It is not often that one gets to make the acquaintance of a true "Renaissance Man." Well-schooled and able to converse about multiple subjects in many languages, a Renaissance Man is master of many skills, is widely recognized for his amazing accomplishments, is comfortable around kings and presidents, and always makes his guests feel comfortable as well regardless of their station. Khun Khwankeo Vajarodaya is such a person.
I had the honor of making Khun Khwankeo's acquaintance in Bangkok, where we discussed the philosophy and technology behind Thailand's highly successful Distance Learning Foundation. Khwankeo is the chairman of the Distance Learning Foundation, chairman of the Rajaprajanugroh Foundation, and Grand Chamberlain of the Royal Household. We talked for most of the morning, took a look at the satellite broadcast of live classrooms being beamed out to remote schools all around the country, and discussed everything from satellite technology to fine wines.
Bangkok traffic is legendary, and when my wife told me it would take two hours to get downtown for my meeting with Khwankeo I couldn't believe her. Nonetheless, I left the house at 7 am for my 9 am meeting, and still arrived late. I arrived at the Bureau of the Royal Household and was received graciously and with more than a little pomp and ceremony. Staff photographers were on hand to record our meeting for posterity, and I greeted Khwankeo in Thai, with the traditional "wai" -- a slight bow with one's hands pressed together in a prayer-like gesture and held up to face level. Khwankeo shook my hand Western-style. Our rambling interview was fascinating and we went back and forth between speaking English, Thai and French.
Everyone in the country knows who Khwankeo is, and the prospect of going to the Royal Household and meeting such an individual seemed a little intimidating. One imagines that there would be kings and princesses walking down the hallways, and I would have been completely unprepared for such a meeting. What does one say to royalty, anyway? Or for that matter, what does one say to someone like Khwankeo, a nobleman, Grand Chamberlain, Knight of the Grand Cross (First Class) of the Most Illustrious Order of Chula Chom Klao, and chairman of the project that is most dear to the King? But right away, he made sure I was at ease and treated me like an old friend.
As a true Renaissance Man, Khwankeo is never involved in only one project. As one of his many duties as Grand Chamberlain, Khwankeo arranges royal banquets for foreign dignitaries, and is well-known in culinary circles as a member of the Club des Chefs des Chefs, perhaps the most exclusive culinary organization in the world. He is the author of "The Evolution and Art of Setting Tables, Catering, Beverages and Menus", a definitive work that should be in every gourmet's bookshelf. If you want to see what's on the menu when kings and queens dine together, take a look at the back of this fascinating volume to see reproductions of menus for state dinners, many of which were oversaw by Khwankeo himself, in honor of visiting dignitaries including Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko of Japan, Queen Elizabeth the Second and Prince Philip, President and Mrs. Clinton, and President Jiang Zemin and Madame Wang Yeping of China, and many more.
But to understand Khwankeo one must understand the man behind the man, and that would be His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. One of his most ambitious goals ever since taking the throne was to ensure that every Thai child in the Kingdom should have an opportunity to learn. Khwankeo has been a long-time friend and confidante of the king ever since they both attended school at the same time in Switzerland, and today, the two 82-year-old men continue to work for the betterment of the Kingdom of Thailand. King Bhumibol, also referred to as King Rama IX, the longest-reigning monarch in the world, has been on the throne for over 60 years, and he has earned the adoration of his countrymen through his tireless work and many projects designed to raise up the standards for his citizens. Also a Renaissance Man, the King of Thailand is a scientist, teacher, inventor, author, accomplished jazz musician, and yachtsman, and one can easily draw a comparison between His Majesty and America's own quintessential Renaissance Man, Benjamin Franklin.
Of particular interest to the king is education. Thailand is not a wealthy country, but it is an emerging one. Nonetheless, there are many very remote areas where education is difficult, teachers are hard to come by and schools have few resources. It was with this in mind that the King entrusted Khwankeo to become chairman of an organization whose noble mission is to bring a complete education to every child in the country, regardless of location or status. Education has been important to the King throughout his long reign, and he takes a personal interest in this project and in ensuring that every child has an opportunity to learn, that the learning be based on moral teaching, and that it incorporate lifelong learning opportunities. This is the ambitious goal of the Distance Learning Foundation, which was organized in 1996 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of His Majesty the King's Accession to the Throne.
At the King's School
About 200 kilometers south of Bangkok in the city of Hua Hin is the Wang Klaikangwon School, sometimes known as the "King's School." A first-rate educational institution originally created by King Prajadhipok in 1938 for the children of noblemen, it now serves as the hub of the entire distance learning project. The impetus behind the project came out of the King's desire to provide that same first-rate education to all children in Thailand, everywhere in the country.
