In addition to TV programmes such as “Guru Gedera” broadcast through Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Ministers said virtual classrooms have already been introduced through the E-thaksalawa programme
“Minister Peiris said only 12 per cent do not receive online education. Whoever the education officials who provided the minister with these statistics should also be held responsible. Our numbers indicate that only some 40 per cent of students have access to online education. The government’s decisions are based on erroneous data. That is the first fault”
Although the Provincial and Zonal Education offices had eventually given teachers guidance on online lessons, it was a one-size-fits-all-solution
Teachers warn that there will be a great knowledge gap owing to disrupted education
None of the teachers the Daily Mirror spoke to were provided with any financial support to cover the costs of data. Teachers have to bear data costs as well as the costs of having to purchase new devices
On Monday, Minister of Education G.L. Peiris said that online-learning centres will be established in every district to facilitate students who are unable to access virtual learning platforms. These centres would be provided with ten tablets or laptops, and will be staffed to monitor students. During a state media briefing headed by the Education Minister, State Minister of Digital Technology Namal Rajapaksa and State Minister of Women and Child Development, Primary Education and Education Services Piyal Nishantha, the government outlined its ambitions to improve Sri Lanka’s current virtual learning environment to provide access to all students across the country.
In addition to TV programmes such as “Guru Gedera” broadcast through Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, the Ministers said virtual classrooms have already been introduced through the E-thaksalawa programme. The platform has over 6,500 lessons and they are accessed by around 250,000 each day, officials said.
Stressing that there will be no data charges for this platform, the Ministers said it would ensure that students and teachers would be able to access the course material at any time. Minister Namal Rajapaksa said towers are being built to improve network coverage across the island, starting from Ratnapura where several towers are already under construction. A video conferencing pilot project is already underway, while a Learning Management System (LMS) will also be introduced later this month, for some 20 schools under the initial phase of the project.
Meanwhile State Minister Piyal Nishantha said the government is already in discussion with several state banks to help them purchase smart devices at concessionary rates.
In April, the school staff had to collect phone numbers of students and create a WhatsApp group to communicate with students and parents. But then, more than half the students had given wrong numbers or their phones were not working
Easy for teachers, unfair for students
The programme the government outlined is ambitious. Teachers however are not optimistic. One teacher at a state school in Colombo said online education has been a very good experience from a teacher’s perspective. “It’s actually easy to deliver the lesson. We can use a number of teaching tools which the physical classroom doesn’t allow, unless you have a smart board in your classroom,” she said. “These tools have been very useful in showing pictures, videos, so we can explain things better. Students can even resolve certain doubts they would have and I have observed that students are more interactive, especially the primary kids,” she explained. However she added that not all students of her classes have been able to attend classes as a device has to be shared among siblings. “Some households don’t have smartphones, so they don’t have access at all.”
“Other drawbacks of this system is that the teacher cannot really check the students answers and monitor their progress. When it comes to primary kids, we can’t encourage them to improve their handwriting either. Some students are keen and they will keep on learning, but others are at a real disadvantage. They are in trouble even if they attend lessons,” the teacher explained.
When the pandemic struck, at a rural school in Galewela, no academic activity took place until April. “In April, the school staff had to collect phone numbers of students and create a WhatsApp group to communicate with students and parents. But then, more than half the students had given wrong numbers or their phones were not working. So we had no way to contact them. Others didn’t have a smartphone, so they couldn’t be added to a WhatsApp group where we shared all the material and lessons,” one teacher said.
One parent called me and said her phone is broken. The screen of the device has to be replaced. The repair cost is around Rs. 20,000 she said, and she is unable to go to the bank for a loan, due to travel restrictions. So this mother said she will be unable to send the student for classes, until she gets a loan to fix the device
As a result the school decided to focus on the Grade 11 students who were to sit for their Ordinary Level Examination in late 2020. “We basically forced these students to join the class, but it was really difficult. Out of a class of 25 students, only 10 or 11 would show up for the Zoom class,” the teacher recalled. While student participation was minimal throughout 2020, teachers had challenges of their own in this rural school.
“Teachers themselves didn’t have smartphones. Some bought new devices, but conducting a Zoom class with a phone is very difficult. The only thing you can do is speak. Many teachers didn’t know how to even do that. They didn’t know how to share slides. They found all of it very difficult.”
Although the Provincial and Zonal Education offices had eventually given teachers guidance on online lessons, it was a one-size-fits-all-solution, teachers said. “We have to assess for ourselves what our students in our rural schools will be able to do. The guides and activity sheets are sent in PDF format. But some students don’t have PDF readers on their devices and they don’t have the knowledge to install one. They couldn’t get prints either, so we have to send screenshots and guide them through the process,” one teacher said.
“Most of these children come from farming households. They don’t have smart devices and some haven’t showed up for school for months. They use prepaid cards for internet access and that too, they would have to go towards the mountains or some area with coverage. They weren’t able to follow the course work from the comfort of their homes. Even when physical school started mid-year, children were afraid to come to school. So a majority of them have actually missed out on learning,” the teacher said.
