Govt. Needs to Invest in Digital Education

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The Government, in the true spirit of free education, should provide infrastructure facilities such as online devices and internet connectivity, to a great extent, enabling students to have continuous and regular education, as close as possible to traditional classroom education, irrespective of their backgrounds, a recent Government publication stated.

The document dated 7 April 2022 and titled ‘Policy for Digital Transformation of Education’; a joint publication of Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka (ICTA), Ministry of Education, Sri Lanka Association for Software Services Companies, (SLASSCOM), (Federation of Information Technology Industry Sri Lanka, (FITIS) and The Computer Society of Sri Lanka (CSSL), highlighted in their policy recommendations that the lack of funds should not be an obstacle in implementing the student-centric essential digital education solutions at all educational institutes.

 “Address the ‘funds issue’ through a national education budget which includes allocations for developing ICT environment in all educational institutes,” the report recommended. Other recommendations are to convert schools, at least some of them, to profit centres for delivering ICT education to the community to ensure self-sustainability; to implement digital solutions for the inadequacy of funds at individual institutes; to implement a white-listed policy for online platforms and promote locally developed platforms such as e-thaksalava and meet.gov.lk. Universities must also collaborate with industries through UBL (University Business Link) or explore other possibilities, it further recommended.

“In a rapidly changing and interconnected environment, it is essential for education systems, be they schools, vocational or higher education institutes, to provide students with adequate competencies to cope with social and professional realities in the 21st century,” the publication emphasised.

It added that the report was the direct outcome of the opinions, views and ideas expressed during a workshop series with a special focus on the concerns prevalent in schools, universities, vocational and other higher educational institutions and discovering ways to address them.

19 Takeaways

The policy document as per the ICTA website proposes 19 key focus areas, including the above, coupled with policy directives to achieve the expected digital transformation of education. Some of the key areas highlighted in the policy include the digital transformation of education, hands-on digital education, keeping pace with the industry, creating a digitalised environment for students along with resources, self-learning, learning management systems, security in digital space and skills development of students, administrative staff, teachers and parents.

Those 19 key focus areas subject-wise are Digital Transformation in Education including Disrupting Traditional Norms, Preparing for Future Challenges, ‘Hands-on Digital Education for All, Keeping Pace with Industry, Digital Environment for Students, Resources for Digital Education, Learning Management Systems, Self-Learning, Soft-Skills Development, Management of Information Systems, Digital Administration Skills, Facilitating Online Learning, Teachers’ Skills, Students’ Skills, Security in Digital Space, Informed Parents, Sustainable Digitalisation, Software Use and ‘Priority for the Transformation Effort’, respectively.

As the Information age requires knowledge -based professions to have human capital that can take on complex challenges and adapt to flexible skill sets to changing demands, the education systems should be strong enough to deliver them, the publication stated. From the supply side, it is equally essential that the teachers and administrators are provided with the right tools to meet that demand.

“High quality and equitable education are key components in the acquisitions of the key competencies for lifelong learning, thus a priority for policymakers and policy implementers,” it stated. Traditional education systems, particularly in the post-Covid-19 period, are not best equipped to cope with the changing nature of learning.

Changing demands on learners and their competencies and the need for new ways of teaching and managing complexities can be handled only by new thinking. This calls for an education policy reform that is focused on ensuring the facilitation of innovative learning environments that can nurture the development of 21st-century skills.

Educational innovation, i.e., “any dynamic change intended to add value to the educational process and resulting in measurable outcomes, be that in terms of stakeholder satisfaction or educational performance” is required to create meaningful educational environments that match the needs of students and teachers alike, stated ICTA.

Weaknesses

While the wish list is extensive, the ability of the current systems to deliver the expectations, ipso facto, is questionable. The unexpected and unprecedented pandemic situation has brought up the weaknesses in the traditional education system to visibility, the ICTA publication stated.

Online learning, in post-Covid-19, however, has been seriously criticised for its dearth of equal access. Nonetheless, during the lockdown periods and currently, there is no practically viable alternative solution for a student, without an internet-connected device, the document indicated.

Educational institutions have found out the hard way, where sizeable sections of students claimed not to have an ‘access device’ for online sessions. The argument is that students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds are left behind – not having good internet access means no learning. It was assumed that in mid-2021, only 60 per cent of primary and secondary level students had access to online education.