Khwankeo arranged for a tour of Wang Klaikangwon so I could get a first-hand look at how it works. Klaikangwon serves as the "parent school" for all schools receiving distance learning programs, which are beamed via satellite directly from Klaikangwon classrooms to every school in the country. The school campus is just a short distance from the King's summer palace. Klaikangwon literally means in Thai, "Palace Far From Worry."
When our car arrived at the school early in the morning, all the children from grades one through twelve were lined up in neat rows, in their crisp uniforms, ready to begin their day. Right away, the broadcast begins, and cameramen are already in place to send this image to schools all around the Kingdom. The children stand at attention while they sing the Royal anthem.
Soroda, my guide, takes me to a small group of second graders, who are enjoying their morning snack outside and she introduces me. They all greet me pleasantly in unison and seem oblivious to the many pictures being taken. They have gotten accustomed to it and function very well, often seemingly unaware of the large videocameras that follow them around as if they were some sort of childhood reality show.
Inside the second grade classroom, Soroda introduces me again, and in Thai, tells the children "This is Uncle Dan, he is from Indiana. Does anybody know what country Indiana is in?" Of course, most do, having seen the "Indiana Jones" movies already, although they are a bit disappointed that I don't look like Harrison Ford.
Outside the front door of a grade school classroom, one expects to see children's drawings and cutouts, and there are plenty of these. But there is also a sign above each door that says "ON AIR", indicating when broadcasting is taking place. I expected the classrooms to look more like television studios, but they were quite normal and comfortable, just like any other classroom. The design is intentional, so as to make the students feel at ease. Television studios tend to have bright, harsh lighting, but the classrooms have ordinary fluorescents -- which besides being more comfortable, also eliminates the need for stage make-up. The broadcasts themselves come out clear and strong, with no distortion.
Each classroom has two monitors, one in the front and one in the back. The one in the front is for students to view class material (teachers often prepare their own PowerPoints), and the one in the back allows the teacher to see what is being broadcast at any given time. Each classroom also has two cameramen at all times, to provide for different angles. Although the classrooms appear like any other classroom in most respects, one noticeable difference is the use of whiteboards instead of chalkboards. According to Khwankeo, the expensive camera equipment could be damaged by chalk dust, so the whiteboard and "magic pen" is used instead.
Despite the presence of two cameramen, and the fact that everybody knows that their images are being broadcast on television, children and teachers alike are completely at ease and comfortable with the situation, and the students are often eager to get up in front of the class when called upon.
When I remarked to Khwankeo about how well behaved the children seemed to be in all classes, he told me that there is a great advantage in being televised -- the children know that their parents could be watching from home at any time! Indeed, the 15 channels being broadcast out of Klaikangwon are available on ordinary satellite broadcast, so anyone, anywhere, can take a look. Live and on-demand broadcasts are also played on the Internet site, so the classrooms can be seen online as well.
Klaikangwon includes classrooms for first through twelfth grade, with a separate television station for each grade. Additional stations are also included for university-level broadcasts, vocational broadcasts and international programs. Khwankeo tells me that the "one class, one channel" mode is "the only one of its kind in the world." After taking a tour of the classrooms, I visited some of the vocational classes, which are available to the general public to attend for the price of one baht per session (about a nickel), and these included classes for arts and crafts, sewing, and cooking. An auto mechanics class was also in session.
While in the classroom, so long as you look past the cameramen and equipment, Wang Klaikangwon School is just like any other school. But of course, it's not. The facility is a complete, modern television studio. Each classroom has a corresponding control room, where the video is piped through for live broadcast.
In addition, each classroom is equipped with a telephone, Internet terminal and fax machine to make the experience fully participatory with all of the remote schools. The broadcasts are one-way, from Klaikangwon to all the other schools, but any student, anywhere in the Kingdom, can interact with the Klaikangwon teacher simply by calling, faxing, or emailing in real time.
On the return trip, I looked out the window of the car and saw a hia -- in English, a monitor lizard -- casually strolling down the sidewalk in the pouring rain, obviously enjoying the weather. I was a little surprised to see this enormous lizard, which is about three feet long, in the middle of a town. In Thailand, it is considered bad luck to see one, but for me, I considered it good fortune to see such a rare creature, and the rest of my journey indeed went quite well.
Solving the Teacher Shortage
Long before "No Child Left Behind" became a buzzword in American education, Thailand has sought to bring a full level of education to every child in the land. King Bhumibol saw this need early on, and has personally worked to enhance the state of education in Thailand ever since the devastation of World War Two.
