Thailand has 8.7 million adolescents, who account for 13.3% of the total population. Research suggests that technologies such as computers, the Internet, and mobile phones have become an integral part of the lives of Thai youth. They are found to be using these digital technologies, especially Internet communication, significantly more than previous generations. A National Statistical Office survey (2011) found that one-fourth of adolescents use the Internet daily. According to the Institute of Management Development, Thailand ranks 38th when it comes to digital competitiveness across the globe. However, there is still much to be done in terms of uptake of technology in the country.
In an attempt to improve digitization across the country, the Thai government included the use of ‘digital tools’ as one of the components in a blueprint aimed at reforming the education system. Digital tools include the development of digital platforms for educational institutions and the compilation of big data.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Thai government focused on distance teaching and learning courses through televised broadcasts. However, the global health crisis exposed many problems related to the digital gap in the country — specifically access to technology (especially in rural areas) and the low technological skills of teachers to take on the burden of digital learning. Moreover, a 2020 survey by the National Statistical Office on the readiness of Thai students for online education revealed that 60.18% of the total 43,448 respondents were not ready for online education.
The pandemic may have exposed systemic gaps in the education system, but it has offered an opportunity for students to take ownership of their education. The last few years have also revealed the growing importance of the Internet in adolescents’ education.
Quilt.AI partnered with Quicksand — a design research and innovation consultancy based in India, working across emerging markets — to understand the online world of youths (13- 19-year-olds) — across Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam — and outline the best ways to reach them online.
This study commissioned by the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office followed a mixed methods research approach in the five countries. Quilt.AI was responsible for conducting a qualitative analysis of adolescents’ content ecosystems online. This means, exploring the nature of social media accounts, the hashtags followed, and the variety of content posted. Alongside studying social media discourse, we also sought to understand what adolescents search for related to online learning. The findings from the digital ethnography piece was then supplemented by a 1000 person survey, in-depth interviews, and co-design workshops in each country.
For this blogpost, we will be delving into the learnings and insights from the digital ethnography research in Thailand. Findings incorporating other data points can be found in the main report here. To understand the online ecosystem of Thai adolescents, we studied the popular social media platforms Facebook, Pantip, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, LINE, and Instagram. For all media, except Facebook, adolescents were identified through hashtag and keyword combinations (i.e. #teenageproblems on Pantip or class year in Instagram bios) and location-tagging of local schools. On Facebook, since most individual pages’ likes are private, we used data from the Facebook Audience Insights feature to identify the top liked pages for adolescents.
Some key learnings include:
Thai students are using online platforms to supplement their formal classroom learning. The Internet provides a supportive community that caters to their needs and engages with them through the following:
Textual platforms to learn, interact, and compete with other students:
Thai students use textual media, e.g. platforms such as Facebook, Pantip, Twitter and LINE, to vent about their academic lives, seek support, and sometimes even compete with others.
Thai students seek support (in the form of tips, questions, and queries) from their communities online. This helps them hold themselves accountable and gain inspiration from others.
Creatively using visual cues:
Thai students use visual touches to their notes and personalization to make the otherwise mundane task of studying more exciting.
Creating a marketplace for the sale of textbooks:
Students use online platforms to sell and purchase free educational materials like textbooks and notes. Searches for free school textbooks receive around 3000 average monthly searches.
Using platforms such as Pantip:
Pantip is not only a platform popular among youth but people of all ages in Thailand. It is among the most-visited websites in the country. Thai teens use it to anonymously ask questions on sensitive topics such as sexuality, gender identity, and mental health. Since the platform is used more by older individuals, teens use it to seek advice on their careers and challenges faced in school.
Our analysis suggests that students want to make learning engaging and fun for themselves. They use several creative methods to do so:
Using unique stickers in their social media uploads:
These stickers allow for the expression of complex emotions and bring a sense of childlike fun and creative expression into conversations about studying and completing school tasks. LINE is also used to communicate with small businesses or service providers (like tutors, tailors, hairdressers, and more).
Note-taking apps to aid learning:
Students are eager to try out new technologies that can assist them in their understanding and retention. The popularity of digital note-taking stems from the need for personalization and visual learning. These apps offer a variety of brushstrokes and the ability to color-code notes without investing in hundreds of color pens. Popular apps include GoodNote and Notability.
