Survey finds Difficulty in Online Learning Experienced by Sri Lankan Students

By Tharushi Weerasinghe “Sunday Times” 06th September 2021

Half of all students have been left out of education since pandemic

More than half of the Sri Lankan student population has had no access to education since the pandemic hit. According to research conducted by the Education Forum, only 45 percent of the student population had access to online education, leaving 55 per cent of Sri Lanka’s children behind.
The survey, conducted in November 2020, revealed that on average teachers were able to give real-time classroom experience using software such as Zoom to only 5 per cent of their students, and another 40 per cent were contacted via social media. “Most lessons were just messages, assignments and PDFs that were shared through WhatsApp,” said Dr. Sujata Gamage, policy researcher and co-coordinator of the Education Forum.
She said policy-makers should have noted that simply shifting classrooms to Zoom would not be a viable solution. “Policies targeted at the richer middle-class do not work for the poorer communities who are almost always off the radar.” Experts even argue that online education was doomed to fail before it even began.
A LIRNEasia survey in 2020 found that only 48 per cent of households with children had access to a smartphone or a computer and only a third of households with children had an internet connection. This (34 per cent) is on average: poorer, rural households are systematically worse off as the number drops to 21 per cent in the lowest socioeconomic group households.
A focus study conducted in Gampaha during Sri Lanka’s second pandemic lockdown last year interviewed various stakeholders. One of the co-authors of the study, which was published in July 2021, Gayani Hurulle, Research Manager at LIRNEasia, noted that lack of devices and connectivity issues were just the tip of the iceberg. Even when a household did have a device, this was in high demand between working parents and multiple children needing to log into class. When parents had to leave home for work, some students would have no device at all and be unable to follow classes in real time.
We devised a system where we informed the children that we will start around 4am and also teach after 8pm so they were able to follow the lesson,” one government school teacher said. The absence of updated contact information also made it harder for teachers to create their lines of communication. “It took us about 2 weeks for us to get the contact numbers and addressed in order. At the end we had to seek help from students. They would get us numbers from their friends.” “Getting online is a challenge, but once you do, then you have a whole load of other problems that come up,” Ms. Hurulle noted. Their study found that adopting to technology was difficult for the more senior teachers, and in some households, the grandparents or maids who are left to assist the children with their lessons did not know how to.
Safety online was another concern for parents that understood the dangers on the internet, but this too was a stumbling block as parental controls on devices sometimes blocked sites that students need for their learning. These, combined with the chalk and talk style of exam-based learning pattern existent in the current system then led to increased amounts of Zoom fatigue, and the deterioration of children’s socio-emotional growth often resulted in more children logging off as classes progressed.
Even when schools did re-open at short intervals, parents of poorer communities were faced with more obstacles. “Even when schools started I just couldn’t send my children to school,” said one working mother of four from Kegalle. She could not afford to replace the rapidly depleting bottles of sanitiser or meet the daily mask purchases required of students.
Access to education was a disproportionate challenge earlier: the pandemic just made it more pronounced,” one social worker told The Sunday Times. Online classes have, in any case, now been stalled temporarily over teacher demands for better wages. “The focus of education from Grades 1-9 should not be on covering the syllabus,” insisted Dr. Sujata Gamage, who holds that an “emergency curriculum” or an “abridged curriculum” should have been introduced the way it had been done in Bhutan in May 2020. She believed the focus should be on cumulative subjects such as Mathematics and Language and that other subjects should be disseminated to the students thematically.
“Our system of learning was not successful to begin with but the shift online has made its unsuitability more apparent,” she said. Countries such as Finland teach subjects such as history and geography in what is known as a “phenomenon-based learning” method.

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