19 September, 2020

Blog

Switching To Distance & Elearning: Too Little, Too Late

By Tara de Mel –

Dr Tara de Mel

With the sudden closure of schools on March 12th, the Sri Lankan education system plunged into a crisis. Overnight teachers had to gear themselves for on-line teaching and other methods of distance education. Meanwhile many countries in the West & East seamlessly switched to e-learning & online education, since their curricula & syllabuses were already posted on the education websites, and e-learning had been practiced interspersed with face-to-face learning in class, even before Coved.

Good example is Singapore, where once a week, e-learning had been a practice for several grades. So, an abrupt and total switch was effortless.

What’s the story with Sri Lanka?

We had a smattering of syllabuses on the National Education of Education website, but they were not available in an organized manner. Besides, internet penetration, PC & laptop usage is still less than 40%, so accessing education material through e-learning has always been very challenging. Whilst pockets of socially more advantaged students were able to access content and material through using the internet, the bulk of the students were left high and dry.

Yet, distance learning through other methods could have been made possible: for instance, using radio, TV, telephone and postal services in innovative and creative methods. These could have started in early March, no sooner the danger of Covid became visible and some countries had already closed schools. 

The Ministry of Education started telecasting lessons for O’Level, A’Level and Grade 5 students. Not the others.  Some schools were selected for the Microsoft google-classroom programs, but again that’s a small number. A significant number of teachers started using WhatsApp/Viber to send bulk lesson-plans in PDF.

But those social media applications are not meant for education tutorials!

In all these scenarios, it was entirely a continuation of teacher-centered education, where students are spoon-fed. There was no opportunity for students to learn on their own, and to creatively put their minds to work.

In the long run however, it is imperative to increase possibilities for self-e-learning. Covid 19 I feel is a blessing in disguise to re-think how educational material & content can be made available for self-learning under any circumstance. Floods, rains, and other natural disasters often cause school closure. In fact, the teacher-centered, exam-driven, spoon-feeding that goes on in class needs to be replaced, and fast. 

The prevailing system only shrinks minds, and doesn’t allow their expansion. It promotes rote learning and regurgitation of facts. It doesn’t make way for analysis, problem solving and creative decision making. 

Our students are bright and yes, we boast of a high literacy. But never do we use that foundation to make our kids world-class.

In the Northern Province, with sparse internet penetration and in the resource-poor 12 education zones, a simple start-up like Yarl IT Hub (http://www.yarlithub.org)has taken education & entrepreneurship to hundreds of students through technology. And the experience from western countries like Estonia (http://ncee.org/2020/04/a-step-ahead-estonia/), is worth reading, by policy makers and those in authority.

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Latest comments

  • 10
    1

    Dr.Tara De Mel is not just a pretty face , sexist though that may sound. She was Secretary at the Education Ministry and undertook many reforms before being scuttled by the coming of the Rajapaksas, who are not noted for erudition.
    It is true that our education system spoon-feeds children, not with real knowledge but enough to get through the syllabus, which itself is archaic and inflexible. So we have apparently literate Cabinet Ministers who believe that foreign money arrives in ships, or we have popular YouTube “experts” like Tissa Jananayake who mixes zoology with “scientific” perforations on how many varieties of gods there are.
    “And the experience from western countries like Estonia (http://ncee.org/2020/04/a-step-ahead-estonia/), is worth reading, by policy makers and those in authority.”
    Dr. Tara, do you really expect people in authority, who don’t even understand the Constitution, to read up on these things? They know everything, you see.

  • 2
    1

    Agree with your comments. Dhammika Perera in a recent interview commended the present minister of education for developing a sound strategic plan. Hope he will succeed in developing a strategy based on the transfer of best practices from India to Sri Lanka.

  • 7
    1

    There is a notion of ego among those who know and they want to keep their knowledge largely to themselves as a means of exerting control…this can apply to teachers and lecturers also. Universities have lectures that have not changed in twenty years and is full of theoretical knowledge that cannot be practically implemented..this has been the case for many fields of education. E-learning has a long way to go in govt institutions..

