It’s no secret that over the past few weeks, the education system has been struck with the same plight as every other aspect of ordinary human life. With the Grade Five Scholarship and Advanced Level (A/L) Examinations in sight, the dire need for and lack of distance education for schoolchildren has become apparent.

Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) is responsible for initiating a series of conversations on “Distance Education in the time of Calamities and Beyond”. The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to former Secretary to the Ministry of Education and EFSL Co-founder Tara De Mel for the purpose of understanding the need for modernist methods of education during times of uncertainty.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

Tara De Mel

Q: To start off, explain to us what an online real-time classroom is.

A: It is a virtual classroom – a digital replica of a conventional classroom. The teachers teach and students learn in real time, face to face, but via internet-enabled technology and devices. The classroom with black/whiteboard and other usual props remains. Lessons are taught in real time. Tests can be given. The only difference is an online classroom uses technology to support instruction and learning. A virtual classroom offers more flexibility over a conventional classroom. Teachers can also reach a geographically dispersed group of students at the same time.

Q: What can you say about the percentage of households in Sri Lanka with school going children who have access to an internet connection?

A: The chart (Figure 1) compiled by the think tank LIRNEasia gives a better picture. Only about 40% of students aged 5-18 have access to the internet. Out of this group, about 37% use this via mobile phones, and it’s only 4% or less that use ADSL or wireless internet. Only about 20% of students of this age group will have access to laptops/desktops and less than 3% have access to tabs.

Q: Considering this number, would an internet-based education system be a viable option? If not, what would challenge its applicability?

A: Internet-based education is definitely not a viable option, since as you can see nearly 60% of school going children will be left out. Even the 40% with access to the internet largely use smartphones and its applications. WhatsApp and Viber are certainly not tools to learn lessons from. E-learning is far more sophisticated than that.

Q: Does Colombo stand out in any way in this regard?

A: Not really. Even out of the 350-plus national schools (a sizable group of this number is in Colombo), only a few have been able to use Google Classroom or Microsoft programmes during Covid-19. Unless WiFi access and suitable devices like tabs, laptops, and desktops are available, online teaching is very suboptimal. Besides, during Covid-19 school closure, unless the children and the teachers had personal devices and unless they had internet access in their homes, such online teaching would anyway be impossible.

Q: Needless to say, children staying home during an active school semester is not a fruitful option, just as schools reopening during this outbreak isn’t either. What other options would you suggest to overcome this issue, given that internet-based learning would only benefit a handful?

A: Within a few weeks of Covid-19, the Ministry commenced telecasting lesson material for GCE Ordinary Level (O/L), A/L, and Grade Five Scholarship students – which is good. Yet, they could have started creatively using some commonly available resources like the radio, telephone, and later the postal services for engaging the students.

Teachers started using smartphones to send lesson material in bulk as PDF documents to students via WhatsApp. This didn’t serve much benefit since firstly, social media applications are not meant for bulk material transfer, and secondly students already have their textbooks, so what’s the purpose of sending the same lessons on WhatsApp? Also, parents were expected to fulfil the role of the teacher in decoding the messages they received.

But mostly, what continued aggressively in education during Covid-19 is teacher-centred education; where the students were not allowed to think for themselves and analyse and solve problems. Instead, they had to once again study what was fed to them – and this time via WhatsApp.

Q: What impact would this long break have on various classes of students (e.g. primary, O/L, A/L), and which classes, in your view, would be impacted the most?

A: I would think A/L students would be the most disadvantaged, since the exams could still be held in August; revision lessons in class were also hampered. As for Grade Five Scholarship students, I think it’s a blessing in disguise. Since those 10-year-olds usually have to go through such a lot of tuition and related trauma in the run-up to a highly competitive exam, this is a delightful break.

Q: What lessons has this time taught us that would help curb our system of education in the future?

A: I think there are many lessons. Firstly, Covid-19 exposed our disaster unpreparedness, education-wise. We were totally unprepared to switch seamlessly to distance learning, unlike many other countries that did so swiftly. If we had learnt from the tsunami, floods, rains, landslides, and the multiple disasters we faced over the years, we would have had a plan ready to roll out at the first sign of any disaster.

In addition, we need to speedily fill the gap of internet accessibility. Every successive government has pledged to create universal internet accessibility, but none have been sincere in implementation. We do know that large sums of money are needed for this, but then large sums of money are spent on other projects – not education.



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