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Empowering Southeast Asia: The Transformative Impact of Inclusive Quality Education 

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Education serves as the linchpin for the development of any country. In Southeast Asia (SEA), the advancement of education plays a pivotal role in shaping the region’s skill development, fostering job creation, and driving overall growth. While there has been significant progress in improving access to education in recent decades, the potential for inclusive, high-quality education remains untapped. It serves as both an opportunity for development and a catalyst for narrowing gaps and fostering social and economic growth. All of this is occurring at a juncture when Southeast Asia places a high priority on technological reform for socio-economic development. 

UNESCO data reveals that the disruptive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened global educational disparities. The rapid transition to online learning excluded over half a billion students globally, disproportionately impacting the poorest and those in rural areas. Southeast Asia mirrored this trend, with around 140 million children and adolescents experiencing unparalleled disruptions in education and learning due to the pandemic, as highlighted in a report by the Southeast Asia Development Solutions. 

By ensuring education is inclusive, we can dismantle barriers that have long hindered communities. According to UNESCO, over 40 million children in the region lack access to quality education. 

Bridging Gaps 

Recently, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO) sounded the clarion call to translate education commitments into transformative actions across the region. Their commitment echoes the advancement of gender equality, the empowerment of girls and women, and the promotion of foundational learning. SEAMEO’s vision places strategic emphasis on dismantling gender barriers, fostering an inclusive environment for girls to thrive, and recognising foundational learning as the bedrock of a child’s educational journey. It’s a commitment to inclusivity—tearing down gender barriers and reaching the most marginalised communities. SEAMEO’s bold stance contributes directly to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Let’s not forget the important role of inclusive quality education in empowering women. Through proper education, women have the potential to break the cycle of poverty, actively contribute to economic growth, and create positive impacts within their communities. UNESCO highlights that investing in girls’ education not only results in improved health outcomes but also enhances economic productivity. 

Technology: A Catalyst for Change 

In the midst of these challenges, technology emerges as a powerful ally. The UNESCO 2023 ‘Global Education Monitoring Report’ on Southeast Asia recognises technology as a valuable tool but also raises questions about its role in addressing crucial challenges in education. While digital technology reduces education access costs for some disadvantaged groups, there remains a substantial disparity in home connectivity between the wealthiest and poorest students in the region, with the richest students being almost eight times more likely to have internet access at home. 

Over the past decade, Southeast Asia has witnessed a significant growth in internet usage, boasting an estimated 400 million internet users. The countries in the region view digital technology in education as a catalyst for skills-based development. The adoption of technology in teaching and learning is on the rise, with Malaysia aspiring to integrate information and communication Technology (ICT) across all 10,000 schools to offer personalised learning experiences. 

While the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in education remains limited, there is a growing interest in leveraging AI for innovation and development in teaching and learning. Potential applications include automating grading, offering learning support, and generating customised learning materials. Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia have articulated national strategies and action plans to advance AI adoption in education. For instance, Thailand’s 2022–2027 National AI Strategy champions a robust ecosystem for AI development, including promotion of AI education through dedicated scholarships. 

As per the UNESCO report’s findings, three conditions must be met to realise the potential of technology in education: ensuring equitable access to technology, implementing appropriate governance and regulation, and enhancing teacher capacity. 

Today, Southeast Asia stands on the cusp of transformation. Education is not just an academic pursuit; it is a collective endeavour to empower, bridge gaps, and uplift an entire region towards sustainable development. 

About the author: 

Thanit Apipatana is a Bangkok-based entrepreneur, investor, and advisor with a keen interest in venture building, real estate, F&B, education, sports, and philanthropy. Thanit Apipatana has advised companies in the region including Singapore-based proptech company Mogul.sg and Thai-based Life Below Labs, a project that is looking to catapult the Thai beer market to a new level with liquid yeast. 

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