    • 3
      3

      I do not think that this is accurate.
      Much has changed in university education, although not all of it is to my liking, especially continuous assessment without adequate resources.
      Theoretical knowledge is central to all education. Without it there can be no scientific practice. The point is to make theory interesting and seem relevant.
      I do not think that there is much difference content wise in our degree programmes in Engineering, Medicine etc. and those of some of the best universities. That is why our graduates do very well abroad in research, academia and the profession.

  • 5
    0

    Thank you Dr Tara de Mel for a thought provoking article.

    Distance education and e learning programmes are viable initiatives when the schools are closed during Corona virus lock down. But what happens once the schools reopen and regular class teaching commences?

    I do not think that you are advocating replacement of school education by e learning alone. On the contrary, use of e learning could be useful if it supplements school teaching rather than replacing it.
    Teacher centered education may be harmful, but we must retain teachers at least as a facilitator and to be a role model and to encourage self learning.

    Teacher centered and examination oriented education could be gradually phased out..

    These are far-reaching changes and should be adopted gradually with a leading role from NIE and assisted by all stakeholders.

    I understand Dr Tara De Mel is not an educationist in the accepted sense of the term, but her contribution as a free thinker and as former Secretary, Ministry of Education,but still as an outsider will definitely facilitate out of the box solutions for the problems faced in the education sector in Sri Lanka

  • 4
    0

    Srikrish,
    .
    Tara brought passion and commitment
    to her work as Secretary/ Education. I met her once in Badulla, but, Tara is unlikely to remember insignificant me. You spent about two hours in earnest conversation with somebody more important – in that quadrangle between the two Christian churches, the library, and Uva College, while I had a long chat with Lalith Weeratunga, who was gallantly occupying the rear right seat in the car. Possibility of collisions!
    .
    We talked about the problems of procurement of cassette tape recorders for schools, and how thousands of bulky but flimsy “Yamaha” recorders had been ordered. Some began falling to pieces – quite literally – within weeks. When I was a kid, fifty-five or more years ago, I learnt so much from the BBC – a bit lop-sided because it was teaching myself about the world.
    .
    But then, this is a vast subject, and it needs focus. Tara has already done a lot of work, obviously. The ground situation, maybe, is what I could convey. I responded to this very recent thoughtfully written article by a Peradeniya lecturer wondering how to ensure that her less advantaged students could be reached.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/free-education-in-the-time-of-corona/

  • 4
    0

    PART TWO
    .
    In making a couple of comments I gave links to a couple of things that I had written myself giving details of what it is like from students’ and teachers’ practical problems in getting started.
    .
    Old codger, you suggested:
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/indian-plantation-workers-experiences/
    .
    in the last comments there, that I take a look at the History syllabi – yes, I’ve asked a bit, but there’s apathy to that vitally important subject. We need an overview, but after that it requires some patient plodding – if I can access the material. The British Council too has got webinars going – and my daughter has turned on-line enabler for her five and seven year old daughters. Starts now in many places because it is clear that these restrictions are going to last long.
    .
    I think that I must pick up the courage to contact Zonal and Provincial Directors – impossible to get anything done with the school which is within sight of me for although they have all three media. The situation there, too, is indicative of the secretiveness that Lasantha refers to.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe – aka “Sinhala_Man”

  • 3
    0

    I comment because this article deals with the use of technology to transact education in particular and socio-economic activity in general. Through the columns of CT, I posed a question to a Professor of Electrical Engineering on the use of technology to achieve socio-economic objectives of the community while achieving social distancing. Alas! He elected to use his freedom of speech to discuss abstract politics and any subject other than his own learning and I have to respect his freedom and his choice. The article provides a snapshot on available infrastructure and its usage and stretching such usage to the maximum. Some of my friends of lesser learning than the Professor confirm that the attitude of those who direct the growth of Telecommunication infrastructure of the past and the absence of practical policies have contributed to this debacle. I am told that there are volumes of documents on digitization of the economy but what is the use of it. without infrastructure? One fellow told me that the immediate goal of Sri Lanka in this regard is to cover every inch of the territory with 4G wireless access or Fiber optics or both as means of access. Is it so?

