At a massive ceremony that took place on 22 January 2008, the Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport presented its new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Textbook for all schools that have computers, all universities and all teacher training facilities.
The new textbook teaches the use of Khmer language Free and Open Source applications, such as OpenOffice, Mekhala (Firefox) and Moyura (Thunderbird), which have been fully translated to Khmer language (Cambodian). It follows eight months of intensive training during which all new upper secondary school ICT teachers, all ICT teachers at upper secondary schools that have computers, and all ICT Master Trainers from teacher training facilities have been trained to teach this type of software, as well as to maintain their computer facilities. The books are distributed together with a letter from the Ministry indicating that from now on this should be the materials to be taught.
The main reason for change is the use of Khmer language in computers. The knowledge of English language in Cambodian schools is quite low, and centered on communication skills. Using Khmer to teach the use of computers strongly reduces the effort required to learn, produces meaningful learning that will not be easily forgotten, and gives equal opportunities to rural or not so privileged students who have not had the opportunity to access specialized English language training.
Computers in Khmer language - available only through Free and Open Source software - separate the skill of "second-language" from the skill of "computer use", allowing students to work on them independently, and even use their computer skills to later use computers to learn English.
Cambodia thus becomes the first country in the world to fully change its education system to only teach Free and Open Source applications.
The trend of change to FOSS, started by countries like Spain, India or Brazil, seems to be difficult to stop, but it is significant that it is a small country with very few resources the one to first complete the migration of its education system, motivated by the need of using its own language, something that in larger countries has not been a problem, as their markets were interesting enough for proprietary software companies like Microsoft to make the translation effort. For small -economically uninteresting - countries, the responsibility has fallen in their own hands, and has only been possible thanks to the freedom to modify and translate that is inherent to Free and Open Source Software.
Change is always difficult, even when it brings large advantages. The inertia and fear of change are important deterrents, and therefore only very strong motivation can produce change. In Europe and America we are seeing change produced by the interest of governments searching for lower costs, higher independence and security. But none of these advantages have been sufficient to create a demand for change by the final users. Language seems to be the only factor that is strong enough to produce change, as the lack of software in local language blocks the process of learning and using it. Even so, the fear of change by those who already use software is always one of the most important obstacles.
The Cambodian Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, at its highest level, has understood the need, and enthusiastically supported the change, as it opens the door of technology to a large part of its student population that before was left out.
The translation of Open Source Software to Khmer language started in 2004 with KhmerOS, a joint project the Open Institute and the Cambodian National ICT Development Authority (NiDA). By mid 2005 a basic set of programs had been translated and started being distributed and taught to teachers and government officials. In 2007 the Open Institute and the Ministry of Education created the Open Schools Program, an initiative to use computers to improve the quality of Education. The first phase of this project has finished with the change of the education system to teach using Khmer language FOSS applications. The next step is the development of a Master Plan for ICT in Education, based on research that the program will undertake during 2008, aimed at ensuring the sustainability of the actions of the Master Plan, which will be deployed between 2008 and 2012, as the third and last phase of the Open Schools Program.