Digital Education, Implementation Priority

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It is presumed that in mid-2021 only 60 per cent of the primary and secondary level students had access to online education, a recent document said.

The report titled ‘Policy for Digital Transformation of Education,’ a joint Education Ministry and State-owned Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) production dated 7 April 2022 and released on the ICTA website on 15 May 2022, emphasised that digital transformation of education should be recognised as an implementation priority.

It further said that the unexpected and unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic situation has brought up the weaknesses in the traditional education system to visibility, complemented by poor online teaching coverage led by the lack of connectivity for multiple reasons.

“Online learning, in post-Covid-19, has been seriously criticised for its dearth of equal access. Currently, during lockdown periods, there is no practically viable alternative solution for a student without an internet-connected device. Educational institutions have found out that out the hard way when sizeable sections of students claimed not to have an access device for online sessions,” the document warned.

However, the Government must make online education possible for each child, irrespective of their social and economic backgrounds, making suitable end devices available for them.” ‘One-Device for One- Student’ for online education in the long- run should be the Government’s aim,” it emphasised.

The argument is that students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds are left behind – not having good internet access means no learning, it said.

However, online learning is just another mode of education. But it cannot get away from the bigger issues associated with education, that is a private good. Though many like it to be a public good, it does not behave so. It is competitive, “consumption by one individual prevents access to another,” the report argued.

It is excludable too; education has a cost and this constrains infinite production. Free education makes it available without a fee on selected instances for a selected group of students, but right now that opportunity is not available in online education, where parents have to bear the costs of connection and the end device usage, the document said.

Nonetheless, lack of funds should not be an obstacle in implementing student- centric essential digital education solutions at all educational institutes, the report said. Therefore the funds issue should be addressed through the national education budget, which includes allocations for developing ICT environment in all educational institutes, it recommended.

To solve the funds issue, the document also advised to convert schools, “at least some of them,” to profit centres ,“For the inadequacy of funds at individual institutes to implement digital solutions, implement a white- listed policy for online platforms and promote locally developed platforms such as e-thaksalava, meet.gov.lk. ‘e-thaksalava’ is an e-education platform for students developed by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), while ‘meet.gov.lk.’ is an open source, secured, GoSL, video conferencing platform.

Coping with changing nature of learning

 “Universities must also collaborate with industries through UBL (University Business Link) or explore other possibilities from which funding may be generated,” it said.

“Traditional education systems as we have seen particularly in the post-Covid-19 period are not best equipped to cope with the changing nature of learning,” the report admitted.

Nevertheless, every educational and vocational training institute should have the ideal environment to be conducive to student-centric digital education and they need to be fully equipped with computer labs so that students can be trained, by providing them with adequate and equal opportunities, it said.

All educational institutes must possess the resources (equipment) necessary to create the ideal environment for digital education, the document emphasised. “ Students at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary, may not always find the learning resources for their studies at affordable costs, therefore, all schools, universities, higher education institutes and vocational training institutes must make the necessary learning resources (books, journals, videos, etc.) available to their students for education purposes, the document also emphasised.

“While our wish list is extensive, the ability for the current systems to deliver the expectations is questionable,” the document however admitted. In case a situation arises where students are prevented from learning activities the typical manner, digital education systems should be best used to provide them the learning activities they miss; irrespective of their geographical locations, socioeconomic conditions of their families, etc.

The Government, in the true spirit of ‘free education,’ provide the infrastructure facilities (devices, connections, etc.) as much as possible, enabling students to have continuous and regular education, as close as possible to what could be got from traditional classroom education, irrespective of their backgrounds, the document however argued.

The report also said that a critical component in digital education is that it always goes hand-in-hand with hard skills, soft skills (including but not limited to in the area of language, PR and marketing, negotiation, presentation, etc.). Therefore, the inculcation of these skills too should be given the due recognition and cultivated in students during the process of their digital education, the document recommended.

Among some of the other policy recommendations in the report were to give deliberate focus to integrate activities for inculcating soft skills, including language, PR and marketing, presentation and negotiation, team spirit, leadership, etc. in all curricula including case-based learning.

Introduce English in every vocational course as a compulsory module while introducing online self-learning English learning applications.

Conduct training

In this connection the report recommended to have a unit in each university to conduct training, introduce new technologies and to also provide the necessary training to other stakeholders (just as the English training unit).

Address connectivity issues faced by schools and students (including home reach) by having a policy for every child to have access to low cost, quality data at home and in school. (The coverage of the networks should be islandwide.)

Arrange service providers to offer islandwide free or affordable internet packages to students and teachers. Provide devices free of charge or at an affordable cost for students who cannot afford them.

Provide a suitable device for every teacher engaged in online teaching. Provide devices for schools sothat children share them. Formulate, with local commercial banks, educational loan schemes for both parties (lecturers/teachers and students) to purchase devices.

The report further said that adequate bandwidth and quality in connectivity is a must for online education. However, reliable and effective connectivity is not available islandwide. Absence of connectivity is a common issue for many areas of the country. Therefore, connectivity should not be a luxury for few but a facility available for all students irrespective of their geographical locations and socio economic conditions of families, ‘Connectivity for all’ for online education (at affordable costs), should be GoSL’s aim, the document said.

But going by recent experiences, technical difficulties on online education, both from the lecturers’/teachers’ end and students’ end have been rampant. Many sessions have been prematurely ceased because of these technical difficulties. Therefore, online education activities should run with minimum technical hassle and minimum time waste to students and lecturers/teachers, the report recommended.

Selection of software

The document also recommended that the selection of software to be used for learning and administrative purposes should be executed through a committee of knowledgeable individuals, where the periodic monitoring of the installed software for their relevance for the courses, usability (whether there are advanced versions for instance) and/or licensed/authorised for the use need to be checked and monitored.

The report however warned that every student, at all levels primary, secondary and tertiary must be protected from cyber threats (or any inconveniences in the digital space) through the joint efforts by teachers, parents/guardians and school/university/higher education/vocational training institute administrators.

The digitalisation process in every educational institute should also be sustainable and environment-friendly and the e-waste be properly managed.

Consequent to the fact that the disposal of computer and peripheral equipment to the environment could lead to serious environmental issues in the long run, the digital education process must be environment-friendly and sustainable with e-waste recycled or disposed with minimal possible environmental impact, the report further recommended. In this connection, it said to accept the guidance of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) to have a mechanism to recycle/dispose of the e-waste.

Paneetha Ameresekere