Howbeit, online learning is just another mode of education. Further, it cannot get away from the bigger issues associated with education which is a ‘private good’, while many like it to be a ‘public good’ and it does not behave so.

It is competitive; consumption by one individual prevents access to another. It is excludable too; education has a cost, and this constrains infinite production.

Though free education makes it available without a fee on selected instances for a selected group of students, right now, that opportunity is not available in online education, where parents have to bear the costs of connection and end device usage.

Against this backdrop, the policy proposes, with the participation of education administrators, professionals, principals, teachers, heads and lecturers at vocational training institutes, professors, other lecturers and higher education officials and Industry specialists, of introducing a policy for ‘Digital Transformation of Education’.

Education, be it primary, secondary or tertiary, though disrupted by digitisation, at the same time, also benefits from digital transformation. Digital education keeps pace with changes and advanced developments taking place, complemented by the best use of new technologies, trends and applications, the report stated.

Students receive an updated and advanced education that trains them to take up the challenges of the contemporary job market; locally and internationally, via digital education.

The teaching/academic staff, at every school, university and institute should be professionally qualified and experienced in teaching ICT-related subjects. They must keep pace with new technological developments, industry trends and frequently advance their teaching methods to incorporate them in the education process so that the students receive a complete, advanced and up-to-date education, the report observed.

Computer Labs

Also, every school, university, higher education and vocational training institute, should have the ideal environment to be conducive to student-centric digital education. They should be fully equipped with computer labs so that the students can be trained, providing them with adequate and equal opportunities.

Students, be it at primary, secondary or tertiary levels, should be able to find the necessary resources for their studies (such as books, journals and videos), at affordable prices. The resources should be of high quality and up to date.

Every school, university, higher education and vocational training institute, should use Learning Management Systems (LMSs) ‘to their best’ in the process of education. ‘Digital Education’ cannot and should not be constrained to the classroom, but students should be encouraged to do their self-studies, improving their knowledge in the core subjects as well as other related subject areas, to be competent digital professionals of the future.

A critical component in digital education, that always goes hand in hand with hard skills, soft skills (including but not limited to, the areas of language, public relations (PR) and marketing, negotiation and presentation) be given due recognition, and cultivate students in this discipline during the process of their digital education.

Also, a fully-fledged ‘Management Information Systems’ be used for the administration of every school, university, higher education and vocational education institute, instead of conducting such tasks manually. Further, administrators at every school, university, higher education and vocational training institute, should be conversant with the digital skills necessary to handle the systems and applications they need in their day-to-day operations.

In case of a situation where students are prevented from learning activities, the ‘typical manner’, digital education systems should be best used to provide them with the learning activities they miss, irrespective of their geographical locations and the socioeconomic conditions of their families.

The teaching/academic staff, including trainers and teaching assistants, be fully conversant with digital technologies and systems they use as teaching tools. Also, they should be fully equipped with the necessary digital tools and applications, be they hardware or software, for teaching purposes.

Also, all students must be competent in handling digital tools for their ‘distance education’. Further, teachers and relevant authorities should provide students with security and necessary safeguards in the digital space including an understanding of its vulnerabilities.

Parents should be well aware of the need for digital education and build a conducive environment at home. The digitalisation process in every school, university, higher education and vocational training institute, be sustainable and environmentally friendly with effective e-waste management.

Software used by each school, university, higher education and vocational training institute, both for learning activities and management be useful, relevant, up to date and licensed for use (unless in the case of open-source products).

Among some of its key policy recommendations are for the Ministry of Education and all other related educational institutes to identify the need for digital transformation and to become an integral part of it. Accordingly, it has been proposed that the Ministry of Education and all Government educational institutes, identify and incorporate the need for digital transformation in their strategic and action plans.

Furthermore, it also emphasises the importance of maintaining close links with the Ministry of Technology, ICTA and other relevant organisations (e.g., Telecommunications Regulatory Commission Sri Lanka) to effect the implementation process for the digital transformation of the education field. (Next Week: Address ‘Resistance to Change’ to Digitised Education)

By Paneetha Ameresekere