Distance learning in Sri Lanka

Some students more equal than others

28 May 2020 12:14 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Around 161,396 children in Sabaragamuwa Province are deprived of distance learning facilities


The Minister added that students needed to catch up on about 276 hours of work they had missed during the curfew period

Towards the interior, in areas like Morawaka, it has been more-or-less an endless holiday for students


Even though Sri Lanka has a proud heritage of free education from primary to tertiary levels, with a youth literacy rate of 98%, an uneven distribution of distance-learning facilities continues to torment children in rural areas. In a recent interview Education Minister Dullas Alahapperuma revealed that 23% of Sri Lankan households don’t have computers. Even though Information and Communications Technology has been integrated into school curricula, to what extent teachers and students have been trained remains a question. Even with training, the present situation requires teachers and students to work from home. The Minister added that students needed to catch up on about 276 hours of work they had missed during the curfew period. However, while more privileged schools in certain provinces have been able to provide students with educational material, a majority of children from the entire student population have been on a long holiday since March. 

 examined the disparities in distance-learning methods in the country, and how the current situation provides an opportunity to study loopholes and streamline the process. 


Western Province
According to a 2017 Census and Statistics Department report the highest number of 1AB schools—schools with A/Level Science—are in the Western Province. These include international schools attended by children from middle and upper-middle class families. Many schools have been conducting online classes via Zoom and Google Meets and sending homework through WhatsApp. 

But the situation remains grim in many less affluent schools in the Western Province. Around 250 students in Bloemendhal, a Colombo suburb, and surrounding areas attend Agamathi Vidyalaya. “Parents of these children are daily-wage earners and cannot afford smartphones,” said school Principal Sisirasiri Meepe. “So many don’t have access to educational tools. On the other hand, even if they have smartphones and televisions at home, their parents lack awareness. They face many social issues and would rather spend time watching a movie on TV. So it’s unlikely they would give their children an opportunity to watch educational programmes. But we have set up a Facebook account and have sent homework to some parents who have WhatsApp on their smartphones. There’s a smartboard in our school, and a teacher updates all learning materials regularly,” said Meepe. 

For students attending schools in Matugama, a town in the Kalutara District, this has been a long holiday. “Parents of these children endure  many hardships, so how can they afford a smartphone?” asked a teacher who wished to remain anonymous. “As you go towards the interior, many students attend primary schools. Some schools in the town that do have A/Levels may have access to e-learning tools. But to what extent it would be successful remains a question. The students have never been used to distance-learning mechanisms. Even if programmes are aired on television many students are not aware. They should have been trained first,” he said.


Southern Province
There are 410 schools in the Southern Province. A source at the Galle Zonal Education Office, who wished to remain anonymous, said Zonal Education Officers had been instructed to provide students with homework. “It’s been done via mediums like WhatsApp. But since many people don’t have smartphones we have now instructed teachers to handover printed materials to students. So students complete assignments at home and give them to parents. The parents in turn hand them over to teachers. We have also planned a programme for O/Level students who scored well in their exams to keep them occupied. Before we reopen schools we want to provide assignments for these children as well,” the source said 

However, towards the interior, in areas like Morawaka, it has been more-or-less an endless holiday for students. Some students don’t have access to television or radio and cannot even access educational tools that being broadcast. 


Sabaragamuwa Province
According to Sabaragamuwa Province Education Director Sepala Kuruppuarachchi, there are 1,128 schools in the province. However, around 41,280 students in the Ratnapura and Kegalle Districts have no access to a television, while 44,612 don’t have a radio at home. Apart from that, around 75,504 students lack internet or telephone facilities. Therefore, around 161,396 students in the province remain unreached. 


North-Western Province
For children in Panakudawa, a small township in the Puttalam District, the situation is different. A teacher who spoke on conditions of anonymity said only 30-40% of parents had smartphones. “Most students cannot access assignments and homework sent by schools. But there is also a privileged crowd that has smartphones and other facilities. Most underprivileged families in the area were given plots of land by the Church and therefore don’t even have deeds. Children in Grades 10-12 have homework, but there’s no work for primary class children. Apart from that, although timetables have been given for educational programmes aired on TV, practical challenges exist.

