Distance Education during and after COVID-19: Long Road Ahead for Sri Lanka

In what has been recognised as the world’s largest educational crisis, the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in a record number of students being forced to stay away from schools and universities. According to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, at the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in mid-April 2020, over 190 countries had implemented nationwide closures, affecting more than 90% of the world’s student population.


Interruptions to education can have long-term implications, beyond mere losses in learning, including increased dropout rates, loss of nutrition, and reductions in future earnings – the effects of which are disproportionately experienced by the more vulnerable. Deepening inequalities is particularly concerning at a time when economies are embarking on the decade of action to meet the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the overall aim of leaving no one behind. Providing equitable access, however, is not enough; the SDG focusing on education also stresses the importance of ensuring “quality education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.” Achieving such goals becomes all the more challenging in a distance learning environment.


Sri Lanka is no exception to these realities; the country shut down schools and universities nationwide on 12 March 2020, with alternative means of education being carried out in various capacities. Although a gradual reopening of schools was initiated in early-July, this week has seen a temporary closure again, amidst concerns of a possible second wave. This blog examines the effectiveness of distance education in Sri Lanka, from the perspectives of inclusion and quality, and explores policy measures that can deliver and sustain more equitable and effective learning outcomes, beyond COVID-19.


Inclusiveness of Distance Education


In many Sri Lankan public schools, learning during the pandemic has mostly occurred via online channels, with teachers sending large volumes of material as PDF documents to students via WhatsApp and Viber. However, recent survey data indicate that in 2018, only 52% of Sri Lankan households with school-aged children owned a smartphone or computer – essential for online learning – and only 40% had an internet connection, primarily via mobile phones (Figure 1). This means that less than half of all households in Sri Lanka can benefit from e-learning opportunities.



There has also been limited use of other distance education channels, such as television and radio, to which students in rural areas have relatively more access (Figure 2).



Quality of Distance Education


Teaching online requires specialised skills such as knowing how to conduct classes in a virtual environment, the training for which is currently lacking in Sri Lanka. Distance teaching also necessitates equipping students with tools to learn independently – as opposed to note-dictating methods – in the absence of face-to-face interaction. Apart from problems with the bulk transfer of material and difficulties associated with reading and absorbing content from a phone screen, the current practice of sending large volumes of material via WhatsApp and Viber is problematic, as it reinforces teacher-centred education, where students merely absorb what is spoon-fed to them. In such a setting, achieving effective and relevant learning outcomes is difficult.


Way Forward


Given uncertainties surrounding the complete eradication of the COVID-19 pandemic and the possible occurrence of future crises, distance education might be here to stay. Sri Lanka, therefore, needs to take rapid and decisive action in improving the delivery of equitable and quality remote learning opportunities. Below are some policy measures that Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Education can consider, drawing from international examples where relevant.


Safeguarding Education Equity


The eventuality of continuing with online education in the future calls for increased accessibility to online platforms by lowering associated costs and building infrastructure. However, a more dedicated effort to expand other forms of distance learning is also crucial to reach the poorest students. Efforts taken by the Kerala State Education Department to ensure that all children are engaged in learning, provides a good example. Online classes are made available on a government-run education channel and YouTube, while a microfinance scheme has been set up to provide 120,000 laptops to those who lack them. Online lessons are also broadcasted on a dedicated television channel to cater to students without access to the internet and devices. Additionally, to reach students’ households where no televisions are available, the State plans to set up 50,000 ‘Neighbourhood Study Centres’ in selected localities resourced with a television, through which educational programmes can be aired. These efforts are also supplemented by textbooks and printed material delivered to students’ homes.


Improving Education Quality


An optimistic view argues that COVID-19 has disrupted an education system that was already losing its relevance, thereby presenting an apt opportunity to bring about critically-needed education system transformations, particularly in the context of the emerging technology-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Online education can take the lead in creating more effective methods of teaching and learning, including avenues for teachers to engage in collaboration and professional development, and fostering independent student learning and a wider range of cognitive, social, and emotional skills which the 4IR demands. This is an important opportunity for change in Sri Lanka’s content-heavy examination-focused education system.


Such a transformation calls for substantial revisions to teacher training programmes to include content on best practices in online and other distance teaching methods, based on well-researched evidence. Public-private partnerships are also key in providing technical guidance. The Chilean Education Ministry, for example, collaborated with Google and Fundación Chile – a technology company focusing on technology innovation and implementation – to provide access and technical support to assist teachers in organising course content, grading assignments, and communicating with students.


Leveraging the Dividend in Innovation


Moreover, to capitalise on opportunities presented by COVID-19 to build-back-better, factors contributing to past successful innovations need to be examined, looking at how such capacity can be sustained going forward. For example, Sri Lanka’s positive experiences with virtual and blended learning in smart classrooms need to be promoted and further expanded. Doing so calls for a substantial boost in education-research budgets from existing meagre levels, while mobilising support for innovation requires strong communication – by all education stakeholders – of the need for change, via policy forums, awareness campaigns, and media outlets.