Electricity sine qua non for online education – ADB

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Stable access to electricity is crucial for digital devices and stable Internet and ongoing long power cuts need to be resolved urgently, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a recent report said.

The ADB in this report titled ‘Sri Lanka: Progress and Remaining Challenges in Online Higher Education during the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and dated 24 May 2022 further said, challenges in access to digital devices and stable Internet remain, especially for students from low income households.

Limited access to digital devices and stable Internet remain key challenges. Smartphones and mobile broadband networks continued to be the main instruments to access online higher education in Sri Lanka and there was no significant shift to computers and landlines during the pandemic, it said.

Students from poor households or remote areas struggle the most. Poor Internet connection and lack of access to digital devices remain key challenges in Sri Lanka’s higher education sector, the report emphasised.

It further said, after nearly two years of online higher education, students have shown fatigue due to limited interactions with students and academic staff, extended screen time, lack of practical sessions, large volume of online assignments, and online proctored examinations.

“The quick transition from traditional face- to- face teaching to online was challenging for both students and academic staff,” the survey report added. “Access to digital devices and the Internet, conducting practical sessions and examinations were the major challenges in online higher education, among other things,” the ADB report further said.

“Stable Internet access was another remaining challenge for quality online higher education. This is because nearly two thirds of students from State higher education institutions still relied on mobile broadband after two years of Covid-19,” ADB said.

Complementing these findings, many higher education students still rely on smartphones for tasks needing laptops or desktops and a landline connection, the report said. Low income students and students living in remote places have struggled most, it said.

Female students are less likely to have desktops or laptops than male students, but low household income is a greater barrier to owning a computer. The Government has provided a student loan scheme for university students, but only four per cent of student respondents in this survey availed it to acquire devices, as shown, the document said.

The laptop loan scheme could be improved to match current, higher laptop market prices and expand eligibility to students from non-State higher education institutions. In addition, poor students tended to share devices among other family members. Landline connections were generally not affordable for students from low income families. In the lowest income group, five out of 10 students experienced poor Internet quality, while only one out of 10 students in the highest income group experienced the same, it said.

Meanwhile, students from large households had to share their devices with other family members, the ADB report said. Among small households (three members), only 41 per cent shared their devices, while among large households (seven members or more), 68 per cent of them shared their devices, it said. One student lamented: “It’s difficult to pay for online learning as it (is expensive) and as my siblings study (using) the same phone, it’s too difficult to manage. I humbly request to provide us a laptop for monthly payment.”

Although students could continue free access to university web servers and learning management systems, nearly 40 per cent of students spent less than Rs 1,000 (less than USD 4) per month for the Internet. “Student investment in landline and mobile broadband is insufficient to complete homework or conduct research activities. Many students could not afford to pay for Internet connection and digital devices, with about 30 per cent of students responding that affordability of Internet access was a challenge,” the ADB survey said.

But, the low investment in landline access seems puzzling. Online education can reduce or even eliminate the cost of transportation, boarding fees, clothing, and meals outside the home. These cost savings exceed the cost of Internet services, the report said.

Indeed, one student from a State higher education institution said, “This (online education) is a great opportunity (for) poor students because (it) doesn’t have any charges and we want to consider (spending only for) Internet connection.”

However, many students do not invest much in landline access probably because students consider this online higher education setup as temporary, thus, they hesitate to pay the higher fixed cost of Internet subscription, it said.

Growing uncertainty due to the rising cost of living and delayed scholarship provision might also discourage students from investing in Internet access and digital devices. As one student said, “We are facing many financial problems in online learning. Because we have to get printouts,’ A4’ bundles, data packages, device repairing, etc.,” the report said.

Associated with family income level, access to devices and the Internet was challenging in socioeconomically disadvantaged districts. The use of desktop or laptop computers was 54 per cent for students in rural areas, 42 per cent in estates, and 75 per cent in urban areas. Districts in the North and East had particularly high rate of smartphone use for online higher education.

