The advancement of technology skills in a competitive global society challenges Cambodian educators and government alike
“It’s hard to hire” is a phrase often thrown about in Cambodia’s digital-technology private sector.
The institutional rejoinder is often the call to a “road map” for developing Cambodia’s digital society and economy, and for educating more ICT (Information Communication Technology) graduates with marketable skills.
But any road map designed to further digital-skill development in Cambodia faces myriad roadblocks. The Kingdom’s ICT education is challenged with everything from a lack of a standardised curriculum to language barriers that hinder enrollment, under-qualified faculty and high dropout rates.
In an article published in July of this year, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport said that of Cambodia’s 123 higher-education institutions, only 53 offer digital-skills programmes, with 36 of those in Phnom Penh. An earlier report said that fewer than 11 percent of students enrolled in digital programs were women.
To address this issue, various initiatives and projects have been established not just for upgrading the digital skills of college-bound Cambodians and the current workforce, but for digital development of local businesses and the government – an approach supported by the Kingdom’s new “Pentagon” strategy.
Initiatives such as the 2022 “Digital Workforce Development Project” – with a $15 million investment from USAID – are attempting to push Cambodia forward to meet the growing demands of the ICT sector. This year’s “Digital Skills Development Framework/Programme,” led by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPTC) with policy advice from the Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology (CADT), is seen as the developmental road map that will plug in Cambodia’s digital society.
Focus Cambodia spoke with CADT’s Pisal Chanty, director of digital and innovation policy, to discuss digital-skills development, advancement in Khmer AI systems and beyond.
CADT envisions itself as a flagship public-education and research institution, developing digital talent and innovators, driving Cambodia toward a digital society. Could you explain the work being done?
CADT is under the supervision of the MPTC for technical aspects and under the supervision of the Ministry of Economy and Finance when it comes to funding mechanisms.
Our mission is to promote digital technology training in higher education, as well as professional training for civil servants. We are also one of the specialised research institutions in digital technology that focus on applied research, mainly on AI, IoT (“internet of things”) and cyber security.
Khmer natural language processing (NLP) has been our core field of research since 2014, when CADT was formally established as the National Institute of Post Telecom and ICT. In 2021, we transformed to CADT, continuing our enlarged mission but also taking on a vision to promote a large digital economy and society policy framework in Cambodia.
One aspect of our work is training students in higher education, granting bachelor degrees. As of now, we offer three bachelors and we will launch a masters degree in cybersecurity next year. We offer bachelors in Telecom and Networking, Computer Science and Digital Business. We haven’t started a PhD program yet, but we train civil servants in four levels of digital skills training, essential to professional and digital transformation.
For our research, we focus on applied research that promotes digital adoption. We also have an Innovation Center to promote startups and entrepreneurship.
NLP is CADT’s bread and butter as far as leading the research to drive Khmer machine translation. Could you elaborate on the work CADT is doing in this field?
We have a focus area on AI and data science in AI. We have a research team dedicated to Khmer natural language processing and we flag-shipped the first research team that focuses on NLP in the country.
Currently, we have developed some applications that have been piloted and launched on the Google Play and Apple store. We call it Khmer ASR. It’s an application that you can convert from voice to text, text to voice in Khmer language, designed for administrative purposes, but also for daily use.
We also have some additional projects under MPTC support to embed Khmer ASR in a reception robot. We are not developing a new robot; we’re just embedding the technology of Khmer ASR so it can have command and response functionality in Khmer.
As CADT is leading the front on building Khmer NLP-equipped tools, are you also developing full AI chatbots that apply machine and deep learning with Khmer data sets?
We are planning to use the existing (NLP) technology for a kind of Chat GPT but we haven’t finalised the concept yet. We also would like to enable the inclusive access of Chat GPT to benefit Cambodia citizens.
If you question GPT in English, it will resolve a comprehensive answer or follow-up question – and a creative question because there is a large sum of information. But when commanding in Khmer, the result may be not sufficient or responses may be incorrect.
Therefore, we aim to fill in this gap and promote local content as well.
Outside of digital technology innovation and research, what is CADT’s role in digital policy research and consultancy?
We are fortunate enough to be a think tank of the MPTC. So we work closely with the ministry to provide consultation in regards to the development of digital economy policy and digital government policy. CADT is also part of the working group in drafting policies directly.
We also provide comments and suggestions to certain draft laws that are being drafted by the ministry, namely, the cybersecurity draft law.
How important is upskilling the labour force with new digital skills and tools to advancing the socio-economic status of Cambodia?
Cambodia has adopted the Digital Economy and Society Policy Framework for 2021 to 2035. The core pillar of this framework is the establishment of a digital citizen, in addition to the pillars of digital business and a digital government.
The policy’s focus is not just on developing the digital tools and capabilities of “users” (citizens interacting with digital tools) but also on talent – the digital researcher, the talent providing digital services and the digital upskilling of civil servants.
The MPTC is also working with UNESCO to develop information and digital literacy.
What obstacles inhibit the advancement of digital society, business and government in Cambodia?
I think one of the main issues in Cambodia is that there is no clear pathway for a digital career. Jobs in the digital sector such as data scientists or developers, Cambodian universities have varying definitions of these professions, which do not consistently align with the global-tech sector’s requirements.
We are measuring this skill mismatch but also the subsequent skill shortage as the expectation from the private sector is not matching the supply produced by the universities. Therefore, what we are trying to do at CADT is to provide a platform – we call it a skill competency framework – to align everyone to one common language in the digital sector.
We have been building this framework based on consultation from the private sector, universities, and on the recommendation of ASEAN reports on digital skills.