolescent girls like Sengmany, are also important and help ensure digital learning initiatives, such as Khang Panya Lao digital learning platform, are responsive to the learning needs and priorities of Lao youth.
After many games, exploration of the Khang Panya Lao platform via tablets, discussion on online safety, future learning needs and priorities, the adolescents of SOS Boarding School have completed the first ever digital literacy camp in Lao PDR.
While it may be just the first, today’s camp signals that a change to learning in Lao PDR is in the air – under the leadership of the Ministry of Education and Sports, a new chapter is opening. An exciting new digital transformation of education has now begun.