In addition, 22 per cent of students in urban areas experienced poor Internet connection, while this ‘value’ was double in the rural and estate areas. Internet quality was the worst in the Hambantota District (59 per cent with poor connectivity), followed by Vavuniya (56 per cent), then Nuwara Eliya (53 per cent), it said.

“In general, students in higher education institutions are in a slightly better situation than the general population, as they are likely to come from relatively well- off households in Sri Lanka, but access to online higher education is challenging for many students, especially those from low income households,” the report emphasised. Unsurprisingly, students from low income families have suffered the most, it said.

“Students from non-State higher education institutions come from relatively well- off households and can access better devices and the Internet for online higher education,” the ADB survey report further said. Students from non-State higher education institutions also had slightly higher access to landline Internet than students from State institutions.

Compared to the June 2020 survey (see below), the share of students using mobile broadband connection decreased slightly, while the share of students using landline Internet had increased somewhat. This however implies that even if students have laptops, many students use ‘mobile hotspot’ for Internet access, the report said.

National statistics in 2020 also showed that only 22 per cent of the general population aged 5-69 used desktops or laptops to connect to the Internet, while 75 per cent used smartphones, the report further said.

Unsurprisingly, however, online higher education could not completely substitute for traditional higher education delivery. For instance, practical sessions and online examinations were relatively hard to provide online. The prolonged pandemic forced long screen times that could damage mental and physical health, resulting in student fatigue, the report warned.

Long screen times could affect the mental and physical health of students and faculty members and lack of practical sessions diminished student satisfaction, it said. Consequently, about 46 per cent of faculty members tried to address this limitation by uploading recorded videos and study materials, while 31 per cent gave detailed instructions for students to practice on their own, the report however said.

The faculty and university administrator data also confirmed that nearly all faculty members had provided online learning to their students during the Covid-19 pandemic by the end of 2021, it said. The total number of faculty members in 2020 was 6,525 in State higher education institutions. It was also confirmed that more than 6,000 faculty members were using Zoom in October 2021. These videoconferencing tools such as Zoom became the main instrument for conducting online higher education through learning management systems, the ADB survey report said.

“Nonetheless, the efforts made by faculty members did not necessarily translate into student satisfaction, because online higher education could not completely substitute for hands-on practical sessions,” ADB said.

Howbeit, the pandemic laid the strong foundation toward blended learning for post-pandemic higher education, the report said.

Blended learning was a preferred option for faculty members (83 per cent) and for students (59 per cent). Some students (18 per cent) even preferred 100 per cent online higher education delivery, the ADB survey said.

Meanwhile, providing greater provision of courses in certain areas, delivered in person or online, might be able to ease student concerns, it said.

In addition, students (78 per cent) strongly believed that massive open online courses such as ‘Coursera,’ ‘edX,’ ‘FutureLearn’ and ‘Udacity’ would increase their professional skills for employment, the ADB said. Nevertheless, only 31 per cent of students have enrolled in such courses between 2019 and 2021, the ADB survey said.

Different Pedagogy

This might also have implications on learning loss. Social interactions through online platforms were also challenging and student satisfaction with online higher education has dropped from June 2020. Online higher education thus requires a different pedagogy than face- to- face classroom teaching, and further strengthening of teacher training in online pedagogy could be considered to promote blended learning.

Moving forward, Sri Lanka could aim to transition its digital higher education into the next stage such as accreditation of online courses and development of curriculum and pedagogy for blended learning by building on international good practices and online higher education during the pandemic, the report further said.

The pandemic has forced students to learn online and they are now getting used to online higher education. ADB further said, the above results are based on a second online higher education survey it conducted in November-December 2021 with the support of the Finance Ministry and the University Grants Commission to better understand the progress, persistent challenges, and perceptions of different stakeholders.

(See also the article published under the heading ‘Online learning programme for u’grads – ADB’ published in Ceylon Today’s 17 September 2020 edition, for details regarding ADB’s first ‘Online Higher Education’ survey).

By Paneetha Ameresekere