Linking Laos

The Internet is giving a small number of Laotian teens the outside world—and hopes for the future.

Life is pretty languid in Savannakhet, a provincial capital in southern Laos. The city has no traffic lights and its dirt or gravel roads lead to green rice paddies or dense forest. It’s not a city to inspire great dreams—except at the Internet Learning Center not far from the mighty Mekong River. “I want to study medicine,” says Dalavanh Katthiyavong, 16, “and computers can help.” She points at the screen of one of the school’s 10 computers: “I can find everything.” Says fellow student Littana Sivilay, 14: “I can explore the outside world without travelling. I want to present Laos to other people from all over the world.”

Land-locked Laos is one of Asia’s poorest countries. Still Communist-run, much of it has been untouched by time, tourism and foreign trade. With a national population of about 5.6 million—less than Hong Kong—and no railways or ports, foreign investors tend to pass it over for larger, more profitable domestic markets.

Just about the only thing that can help Laos overcome its insular torpor is technology, which is what the Internet Learning Center (ILC) is trying to offer. Part of the Lycee Savan, a 45-year-old high school that handles up to 3,000 students a year, the ILC has four branches across the country and more students wanting to learn than there are computers or class time.

“We need a larger classroom and many more computers,” says ILC’s manager in Savannakhet Phommady Chanthamavong. “We don’t have enough facilities for the students who want to learn.” His ILC branch teaches about 160 students a year. With 10 computers, and usually one or two down for repairs, many double up on the machines. They learn Microsoft applications, such as Word and Excel, plus Internet and emailing.

The center does not receive government funding. Some extra money comes from non-students using the computers after hours, but this has been limited due to slow Internet connections.

None of this dampens the enthusiasm of the students, with several bunching around a machine to see what another student is doing. “I want to be a modern girl and by using computers I can learn many new things and meet new people on the Internet. It’s very exciting,” beams 14-year-old Vilayvanh Photavong.

“Sometimes I send email to friends in Australia and other countries and learn about what it is like there,” adds Dalavanh. “It’s almost like travelling to these places.”

 “The students are interested in learning as much as they can about computers,” says Phommady. He knows the centre needs to grow and hopes that future funding will enable them to move to larger premises. He also would like to get a satellite dish to provide faster online services.

But, for now, things have been going better than he expected. “I’ve seen the students grow in terms of numbers and what they have learned. We can only go forward from here.”

About 270 kilometres east, along a main two-lane highway, in which cars have to frequently pause for straying goats, geese, cows, chickens, pigs, turkeys, dogs and the occasional lumbering water buffalo, is Pakse, capital of Champasak province. Situated at the confluence of the Se River and the Mekong, Pakse is a busy cross-boarder trading town.

The Internet Learning Centre is a fairly large, air-conditioned room at Pakse Upper Secondary School. It is virtually a clone of the Savanakhet centre. It has the same number of computers, one scanner and printer, and shares some of Savanakhet’s problems—slow, unreliable connections via modems plugged into a telephone line.

But, says ILC manager Bounprasong Phanmanivong, the centre is now mainly self-funded by adding special summer computer classes for $25 per student for three-months of study.

After school, anyone can use the computers for a cheaper price than the city’s high-speed, 256 kbps Internet cafes, which the ILC hopes to compete on speed when they install a faster network later this year or early 2006. “It will cost more but we think it will be worth the results for the students as well as help earn income for the centre.”

Regular classes are confined to second-year students, aged 14 and 15. Each class has 20 students, two at a computer. Students pay a nominal fee per year. “I love working with computers,” says Vannapha Phommasone, 17, one of the summer school students. Her face lights up when she finds a photo of Hong Kong or a landscape in Europe. “I can see things I’ve never seen before. I also can see places I hope I can visit one day.” Her favourite teenage activity has already become her career goal: “I want to become a computer teacher like Mr Bounprasong.”

Many other students have shown an interest to continue their computer studies, says Bounprasong, going onto colleges or universities not only in Laos, but in Thailand, Vietnam, China and even Australia. He estimates that about 20% of the high school’s 2,000 students have PCs at home, up from 5% last year.

“It’s great to see them enjoy gaining new skills and information,” says Bounprasong. “Opening this centre also opened a door to learning.”

paul.ehrlich@mac.com

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