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Thursday April 18th, 2024

Ensuring equal access to EdTech for all students in Sri Lanka

A student in a remote area trying to connect to the internet for online education

ECONOMYNEXT – The COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in schools across the globe turning to online teaching, has further exposed the gulf between students of rich and poorer families in South Asia. Furthermore, it also highlights gaps in teacher training, especially in the area of technology.

While EdTech companies have stepped in to fill the void through online teaching during school closures, the efforts are patchy at best, and are also mostly available to schools enjoying a better financial status, a webinar titled ‘Restart Through EdTech’ heard.  COVID has resulted in an EdTech boom, with companies enjoying huge market valuations, yet, the panelists of the webinar pointed out that the industry is dogged by questions over the quality of outcomes and the nature of their practice.

Hosted by the Centre for Civil Society India (CCS) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF), South Asia, the webinar held on March 15, 2022, brought together experts from three South Asian countries; Meeta Sengupta, Advisor STIR Education and NISA, India, Omer Faheem, ICT/EdTech professional, Pakistan, and Dr. Tara de Mel, Co-chair, Education Forum Sri Lanka and a Member of the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids. The panelists identified similar challenges experienced in the three countries and discussed the different approaches adopted. The webinar was moderated by the CEO of City Montessori School, India, Roshan Gandhi.

In Sri Lanka, de Mel said, the pandemic affected 4.3 million students. There was an expectation that through EdTech, teaching would continue seamlessly. But that was limited to only a small group; internet penetration across the country is low, and less than 30 percent of students had access to connectivity and the devices to access online learning.  “So, it was mostly WhatsApp education” she said, where students climbed trees or clambered onto rooftops to find a signal. Data packages were too costly, for many.  However, students privileged to study in elite schools faced no such challenges. As de Mel pointed out, “International schools did not miss a single examination or assessment as their students and teachers were well connected online.”

While the panelists agreed on the lack of connectivity, Sengupta pointed out that some areas also did not have electricity.

De Mel said, however, that in 2021 Sri Lanka had seen some improvement with more families being able to purchase a device, usually a phone. Yet, EdTech platforms are lagging behind.  “There are around 20 companies in the sector in Sri Lanka, but they are not at the high level you see in India, Pakistan and our other South Asian compatriots.” This situation in Sri Lanka has been further compounded by the current economic crisis, de Mel said.

 

In Pakistan too, the digital divide was marked, agreed Faheem. “Initially the government funded Public Schools had very little in terms of technology to replace the conventional classroom,” he observed. The elite educational institutions, which make up less than ten percent of the schools in the country switched over early, he said, though the teaching methods left much to be desired. “However, the schools are also businesses, and they had to start the online classes as their activities had to continue.”

In Pakistan, government schools had taken six months to move to online teaching, he added. More than 80 percent of students in Pakistan attend government schools.

Though the EdTech sector has been around in India for a while, it was more in the form of Enterprise Resource Management (ERP), Sengupta told the webinar, adding that it was only when the pandemic hit and educational institutions closed, that school administrations realized they needed IT solutions to continue teaching.

“India has multiple realities in the education sector,” Sengupta said.

While ERPs have been in operation for some time in India, only some are moving into the business of actual teaching, Sengupta explained. “In many cases there is ‘Market Chasing’ as it is called,” a practice that is quite prevalent throughout India, according to Gandhi.

Panelists agreed that EdTech companies are “first and foremost businesses” and their approach to teaching was different and somewhat troubling.

There is a lot of interest in the sector to develop startups, and Sengupta said that there are reportedly “three or four Unicorns” in the field. Unicorn is a term used in the tech sector to describe a startup that has around a Billion USD in funding. According to Sengupta, the approach adopted by companies such as Google and Microsoft to teaching, was better.

There are of course many positives in online teaching methods, as Faheem explained. Subjects such as History and Geography have come alive with the use of games and animation, and such interactive practices have resulted in better attendance in these subjects, he added. The challenge, he pointed out was to train teachers to create and deliver online lesson. Pakistan has trained more than 600,000 teachers on the use of technology and gone even further, separately teaching parents to exercise controls on the phones and other devices their children use for educational purposes.

As de Mel explained, the thirst for online education is great amongst teachers, students and parents, and challenges such as adequate space at home, for children to have unhindered access to EdTech need to be overcome.

