Bangkok Post

Thousands of web surfers around the world get their introduction to Thailand via the Internet web sites produced by a small, private primary school in Samut Prakan. Yet this school and its innovative programme remain almost totally unknown within this country

Suppose you are a student somewhere in the world. You have been assigned to gather information about Thailand. Immediately, you head to the Internet and go to “google.com” — probably the best search engine available for such a project.

You don’t know much about Thailand, so you carry out some simple searches. You start with “Thailand pictures” to get an idea of what the country and its people look like. Not surprisingly, the first web site on Google’s list is thaiphotoblogs.com.

As you click through the pages of high quality photos on this site, you find links to several equally impressive web sites, including thaistudents.com, paknam.com, Thailandlife.com, and ThailandGuidebook.com. You also find frequent references to the “internationally famous” Sriwittayapaknam school, which, you soon find out, has a spectacular web site of its own.

These names appear again and again as you carry out searches based on “Thailand” or “Thai”. In fact, they are far more frequent than just about any other site on Thailand, including the web site of the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT).

It turns out that all of these web sites originate at Sriwittayapaknam school. The reason they are popular among web surfers is easy to explain. They are very good, easily the best Internet web sites produced by any school in Thailand. They are also largely in English, making them accessible to an international audience.

Overlooked resource

You might think that an internationally acclaimed Internet programme would be well received in Thailand as well. You would also expect that the teachers and students who maintain the web sites at Sriwittayapaknam would be in great demand as advisors for schools attempting to improve their web sites.

Think again. According to Richard Barrow, the teacher in charge of the school’s Internet programme, they have only recently received their first local invitation to attend a web-related conference.

That’s unfortunate because web-site administrators at Thai schools clearly need a lot of help. With few exceptions, the sites of the more than 350 schools with an Internet presence are stagnant, text heavy and almost completely lacking in student participation. The vast majority of the information on these sites is also in Thai, a guarantee that they will receive few international visitors.

The contrast with Sriwattayapaknam is breathtaking. Consider these facts, for example: More than 400 Sriwittayapaknam students have their own homepages, a number expected to double next year. There are hundreds of examples of student work on the main web sites, including computer and paper art, handicrafts and woodcraft projects, photo albums, and even interesting homework assignments.

All of the school’s web sites – there are 20 altogether – involve some student participation, be it taking or scanning photographs, writing, typing, travelling, or simply posing for pictures.

“What in my pocket?”

In some cases, students run the show completely as is the case with the remarkable thaistudents.com and thailife.com which are managed by 16-year-old Nattawud Daoruang. Actually, Nattawud, or “Gor” as he is known among his friends around the world, is a former Sriwittayapaknam student, having passed into Mattayom 4 – one grade beyond what his old school offers. He still returns almost every day to update his web pages.

Gor is the pioneer among Sriwittayapaknam web-page managers, having begun his first homepage in October 1997 at the ripe old age of 12. A year later he was teaching his fellow students how to prepare theirs. Today, his web sites pull in an average 11,000 visitors a week, almost all of them from abroad, particularly the United States.

Such traffic generates considerable correspondence and Gor spends much of his free time answering e-mail – often from students with homework assignments concerning Thailand. Surfer feedback has obviously been a major motivating factor behind Gor’s enthusiasm for his web projects.

It has also inspired many of his most creative ideas. Gor has a knack for recognising and satisfying his readers’ natural curiosity about ordinary life in Thailand. The more ordinary a topic is, the more interest it seems to generate; hence web site pictorials featuring items in Gor’s pocket (a phonecard, a pager, a picture of his former girlfriend, a 500-baht bill, etc.) and his home refrigerator.

Wide-ranging benefits

The Internet programme at Sriwittayapaknam has had benefits far beyond helping the students improve their facility with computers. It has truly opened the school to the world, winning virtual friends from all over the globe who provide a steady stream of questions and ideas for academic-oriented projects.

Richard, who still teaches English in addition to heading the school’s computer programme, hardly has the need for a textbook. “My English lessons really come under the heading of ‘life experience’,” he says, “as I don’t like any of the standard English books. When I am not coming up with my own ideas from events around me and in the media, I welcome any cultural exchanges I can get from overseas.”

One example of an Internet-inspired class project stemmed from a simple query about the length of the day in Thailand. This led to a very nice web page comparing the length of the day for Thailand, England and Australia during the summer and winter. The page also explains – in English, of course – the reasons for the dramatic differences.

The school’s web site also draws “real” visitors, giving students an opportunity to interact and practice their English in a realistic way. Students act as guides around the schoolgrounds and often accompany their visitors to local tourist sites.

It is very much a two-way exchange. Recently, for example, a visiting Japanese teacher stayed for a week, conducting both Japanese and English lessons. The school also recorded his voice, so their web site now has an introductory audio-visual Japanese lesson as well.

Presently, the school’s chess players are gearing up for the third annual visit from US chess expert, Tim Rogalski who arrives next month. They are holding a tournament to choose the school’s 20 or so representatives who will challenge Mr Rogalski in a simultaneous match. He was undefeated in his previous visits, but this year could prove to be a surprise.

Could you do it?

Could other schools develop web sites of a comparable quality and interest? According to Richard, the answer is definitely yes although probably not on the same grand scale. Start small and progress slowly is his advice.

Special expertise is not a prerequisite. Richard says he had neither much experience nor interest in using computers before he was suddenly drafted to run the computer programme.

What was important, he says, was getting started with the initial group of students and building up a store of material for the next batch of students to pattern their work after. Then, of course, once feedback starting arriving from abroad, the programme quickly snowballed.

Of course, nothing would have happened without the dedication of Richard and his core group of student webmasters as well as the active support of the school’s administration. Richard says he has received exceptionally good cooperation from the school’s owner and principal from the very beginning.

Interested in finding out more? Richard has described the whole process in great detail from start to finish on the school’s main web site. He and his colleagues have also indicated they would be very willing to offer advice to schools wishing to set up or improve their web sites.

In the long run, this might make their jobs easier. Richard says that one reason the Sriwittayapaknam web sites have so much information on Thailand is that it is largely unavailable elsewhere.

Thai schools have a wonderful opportunity to change this. One easy way to begin would be to develop pictorial features on everyday life in school and the surrounding area. Illustrate what students see on their way to school, what they study, what they eat or what they do in their spare time. Do it well and it won’t be long before visitors arrive, both virtual and real. From then on, the sky’s the limit.

Students at Sriwittayapaknam have discovered that daily life in and around their school fascinates web surfers throughout the world.

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