If you look closely at the photo above, you can see beads of sweat dripping down Rafa’s forehead as he helped Cambodian teachers learn how to use laptops and tablets. Unfortunately, our training space in rural northeastern Cambodia did not have air conditioning. Nor did it have stable internet; the Wi-Fi crashed whenever 16 teachers tried to connect at the same time. But just as these teachers were learning how to adapt to the 21st century, we were also adapting to local limitations, and along the way, we learned a ton about how technology education can empower communities in the developing world.
In the fall of 2016, Adobe sent the six of us to Cambodia on a two-week service project to train teachers on how to implement technology in their classrooms. The project was done in partnership with Team4Tech, a Bay Area non-profit that organizes immersive service learning projects, and CARE Cambodia, a branch of the global NGO that provides aid and development to Cambodia’s rural areas. As part of their "Know & Grow" program, CARE had secured 32 laptops and 95 tablets for four junior high schools in Ratanakiri, a province that had historically been under-developed and ravaged by war. Our job was to train a handful of teachers from each school who had been identified as early adopters and designated as ICT Trainers for their respective school. The goal was to help these lead educators become more skilled in using technology, and enabling them to design their own tech trainings to spread that digital literacy to other teachers.
Before we arrived, CARE had already done significant work to increase the number of girls who attended these schools. Their program's ICT component had the noble goal of expanding the life and career choices that these students would have. As technology further disrupts the global economy, learning 21st century skills could potentially give these students career options beyond manual labor or subsistence farming, break them from the cycle of poverty, and convince their parents to keep them in school longer.
The Road to Ratanakiri
Our journey began six weeks before we arrived in Cambodia. The team met weekly to prepare curriculum, materials, and resources for teaching digital literacy, software, and design thinking skills. We aimed to cover a lot of ground, from the basics of Windows and Android OS, to internet and security, communication and productivity tools, and desktop and mobile apps. We wanted to emphasize how technology could be used day-to-day for making lesson plans, taking attendance, creating visuals, and even encouraging creativity in the classroom.
After Thanksgiving, the team convened in Phnom Penh, and spent two days getting briefed on CARE's work and adapting to local culture and customs. As we climbed into our van for the overland trek, none of us expected the adventure and life-changing experience that awaited us.
It took us 10 hours of driving to get to Banlung, the provincial capital of Ratanakiri. The journey was long, but along the way, we witnessed the breathtaking beauty of Cambodia: wide-open fields of vibrant green grass, endless rice paddies with palm trees sticking out on the horizon, and the omnipresence of the Mekong River as it meandered along our road. We tried local delicacies, such as dried jackfruit and durian popsicles, during our rest stops. We also interact with the locals, and what stuck with us was how welcoming they were. Over and over again, we experienced how fully, and joyfully, Cambodians smiled to complete strangers. For a nation with a such a tragic history of war and genocide, their smiles warmed our hearts, and their hope lifted our spirits.
When our team arrived in Banlung, we geared up for three days of training workshops. We had it all ready: lesson slides, suitcases of swag, and a belief that all we had to do was execute the plan. That fell apart the first day, and we learned the true meaning of the word "adaptation."
First, we adapted to the heat by discarding our dress shirts and shoes, and donned polos and sandals. We also realized lectures under hot temperatures did not bode well for attention spans. So we tossed the plan, and created new workshops to focus more on sharpening software skills, such as Word and Powerpoint, and actively practicing those skills on live assignments. We let the teachers play with tablet apps to edit photos, shoot videos, draw pictures and tell stories. We ran a Google Science Journal workshop where they competed to build the most efficient windmill, and used Bluetooth-connected sensors and phones to measure rotation speed. As the days progressed, we witnessed their growing confidence with technology and design thinking.
Our last adaptation challenge was for patchy internet that constantly crashed. We solved for this by preparing folders of pre-loaded multimedia content, and then used USB thumb-drives to transfer that content to each teacher's computer before every workshop started.
The goal during our second week was to pass the baton. It was now the ICT trainers' turn to run two days of workshops and spread their knowledge to other teachers at their school sites. We played a supporting role by troubleshooting and offering tips along the way. We were amazed at how quickly the teachers were adopting not only our materials, but also our methodology, to lead engaging workshops for their peers. They even ran the same ice breakers and energizers we played with them the week before.
Then, something amazing happened. The teachers started teaching material that we never covered. One of them wanted to show his peers how to use Google Translate to translate English into Khmer, the local language. But our colleague Siddhant had a better idea. He got up in front of the classroom and demonstrated how Chrome has the capability to translate full webpages directly on the browser. When he did this, eyes in the room collectively widened. There were a few gasps. Then, the class began cheering and gave Siddhant a standing ovation. The rest of us stood in the back of the room and savored that moment. We realized we had witnessed a breakthrough. For their entire careers, these teachers had struggled to find new lesson materials in their native language. Suddenly, with the help of technology, they now had all the information in the world, and more lesson plans than they could ever read, at their fingertips.
The Path Forward
At Adobe, we’re changing the world through digital experiences. Our goal is to give people the tools to bring their ideas to life and create content that makes life more fun, learning more enjoyable and work more meaningful. This project gave us a new sense of purpose towards that mission, because we discovered the tremendous potential for empowerment that technology and digital tools can bring.
Most of the teachers we worked with already had smartphones, and knew how to use them to take photos, watch YouTube videos, and access Facebook. But what they asked us to teach them were tools of professional empowerment, such as how to send emails, use Word and Powerpoint, create visual stories, design lessons to engage their students, and collaborate with each other. The teachers we worked with were highly-motivated self-learners who could proactively iterate and create new curriculum once we planted the right seeds. When we saw them pass these skills onto other teachers during week two, we knew we had made a sustainable impact that could change lives for thousands of youth. A total of 52 teachers went through our training over the two weeks, and they are collectively responsible for teaching over 1,200 students per year. Knowing our impact had that kind of scale made the two long months of preparation, and two weeks of travel away from our families, completely worthwhile.
As we reflect on the journey these teachers took – from being intimidated by technology to feeling empowered by it – we believe that Adobe has an incredible opportunity to continue engaging with schools in Cambodia, and all over the developing world. With infrastructure improving and access to ICT expanding, demand will only grow for workers with 21st century skills to power the digital economy. Projects like ours will lay the foundation for turning passive consumers of digital content into content creators, storytellers and change agents. Perhaps one day, a kid from Ratanakiri will become Cambodia's most accomplished photographer, film director, journalist, or political leader.
Although the language barrier prevented us from having these deep conversations about technology education with the teachers, the feeling of empowerment was universal. As we got onto the van and waved goodbye, we left with the image of our teachers giving us the most gorgeously-wide Cambodian smiles, and the feeling that we made a difference.