  • 5
    0

    “The prevailing system only shrinks minds, and doesn’t allow their expansion. It promotes rote learning and regurgitation of facts. It doesn’t make way for analysis, problem solving and creative decision making. “
    This was seriously considered in the National Education Commissions report on school education that was published some 4 years ago.
    The Chiarman, NEC had four appointments with the President cancelled before he was given an audience and the President used that occasion to give a long sermon on education than discuss the key recommendations.
    The Prime Minister was more listening, but did nothing as promised.
    Then the NEC’s term ended and a new team took over and the report has been shelved.
    Some recommendations received publicity through interviews with the then Chairman in the Daily Mirror.
    Changes in examination methods and adopting teaching-learning in place of the one way communication of information were dealt with thoroughly. Effectively scrapping the Gr. 5 S’ship exam and de-emphasizing the GCE(O-L) results were key features besides cutting down school years by one.
    Keeping political leaders out of school events was something that some would have resented.

    • 2
      0

      S.J,
      There is a dire lack of general knowledge even among graduates. Once , a school principal, no less, asked me quite innocently why the Sinhala Kings didn’t generate hydro-electricity!

      • 1
        1

        OC
        True.
        A lack of general knowledge among graduates is pretty much universal, especially since university education is about collecting degrees.
        Despite that we still produce good scientists and professionals.
        *
        The school principal’s problem is that he has not grown out of the history that he learned as a child.
        (I can name Tamil doctors who believe in Lemuria.)

  • 1
    0

    Part 1
    This is an excellently written, timely article which needs attention by the educational authorities. As a person, who knows about how Australian education system works, I totally agree with the auto that Sri Lanka is far behind in implementation of e-learning. In my view, this is due to Sri Lanka’s poor Risk Management practices in the both corporate and public sector. I recently even wrote about this deficiency to the Daily FT. The education ministry and schools should have Business Continuity Plans to implement during a crisis. Closure of schools is a scenario that should have been identified in their BCPs and the E-leaning is one of the solutions to manage the risk of not having face to face education programs. That does not mean the teachers have no jobs. They will do a different job during the crisis. To make this happen, they should have pre-prepared plans, allocated resources and trained staff. Also they should test the application of the BCP during non-crisis situation and continue with the application of a truncated version. That is what they have not done.

  • 1
    0

    Part II
    The educationists must find the balance as the face to face teaching is required sometimes to maintain social connection and also to read body language of students to know whether they are under stress etc. Now, Australia is trying to ease the COVID-19 lock out restrictions. However, they are going to call full time school attendance only for the Kindergarten students and the Year 12 (HSC equivalent to GCE A/L) students, because both need direct teacher support now. Rest of the students will attend staggered manner on part time basis with E-learning to fill the gaps. University students are full time e-learning students for years now and COVID-19 only made them to stop attending face-to face tutorial classes. Now tutorial classes are conducted via ZOOM/ Microsoft Teams. So, to me, the solution is the establishment of Risk Management processes into organisational processes and develop & maintain Business Continuity Plans. I conducted a webinar through Institution of Engineers recently to send this message. Hopefully someone in Education Department or Ministry watch to Webinar recording to be posted soon in IESL website and implement the proposals in their organisations as well.

  • 1
    0

    Dr Tara De Mel a glowing personality radiating knowledge to the know-er. She rightly mentioned about the e-Learning and distant learning. Our country missed a hell of a lot in quality of education in the past due to political interference and manipulations and we deserve paradigm shift to expedite it. Now we should praise COVID19 to have given that opportunity to share knowledge base education via web/internet. Ministry of Education has got a gigantic task to reschedule and restructure the curriculum for all grades and upload it in the cloud to be accessed from schools and homes. A monitoring system would ensure that all students will gain the same knowledge equally regardless of their locations. Activities of all the teachers could be monitored and scale their KPIs. So the Dr.Tara De Mel’s vision will be a reality.