“Some families with more than two children may have only two rooms in their home,” she said.

There is also the question of ensuring children of all income levels having equal access to EdTech. Sengupta suggests forming ‘budget’ private schools, (a category of fee-levying educational institutions which are more affordable for mid-income level families), into clusters, as a cost-effective solution providing online learning opportunities for all.

 

De Mel raised another challenge.  None of the Teacher Training Colleges in Sri Lanka or the In-Service Training Centres, she said, conducted courses on digital teaching or learning. “So, when the pandemic hit, our teachers were at sea trying to figure out how they could teach using online methods.”

Pakistan stands out from amongst the three countries in the approach to EdTech, with the State taking the lead in investing in the sector. Faheem explained that the State has selected a number of companies to develop online teaching platforms in line with the government curriculum, and teachers are being trained in its implementation.

EdTech, as the panelists agreed, is here to stay, and educators and this sector must work together for the benefit of the students.

Should EdTech companies be regulated? Both de Mel and Sengupta do not promote government regulation, even though the latter said that there have been stories about such companies exploiting parents searching for digital learning opportunities for their children. While de Mel proposes self-regulation, Sengupta would like to see Consumer Protection laws being applied to this sector as well, so exploitative practices are prevented.

The fundamental question, said Sengupta is ensuring that good education is available to everyone, so all sectors benefit, and that ethical practices are followed. (Colombo/Mar19/2022)

 

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Sri Lanka’s discussions with bondholders constructive: State finance minister

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lankan authorities continue to engage all debt restructuring negotiations in good faith, within principles of equitable treatment among creditors, and with maximum transparency within the norms of such negotiations, State Minister of Finance, Shehan Semasinghe has said.

“It is standard practice, when a representative group of bondholders is formed, to entertain confidential discussions with such group and its appointed advisors. In the case of Sri Lanka, the Ad Hoc Group of Bondholders represents holders controlling more than 50% of the bonds, which make them a privileged interlocutor for Sri Lanka,” Semasinghe said on X (twitter).

“It is well understood that given the price sensitive nature of the negotiations, and according to market regulations, discussions with the Group and its advisors are to be conducted under non-disclosure agreements. This evidently restricts the ability of the Government to unilaterally report about the substance of the discussions.

“The cleansing statement, which was issued on the 16th of April, at the conclusion of this first round of confidential discussions with members of the Group, aims at informing the Sri Lankan people, market participants and other stakeholders to this debt restructuring exercise, about the progress in negotiations. It provides the highest possible level of transparency within the internationally accepted practices in such circumstances.

“As informed in this statement, confidential discussions held in recent weeks with bondholders’ representatives proved constructive, building on the restructuring proposals presented by both parties. During the talks both sides successfully bridged a number of technical issues enabling important progress to be made. Sri Lanka articulated key remaining concerns that need to be addressed in a satisfactory manner.

“The next steps would entail further consultation with the IMF staff regarding assessments of the compatibility of the latest proposals with program parameters. Following these consultations, we hope to continue discussions with the bondholders with a view to reaching common ground ahead of the IMF board consideration of the second review of Sri Lanka’s EFF program.”

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Sri Lanka rupee weakens at 301.00/302.05 to the US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed at 301.00/302.05 to the US dollar in the spot forex market on Tuesday, from 299.00/10 on Tuesday, dealers said. Bond yields were broadly steady.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2026 closed stable at 11.30/35 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2027 closed at 11.90/12.05 percent up from 11.95/12.00 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2028 closed at 12.10/20 percent down from 12.10/15 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.07.2029 closed at 12.25/40 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.03.2031 closed at 12.30/50 percent. (Colombo/Apr17/2024)

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Sri Lanka Treasury Bill yields down across maturities

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Treasuries yields were down across maturities at Wednesday’s auction with the 3-month yield moving down 7 basis points to 10.03 percent, data from the state debt office showed.

The debt office sold all 30 billion rupees of 3-month bills offered.

The 6-month yield fell 5 basis points to 10.22 percent, with 25 billion rupees of bills offered and 29.98 billion rupees sold.

The 12-month yield dropped 4 basis points to 10.23 percent with 18.01 billion rupees of bills sold after offering 23 billion rupees. (Colombo/Apr17/2024)

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