Rethinking education in Sri Lanka, after a nationwide lockdown

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In the wake of an unprecedented global pandemic, the world is in chaos, fear has taken over and people are disoriented. Society, however, is making an effort to stay afloat, learn new skills and stay connected. Digital platforms like Zoom, infrequently used previously, have emerged as strong facilitators of this. Even here in Sri Lanka, you’ll find signs of this in the higher education system with efforts being undertaken by UGC, LEARN and other entities to expand their use across the education system. 

One lockdown later, learning moves online

Long before the curfew, state universities had already begun exploring remote learning. This had taken form in several initiatives ranging from Learning Management Systems (LMS) to utilizing platforms such as Zoom to conduct online lectures. But due to the coronavirus, like elsewhere in the world, these initiatives were accelerated in Sri Lanka as well. The University Grants Commission alongside the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission including the President’s Office and telecom operators began discussions to facilitate remote learning. 

Harnessing the power of LMS’ to keep universities running

Today, several universities utilize a Learning Management System to complement lectures. In most cases, they’re utilized as a central hub where students can access lecture notes, additional learning materials, submit assignments, and discuss topics with their peers. Once the lockdown came into effect, these systems became the only way for faculty to distribute learning material to their students. 

Education | LEARN | Sri Lanka
Learning Management Systems like Moodle, previously used to complement lectures, after the lockdown they became systems of vital importance as they were the only way to share materials with students. (Image credits: Cloudways)

In the case of state universities, many already had dedicated servers on-site set up to run these systems. Thus, it allowed telecom operators to easily offer free data access as it was known those connecting to these servers would be either students or lecturers. A helpful gesture as these systems have proved vital in ensuring continued learning. According to data from LEARN, since the 23rd of March, several students and lecturers islandwide have utilized these systems.

Zoom for online remote learning

Two years ago, LEARN had acquired several Zoom accounts for the purpose of conducting online lectures. The organization had conducted several training programmes to show lecturers how they can utilize the platform as well. Yet, it wasn’t until universities were closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that many chose to adopt Zoom. Almost overnight, all of LEARN’s Zoom accounts were in use. 

Education | LEARN | Sri Lanka
Like much of the world, Sri Lankan universities too have begun conducting lectures using Zoom (Image credits: Lincoln Journal Star)

Describing this sudden shift to ReadMe, Prof. Roshan Ragel, Consultant of LEARN said, “We had acquired 1000 Zoom accounts 2 years ago. Since the project began, only 200 lecturers utilized the platform. Following the coronavirus outbreak, we received requests from lecturers across the country who are now using Zoom to reach their students and the utilization has gone into a few thousands of accounts.” 

It’s a positive step forward that lecturers have begun using technology for learning. However, the sudden adoption of Zoom hasn’t been without challenges. A critical one being the heavy data consumption of video calls. Hence, it ended up being a costly platform to use on a regular basis for both students and lecturers. 

So LEARN reached out to the local telecom operators to explore if data charges could be waived for their Zoom calls. But it’s no secret that over the past few months, Zoom’s popularity has surged tenfold. As such, while the operators wished to offer free data access for lecturers and students, there was a barrier. They had no way of differentiating calls by students and lecturers from other Zoom calls. 

Education | LEARN | Sri Lanka
With the shift towards online lectures, a rising concern was the increasing costs due to heavy data usage. To address this issue, LEARN set up its own Zoom servers to be used by its member universities, where faculty and students can connect on the platform for free. (Image credits: CNET)

So LEARN began setting up its own Zoom servers, which would be located in Sri Lanka. “We reached out to our members and asked them to donate any spare servers they had. Mind you, this was after the lockdown came into effect. So we had a team working from home to remotely set up these servers. Once they were up and running, it was possible for the telcos to offer free data to both students and lecturers that utilized our Zoom accounts,” said Prof. Ragel sharing how the organization conquered the critical issue of video calls.

By having servers located within Sri Lanka, it was possible to differentiate the video calls by lecturers and students from others. Further, this offered the added benefit of drastically reducing the international bandwidth needed for the calls. Thereby, resulting in lower costs, which telecom operators have to bear while offering free access. 

The wider challenges of remote learning

Globally, educators have raced to adopt technology in a bid to ensure continuity. However, in many cases, this has been done haphazardly. Often resulting in frustrated teachers and a poor learning environment for students. Here in Sri Lanka, LEARN has supported many universities to overcome the common hurdles of remote learning. Yet, Prof. Ragel admitted that there are wider challenges in expanding these efforts across the entire education system.

Education | LEARN | Sri Lanka
Some students can easily transition to online learning. However, this is not the case for all students. Those from low-income families risk being left behind. (Image credits: The Washington Post)

One of these challenges is the economic gap. Through the efforts of UGC, LEARN and others, the cost of data has been removed from the equation. But this is only for tertiary education. For many students in Sri Lanka, the internet itself remains out of reach. Quoting data from LIRNEasia, the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) has highlighted that 60% of households with school-going children in Sri Lanka don’t have internet access

Further, it’s a given that students from higher-income homes will have devices to attend online classes. Whereas, those from lower-income homes may not. Prof. Ragel, who also serves as a professor at the University of Peradeniya, shared that most university undergraduates have devices in the form of laptops or smartphones. Yet, when we look at the wider education system where certain schools are without even a simple desktop computer, this becomes a more critical issue. 

Education | LEARN | Sri Lanka
Online classes aren’t a substitute for classrooms. The social aspect of classrooms plays a crucial role in learning for all students. Especially for younger students and those with special-needs. (Image credits: The World Bank)

Another is that online classes aren’t a substitute for classrooms. Despite the shift towards Zoom, most lecturers are simply aiming to replicate the traditional passive teacher-centred approach to learning. But such approaches don’t necessarily work in an online setting. In the US, a survey among undergraduates found that 75% felt they weren’t getting a quality learning experience. Returning to the school level, the social aspect of classrooms plays a crucial role in learning. Particularly for special-needs students who already are disadvantaged given the poor support the Sri Lankan education system offers them. 

To address these issues and more, a Presidential Task Force was appointed on the 31st of March. The task force consists of government officials, vice-chancellors of state universities, and principals from local schools. Its goals can be summarized as to ensure the continuity of educational activities in Sri Lanka at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels, during this curfew period and beyond until normalcy returns. 

Evolution: Technology finds its place in the classroom

In this time of crisis, digital platforms have offered a path of continuity. Complemented by the efforts of LEARN, these platforms have been made widely accessible to the students and faculty of the tertiary education sector. In doing so, there’s a blueprint that can be expanded upon for primary and secondary education. Granted, there are some complex challenges to be conquered if it’s to work for all students irrespective of their economic background. 

Yet, even as we slowly return to normalcy, the shadow of the coronavirus lingers. Asian countries, which began easing restrictions, are now witnessing fresh cases. Such instances serve as a grim reminder of the very real fear of a second wave of cases. In turn, highlighting the need to discuss how education and other aspects of our life can continue until a cure is found. 

As we rethink education and accelerate existing trends, it’s unlikely we’ll see a grand revolution where education moves completely online. But there will be an evolution where we identify where technology belongs in classrooms to complement learning for all students.

— With assistance from Shameena Pallie

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