English, Soft Skills, Needed to Make Sense of Digital Education

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A critical component in digital education, that always goes hand in hand with both hard and soft skills (including but not limited to, in the areas of language, public relations (PR) and marketing, negotiation, presentation, communication, team spirit, leadership, etc.) should receive due recognition and inculcated in students during the process of their digital education.

This was stated in a State-Private Sector document dated 7 April 2022, titled, ‘Policy for Digital Transformation of Education’, a joint publication of Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka, Education Ministry, Sri Lanka Association for Software Services Companies (SLASSCOM), Federation of Information Technology Industry Sri Lanka (FITIS) and The Computer Society of Sri Lanka (CSSL).

The policy document found on the ICTA website which proposed 19 ‘key focus’ areas to take ‘digital education’ forward, further expanded as policy proposals, identifying them as Digital Transformation in Education including Disrupting Traditional Norms, Preparing for Future Challenges, ‘Hands-on’ Digital Education for All, Keeping Pace with the 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.

The report further stated that however, “not always, it is understood that soft skills should go hand in hand with hard ICT skills. So, developing soft skills is not considered as a vital part of digital skills training.” To overcome this situation, the report recommended, “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.

English

 Introduce English as a compulsory module in every vocational course of study together with online self-learning English learning applications. Adequate bandwidth and quality in connectivity is a ‘must’ for online education, the report further highlighted.

However, it warned that reliable and effective connectivity is not available island wide. The absence of connectivity is a common issue in many areas of the country. Nonetheless, ‘connectivity’ should not be a luxury for few but a facility available for all students irrespective of their geographical locations and socio-economic conditions, the document outlined.

‘Connectivity for all’ for online education (at affordable costs) should be the Government’s policy. Therefore, policymakers should 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 network should be island wide).

Other recommendations include develop or upgrade national ICT infrastructure for emerging online education requirements. Develop a national policy for Internet access and data usage for educational purposes and provide connections and data island wide, at affordable prices from all the ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

Encourage implementing ‘common centres’ for each village equipped with latest technologies and offer service, based on the requirements; ‘Payment and/or free-of-charge basis.’ And arrange service providers to offer ‘free or affordable’ internet packages island wide, for students and teachers.

Free device

Other policy recommendations are: Provide devices free of charge or at an affordable price for students, provide a suitable device for every teacher engaged in online teaching, provide devices for schools so that children could formulate and share them, arrange educational loan schemes with local commercial banks, for lecturers and students to purchase devices.

Nevertheless, online education, with its inherent constraints, would not be a suitable alternative to traditional classroom education, the report pointed out. Various Issues regarding online connectivity have been raised by students, teachers and parents constantly.  Therefore, online learning should be on par or close to traditional classroom teaching when it comes to the outcome; students should not suffer because of the change of the mode to online, the document advised.

ICTA also recommended that to avoid students and teachers getting tired with the ‘long’ durations of online sessions, guidelines must be in place so that the focus on the teaching process (lectures, practical sessions, etc.) has the right use of blended learning tools. For example, for students pursuing higher education, limit the session duration to one to two hours, the report recommended.

Another recommendation made to avoid ‘learning fatigue’ includes, improve self-learning techniques, and shorten the lecturing time based on curricula. Vis-à-vis vocational education, which the document indicates, is more practical-oriented: it has recommended that all trainers be trained with digital and e-pedagogy skills; All online education (synchronous) programmes be supplemented by Learning Management Systems (LMSs) (asynchronous) in a virtual learning environment, the document emphasised.

Awareness

Other recommendations include technological and broadcasting initiatives introduced by the Education Ministry such as ‘e-Thaksalawa’ must be recognised as national level e-learning platforms and public should be made aware of them. To address the lack of awareness about the programmes, ‘Gurugedara’ and ‘eThaksalawa’, conduct trilingual awareness campaigns using suitable channels such as the mass and social media including the print and electronic media, it said.

However, going by recent experiences, technical difficulties on online education, both from the lecturers’ and students’ ends have been rampant, the report said. Many sessions have been prematurely ceased because of these technical difficulties. To avoid such issues, arrange a hotline with enough support personnel to provide online technical support for practical issues that arise in providing online education, the document advised.

Digital Skills Gap

Other recommendations are, addressing the digital skills gaps of students by creating suitable training content in accessible formats and through practical evaluations. At university level, have specific training programmes targeting the higher education sector and make them mandatory.  Have a Unit in each university to conduct training, introduce new technologies and provide necessary training to other stakeholders, similar to the English Training Units in local universities.

Digital security

Students be provided security in the digital space by being provided with the necessary safeguards. “Children face an increasing threat in cyber space,” the report cautioned. Therefore, every student, at all levels, primary, secondary and tertiary must be protected from cyber threats (or any inconveniences/barriers in the digital space) through the joint efforts by teachers, parents/guardians and school/university/higher education/vocational training institutes and administrators, the document recommended.

In this connection, schools/universities and higher education authorities should maintain close relationships with parents/guardians and immediately attend to any concerns regarding the security of the students, such as by having mechanisms in place where such incidents may be promptly reported to the Police and the National Child Protection Authority. Further, schools/universities and higher education authorities should periodically monitor their systems and take corrective measures against vulnerabilities that some parties may abuse. “Take measures to restrict students accessing blacklisted sites and introduce a ‘Computer Emergency Response Team’ (CERT) for the education sector, are the other recommendations made in this regard.

The digital education process must be environmentally friendly and sustainable with e-waste recycled or disposed with minimal possible environmental impact, for which purpose to have a mechanism to recycle/dispose e-waste, with the guidance of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA), the document emphasised. Among some of the other recommendations made to take digital education forward are, to periodically monitor ‘installed software’ for their relevancy of the courses, usability and/or verify its licence /authorisation for use.

Select the software to be used for learning and administrative purposes through a committee of knowledgeable individuals and, finally, to be recognised by all authorities and stakeholders, including policymakers and implementers, that digital transformation of the education sector should be an ‘implementation priority’, the report concluded.

By Paneetha Ameresekere