Sri Lankan educators fear virus might bring about new divides

Forced to shift to online platforms due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sri Lankan educators fear that the uneven access to gadgets and internet connection among students might bring new divides in the country’s free education system.

Ever since Sri Lanka reported its first local case of COVID-19 on March 10, public health authorities have been on high alert. With frontline health workers and the military leading the fight against the virus, the country went into curfew for nearly two months, simultaneously shutting its airports and ports to visitors.

Schools and universities have remained closed during the time, swiftly opting for online tools and platforms to continue with the academic calendar. Wasting no time, authorities issued gazette on the subject, while the University Grants Commission (UGC) wrote to all vice-chancellors in March, asking them to “minimise the damage to this academic year”, by adapting to online platforms. The UGC also offered free access to online resources for all university students and faculty members.

However, it wasn’t all that simple. Not all students owned devices or had access to good internet connections in their hometowns. In a survey conducted by the Faculty of Arts at the University of Colombo, of the 50% of the students who responded, half did not own a large-screen device. Though smartphones were prevalent, not all had easy access to the internet, according to Kaushalya Perera, senior lecturer in the Department of English. “Most students have gone home. Many have poor or irregular signal coverage in their areas,” she told The Hindu.

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, over 4.2 million children are in Sri Lanka’s school system, while over 100,000 are in the national universities, as per UGC data. The public education system, which a majority of students goes to, does not charge a fee up to university. There is no official data on students’ access to smartphones or other devices, but educators estimate it to be significantly lower compared to overall smartphone penetration.

Mobile broadband connections, often linked to smartphone usage, was over 5 million in early 2018, Sri Lankan news website Economy Next reported. However, 4G coverage is not even in all parts of the country, particularly in the central hill country and smaller towns. Further, data charges are lesser during the night and early morning, compared to rates during the day.

Some students requested Mahendran Thiruvarangan, who teaches at the Department of Linguistics & English at the University of Jaffna, to hold online classes early in the morning, when mobile data is cheaper. “We may upload the readings, but students need good internet coverage to access them and attend an online class.”

Poor signal

One of his students in Akkaraipattu, in the eastern Ampara district, often complained of poor signal. “Also, not all students live in big homes with separate rooms to have quiet and privacy while attending a class. We have to be mindful of these challenges that students face, especially those from modest backgrounds,” Mr. Thiruvarangan said.

Some students are engaged in part-time work to support their parents who may have lost their jobs during the pandemic and find it hard to keep up with online classes, according to Sivalakshan Ganesan, who is studying Engineering Technology at University of Sri Jayewardenepura.

“My friends living in areas like Badulla, Kurunegala, don’t have signal strength near their homes. Some even travel to the nearest towns to be able to download material or attend class. Our education system is free, but coronavirus is creating a situation where only those of us who have money can continue learning,” he said.

Even students with access to gadgets and a good internet connection have other problems — from the strain of reading textbooks on smart phones, to managing with fewer digital textbooks in Sinhala and Tamil, as compared to English, teachers noted. At times, the process is very stressful for teachers and students, according to David Suren, who teaches A-level [correspondents to class 12] students at a school in central Matale city in Sri Lanka’s Central Province. About half of the parents of children in his school are employed in the tea estates, braving low wages and strenuous working conditions.

“Many of them have only recently bought smart phones to ensure their children can continue their education. But sadly, tuition teachers are also exploiting the situation and charging heavily for online coaching,” Mr. Suren said. “Frankly, as a teacher I feel we can spare the younger children for a few months until regular classes resume. Our system has denied them their childhood and maybe this is an opportunity for them to just explore on their own.”

Students with disability have specific needs that online resources may not fully address, Ms. Perera points out. “It’s a steep learning curve for us teachers too. Some are enjoying it, but this shouldn’t be done at the cost of leaving some students behind.”

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