  • 0
    1

    Thanks to Dr. Tara De Mel for highlighting the need for alternate forms of education. Implementing E-learning is expensive, and the change-over will take many years, and that too will incur much expense. But Sri Lanka can learn from other countries so implementation will be most efficient.
    *
    Instead of the Gota-GoSL using China-money to build cities, better it will be if they spent it on the alternate form of computer education (that, and traditional organic farms). All the current GoSL needs to do is to provide each student with a computer together with well-developed lesson software. China could be able to provide the software also, except all their lessons will be in Chinese. Buying curriculum lesson software from another place like S’pore will be very expensive. But there must be in-country Lankan software developers who will work within the Lankan pay-scale. Maybe it’s time to ask the US for loans and grants for this.
    *
    At this time, best price of money will be in TV-lessons, where students will follow the regular teacher in students’ own home. Almost every household can afford a TV or two so the different grade-levels won’t clash (different grades can be done at different times for multiple children in a household). Quizzes and tests can be done via computer.

  • 0
    0

    Or if no computer is available, government can provide a mail-collection system so school-work can be sent to TV-teacher to be graded…..papers to be kept for a few days till any covid on it dies. With all the different ideas out there, we hope that Gota will crack the ed. dept. on their heads and get the ball rolling.

  • 1
    0

    PART ONE
    .

    The two links given by Tara in the article show that she has already done a good deal of researching, but since, after 36 hours, we readers haven’t come up with anything tangible, I’ve been emboldened to proffer a few observations which she would be able, hopefully, to tie up with her own initiatives twenty years ago.
    .
    General English for the A. Levels was an initiative that she followed closely. Instead of sticking with school teachers, she got three University Dons to work on it – Drs Manique Gunesekera, Arjuna Parakrama, and Hemamala Ratwatte. The First Part came out in 1999; the completed book in 2001. The book certainly was interesting; parts were recondite, but a practical Teacher’s Guide (basically an Answer Book) helped. I’m not suggesting that we spoon-feed lazy teachers, but its practicality will be understood when we compare with what we now have.
    .
    However, good a text book, it needs replacing or extensive revision after some time. So, a new Text Book, which is said to be “boring ” came out in 2018.
    .

  • 1
    0

    That book was preceded by the Teachers’ Guide. There are 138 pages. All pages present the same problem. The Text Book had not yet been written; when this Guide was compiled, nobody even knew who would be given the contract to write the book. Let’s look at pages 65 and 66. All pages present the same problem really – a good deal of theory, to set the teacher thinking about what teaching involved, but the content totally unrelated to the material to be taught – for the simple reason that the material did not exist!
    .
    http://nie.lk/pdffiles/tg/eALTG%20GenEng.pdf
    .
    I was roped in to do some proofreading (and “polishing” – and could I also contribute ideas?) for about ten days after the writing had been done. See page v. It took me some time to understand why it’s all theory and “Further Reading”. I think that we all did our best, but we were conscious of the absurdity of the undertaking. I don’t think I contributed much of value – there just wasn’t time to get my bearings.
    .
    The Guide is available only on-line; well that’s fine, but I don’t think that anybody consults it.

  • 1
    0

    PART THREE
    .
    A long time later, the task of writing the book was given to a team led by Ms Parvathi Nagasunderam, who is the kindest and most conscientious of persons, and also a very fine teacher.
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbFouXFW1Sg
    .
    As I said, the book has turned out to be boring – I checked this out last evening with some Teacher Educators – the same complaint being voiced by all teachers. I myself had spent about five hours with the book a year ago. This criticism is not of the persons involved, but of the way the “Officials” in the Ministry set about getting it written. It was typical committee work, undertaken, I’m sure, out of a sense of duty by Parvathi who would have been under pressure. The book has no “mistakes” but it is uninspiring – after all who could be inspired working in this fashion?
    .
    Isn’t this analogous to the way in which the Medical Professionals are being directed by Military Personnel in fighting the Coronavirus? We just don’t have people thinking things out for themselves.
    .
    I’ve written more. Putting it on will depend on how useful these observations are felt to be.

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