There is still a critical teacher shortage throughout the land. Although Bangkok is one of the most crowded and populous cities on earth, the rest of the country is sparse. Several primitive hilltribes live in remote regions in the north, the northeast (Isaan) region is mostly poor farming villages, and the southern border provinces are marred by violence from a long-standing Muslim separatist movement. Finding enough qualified teachers to go to these areas has always been a challenge. The Distance Learning program has effectively solved the teacher shortage by allowing the best teachers in the country, at the best school in the country, to have a virtual presence at all schools. In the remote schools where there are not enough teachers to go around, each classroom will at least have a "mentor" who helps oversee the classroom, guides the students, and helps them interact with the mother classroom in Klaikangwon. In addition to providing educational opportunities where there were none before, the distance learning program has also helped to create a more unified standard of education to all schools in the country.
Has Klaikangwon achieved the King's goal of bringing education to every Thai child? Indeed it has, and it serves as an example for other countries considering similar projects. The literacy rate has gone from about 50 percent just after World War Two, to about 95 percent today. In fact, many students in the remote schools have gone on to university.
A Model of Economy
The program serves as an example to other emerging nations seeking to build out their own distance education project, not just for its high level of quality but for its economy as well. Although the entire operation is carried out on a highly professional level with the best equipment, the most skilled technicians and the most qualified instructors, the cost is far less than what it would be for a regular commercial broadcast operation. The entire operation requires about a hundred technicians operating on the back end, about a third fewer than it would take to produce an equivalent set of broadcasts in commercial television. Costs are also kept down since the private sector has been quite active in providing services to the foundation. Telephone Organization of Thailand offers free cooperation in providing toll-free telephone lines to each school, so that all students at all remote schools can interact with the parent classroom in Klaikangwon. Costs are further diminished since normal classrooms are used as studios, and normal fluorescent lights are used instead of harsh studio lights. Further, the interactive classroom model is built around one-way visual and two-way audio connectivity, which gets the job done quite effectively while avoiding the extra expense that a two-way video connection would have presented. The initial installation, a very labor-intensive process, was carried out at no charge with the help of the Royal Thai Army.
Khwankeo is also Chairman of the Rajaprajanugroh Foundation under His Majesty the King's patronage, a mission which translates loosely to "The king (raja) and the people (praja) helping one another." Rajaprajanugroh Foundation and Distance Learning Foundation have similar goals. Rajaprajanugroh provides emergency relief, schools and homes to orphans affected by natural disasters, tsunami, AIDS, drugs and other abuses with a series of residential schools, where children are taken care of and educated according to the King's philosophy of ob rom bom nisai, or moral learning. There are currently 44 Rajaprajanugroh schools, all of which have adopted 100 percent distance education from Wang Klaikangwon School.
Rajaprajanugroh was first organized in 1963 after Cyclone Harriet devastated the Nakhon Si Thammarat province in the south. After the disaster, the King made a public appeal, inviting the public to donate money to help the victims of the disaster, and part of the funds was set aside to create the Foundation. The Rajaprajanugroh schools went a long way in providing education to needy children, but there was still a severe teacher shortage. Distance learning and technology ultimately provided the solution, to the Rajaprajanugroh schools as well as all schools throughout the country.
Continuing Education for Teachers
The focus on lifelong learning means that education doesn't have to stop when a student graduates from high school, or even college. The teachers themselves have an opportunity to refine their teaching skills using the same technology used to broadcast classes from Klaikangwon throughout the country.
When educators at the University of Oregon, Eugene learned about the Thai Distance Learning Foundation and saw one of the on-demand broadcasts of His Majesty the King's own teaching on soil conservation and rain making, they were duly impressed. The University later learned about the need for improvements in teaching the English language. University of Oregon then agreed to host a series of live videoconferences, connecting the University of Oregon to Bangkok and Hua Hin via satellite in a groundbreaking new international partnership. Thai English teachers are able to participate in the videoconferences to earn a ten-month certificate course. The series is also televised to neighboring countries.
At the remote schools
Today, thousands of primary and secondary schools in all parts of the country, including isolated, rural villages, hilltribe schools, and the Muslim schools in the southern border provinces, all have distance learning equipment and a clear satellite connection to a corresponding parent classroom in Hua Hin. Having incorporated distance education to overcome the teacher shortage and to bring the highest quality of education to the poorest schools, students from many of these remote schools have made impressive achievements -- often going on to university and achieving great honors in academia and in life.
The satellite transmissions are now moving even beyond the Thai border, extending to schools and households in the Yunnan province of China, as well as Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam. Universities in Yunnan, for example, are taking advantage of the Klaikangwon broadcasts for studying Thai language.
The Distance Learning web page is at www.dlf.ac.th. Live broadcasts of all 15 channels can be seen, as well as broadcasts on demand.