Utilizing focus apps:
Students use focus apps (such as Forest and Focus Timer) to aid their studies. The Forest app, in particular, is top-rated because the app allows users to personalize their forest, which teens are seen proudly sharing screenshots of, on social media. Simple interfaces and minimal text make these apps highly popular among students.
Our analysis revealed, Thai students not only use social media platforms to aid their formal learning, but also as a way to participate in global challenges and to consume popular content.
- The popularity of the Internet can be seen in students’ consumption of content on social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. These platforms are typically used for entertainment. For instance, the most popular content on YouTube spans topics such as gaming, lifestyle, and product reviews. Korean videos, i.e. K pop and mukbangs are among the most liked content.
- On the other hand, students use TikTok to showcase their talents to a broader, more global audience. They participate in viral trends that originated in the USA and Korea.
- Their engagement on these platforms is conducive to their learning as it helps them hone English speaking and communications skills, as students interact with people from diverse cultures online. Recognizing the centrality of social media platforms — especially when it comes to entertainment and fun — can help foster academic skills.
The search analysis was complemented by a qualitative study of conversations related to education online. These were studied for sentiments, tonality, visual cues, and top emerging trends across various social media platforms.
These were some of the key findings:
- Community-based motivation: Thai students seek support from their communities online. This helps them hold themselves accountable and also gain inspiration from others.
- STEM subjects are challenging, but Edtech is expensive: STEM subjects have been harder to grasp/teach through digital learning, so students turn to additional resources. However, Edtech for STEM and English resources are expensive, which make them less preferred vis-a-vis other free digital resources on platforms such as YouTube.
- Use of online platforms and focus apps: Students also use online platforms to sell educational materials like textbooks and notes. Focus apps are also popular for their function and simple, accessible interfaces.
The education sector is going through several reforms. In the last two years, especially, as has been explored through the study, online platforms are becoming increasingly important for students in their education journey. While the problems of access and the digital divide are important considerations for designing online educational interventions, the role of the Internet as a critical learning resource cannot be underestimated. Online platforms present tremendous opportunities for students and should be integrated into formal education.
Based on our analysis, the following recommendations will help tap into the power and research of online platforms:
- Learning resources should integrate tools for self-expression and creativity. For example, bullet journaling and note-taking apps with stickers and multi-coloured highlighters are popular. Future digital learning platforms or apps should allow adolescents to personalize their tools (e.g., memojis) so students remain engaged.
- Students should be directed to relevant Edtech and study apps. The uptake in digital learning means that students have many options for Edtech and educational apps. The government, academic, and private institutes should focus on redirecting students to the relevant existing platforms/communities and work on making them more affordable.
- Edtech platforms can be linked to games and other resources. As noted, gaming is popular among Thai youth. In fact, search trends showed that educational games had the highest search volume and growth. Therefore, institutes or government initiatives can use these to reach adolescents by pushing advertisements for educational resources or mental health services. They can also incorporate separate pages on time management or coping with stress and anxiety.
- Replicate collaborative initiatives to reach adolescents. For instance, brand challenges, such as Huawei’s #มันส์ให้สุดกับY6p in Thailand actively engaged adolescents. Possible partnerships between tech companies, brands, and governments to run similar successful campaigns can be explored.
- Leveraging K-Pop fandom. K-Pop is prevalent everywhere on social media and is an important aspect of Thai adolescents’ daily lives. From connecting with fans worldwide to being idols, K-pop artists greatly influence adolescents’ outlooks. This fandom can be leveraged by integrating messages, promotions, lyrics, songs, or stickers/animations of K-Pop artists into educational resources or campaigns. These act as hooks to help engage or rally adolescents around issues or resources.
A post-pandemic world has made us reimagine a different future — one that integrates technology in the everyday. The education sector is no exception with schools worldover adopting new pedagogies and styles of learning. Online platforms can provide numerous opportunities for students to think critically and creatively engage with concepts outside the confines of their classrooms. It is important for educators and organizations to collaboratively work on integrating the online and offline and reimagining a new future for education.