Most houses don’t have a TV. Children who have a TV at home don’t get to watch the programmes as desired. Their parents and siblings change the channels to watch what they want. Therefore the child who has homework has a constant battle to watch these programmes. Now they send homework to one person’s phone and expect everyone else to get printouts or photocopies. So we have paper loads of homework to give the children. But whether this is safe remains a question. Because children get the papers after many people have touched it. Likewise, many practical challenges exist,” the teacher said. 


Northern Province
The Northern Province has 1003 schools. According to a 2017 School Census Report, many Northern Province schools there have less than 50 children. However with the coronavirus pandemic, the Northern Province Education Department took many steps to ensure children could access assignments and homework. “We trained teachers to have contacts with frontline contacts like Grama Niladharis and Zonal Education Officers who would pass relevant notes and question papers to them,” said L. Ilaangovan, Secretary of Education, Cultural and Sports Affairs, Education Ministry Office, Jaffna. “Teachers would then pass the materials to parents. We also plan to give programmes shown on TV as CDs, and hard copies for families that do not have TVs at home. Around 43% households in the Northern Province don’t have TVs or smartphones. Students in areas like Vavuniya, Thunukkai and Mullaitivu too have limited facilities. But we are doing our best to ensure that children have access to education without any difficulties,” said Ilaangovan.

Disabled students
A considerable number of students are disabled. Although the country has some way to go in achieving inclusive education, especially in rural schools, some attempts are being made to accommodate disabled students in the classroom. The indefinite curfews meant these children had to remain indoors and engage in home-based learning. But how successful has this been? “Disabled students have had no access to distance learning tools,” said Dinesh Fernando, a sign-language interpreter at the Social Services Department. “Since there are no sign-language interpreters for these educational programmes, disabled students have been left out. They cannot work from home because they need continuous support. There are no education programmes for disabled students whatsoever,” said Fernando. 


Complex situation
A recent Education Ministry survey revealed 40% of students don’t have access to distance-learning facilities.  “This is a complex situation and we cannot provide a solution at once,” Ministry Secretary N.H.M. Chithrananda said. “Discussions are underway to seek the possibility of allocating personal benefits to underprivileged students. But we need to discuss the mechanism in selecting them. However, with the existing pandemic, we had an opportunity to identify the loopholes in the system and improve them systematically,” said Chithrananda. 


Natural experiment
Identifying the need to introduce short-term fixes and long-term solutions to the distance education of school children in time of calamities, the Education Forum in Sri Lanka (EFSL) has initiated a series of virtual dialogues on the theme ‘Distance Education in the time of Calamities and Beyond’. 

“When schools closed on March 12 there was no ICT in schools,” said Dr Sujata Gamage, one of the coordinators of the Forum and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia—a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank who has extensively studied ICT use in Sri Lankan schools. “Except for teachers in some privileged schools, others don’t have WhatsApp or other facilities. Teachers also had to deal with a diverse group of students. In a 2018 survey done by LIRNEasia we found that only 40% of households in Sri Lanka with children aged between 5 to 18 years had an internet connection. The other 60% remain unreached. Only those who have smartphones have access to the internet. But they don’t use the internet most of the time. But one positive is children whose parents don’t have smartphones have colour textbooks. Therefore children from grades 6-11 and even students in grade 13 have textbooks. Even with distance learning, teachers are still used to the chalk and blackboard method. But they are learning. Parents also get pages and pages of homework, and they too are overwhelmed,” Dr. Gamage said.

She added that we had been used to a spoon feeding method in education. But education must be made smarter. “The teacher could use the textbook as a resource and teach children how to refer textbooks. Some subjects require more practicals than theory as they aim at children’s socio-behavioral development. The National Institute of Education organised dedicated educational TV programmes for those sitting for exams since April 22. Therefore the school system is slowly improving. Children should have experiential learning,” she said. 

Dr Gamage further said the pandemic was in fact a natural experiment. “It’s an ideal opportunity to do a good scientific survey on schools. What we need right now is to give homework in brief. With 13 subjects, children have homework in all of them. So we must look at integrating some subjects. Subjects like physical education, geography, citizenship, religion, aesthetics and IT could be brought together. The average teacher would need theme-based learning and teacher associations led by veteran teachers could lead the way in sharing lesson plans. This way we are coaching students to be self-directed,” said Dr. Gamage. 

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