In another school in Kandy when school started in 2021, children had even forgotten their ABCs, one teacher said. “You can imagine what it was like for us. We had to start from the basics, with the added pressures of covering the syllabus. Despite our efforts, children had not done anything at home. And since there’s no continuity, whatever they learned, they had forgotten,” the teacher said.
“In this area, families often have five or six kids, with only one smartphone per household. I have 36 students in my class, and even in this suburban area, six students don’t have a smart device at home, let alone a computer. And the 30 kids who do have phones or laptops have to share it with their siblings,” the teacher said. “Although this year, the experience has been somewhat better. Students show up for classes and the interaction has been okay. It’s not perfect. I have noticed that students from Grade 7 and 8 classes interact with teachers during the class. But younger ones and older ones, they never switch their cameras on, and we don’t even know if they are actually present,” she added.
Govt. Decisions based on erroneous data
Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union Joseph Stalin said the government has been too late in introducing distance learning solutions. “Schools were closed due to the pandemic on March 12, 2020. It has taken this government more than a year to make these statements. School children have lost access to education for one year and three months and Minister G.L. Peiris must first of all accept responsibility for this. At least 60 per cent of children didn’t have access to online learning this past year. The government doesn’t have any alternative solution apart from online learning,” Stalin said.
“Minister Peiris said only 12 per cent do not receive online education. Whoever the education officials who provided the minister with these statistics should also be held responsible. Our numbers indicate that only some 40 per cent of students have access to online education. The government’s decisions are based on erroneous data. That is the first fault,” he said.
“A/L students were supposed to be provided with tablets priced at Rs. 26,000 each. They were supposed to provide these free of charge to some 350,000 students. But now they want to provide these through loan schemes,” he added.
The E-thaksalawa platform has some 200,000 students accessing the system for education daily, according to Minister G.L. Peiris. “Suppose these numbers are accurate —we don’t believe it — but suppose they are… Only 200,000 students access the platform out of some 4,300,000 students from Grade 1 to Grade 13 in the school system. So according to the Minister’s data, 4,100,000 students are idling or have no access to this system. This is an absolute joke. This government is only fooling the citizens,” Stalin charged.
Commenting on the establishment of learning centres equipped with tablets and computers where students can learn, Stalin said it will take a long time for respective offices to plan and build this system. “What were they doing for one whole year? These should have been implemented at the first instance when the pandemic struck. We have now reached a third wave and they are just announcing these measures now. Instead, they should focus on a televised lesson system that most children can access and find ways to send learning materials to children at their homes,” Stalin said.
The financial struggles
“The Zonal Education Office has instructed us to make educational videos that can be uploaded on YouTube and the E-thaksalawa platform, so that students can self-study” One teacher from a Colombo based National School said. “But most of my students find it really hard to manage data costs to even cover the classes. How will they do self-studying on YouTube? They can barely cover the cost of a prepaid data card,” the teacher said.
As a teacher, she said, online education is much easier. “But it is so unfair, in so many ways,” she said. “The other day one parent called me and said her phone is broken. The screen of the device has to be replaced. The repair cost is around Rs. 20,000 she said, and she is unable to go to the bank for a loan, due to travel restrictions. So this mother said she will be unable to send the student for classes, until she gets a loan to fix the device.”
The teacher recalled another instance where a mother called her to say that her husband had abandoned her with three kids. “She said she doesn’t even have money to feed the youngest infant, so online classes were the least of her problems. These are parents from Colombo, so I can only imagine what it is like for the rest of the country,” the teacher said.
“As far as the Education authorities are concerned, they are monitoring the situation. They request us for weekly reports, to ensure that we cover the syllabus. They also monitor attendance. But I have several students who haven’t turned up for a single class for the whole year. Only half of my class show up for online Zoom classes. Out of them, only a few interact with others and engage with the teachers. The authorities have requested us details of students who need special attention, so that they can be referred to special needs education. But some of these weak children in my classes, I have had no way of contacting. I fear they will eventually drop out of the school system,” she said.
None of the teachers the Daily Mirror spoke to were provided with any financial support to cover the costs of data. Teachers have to bear data costs as well as the costs of having to purchase new devices. “Since many Internet Service Providers have introduced education packages, we made use of them. It’s a relief to at least have that,” one teacher said.
“Some senior teachers in my school are tech-averse,” one young teacher from Kurunegala said. “They have no idea how to deliver a lesson online. With the help of others, many teachers did learn. But there are some who still have no idea. So the younger teachers end up having to take additional classes. This means additional data costs. To make maximum use of it, a colleague of mine starts classes at 4 am, so that both the students and teacher can make use of the night-time data quota.”
Teachers warn that there will be a great knowledge gap owing to disrupted education. “Countless children have either completely missed out on lessons, or have to share devices with their siblings. This means that the child doing O/L or A/L exams soon will get priority. The other siblings miss out on classes. Not every parent can guide the children through subjects like English, Science or Math. There will definitely be a knowledge gap and these children will suffer the consequences in a few years,” one teacher said.