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No govt succeeded in laying technological groundwork for e-learning in Sri Lanka: Sajith

ECONOMYNEXT – Successive governments including the previous Yahapalana coalition failed to lay the technological groundwork needed for a hassle-free and equitable transition from traditional education to distance education or e-learning in Sri Lanka, former opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said.

While countries like Singapore have found the switch to e-learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic relatively easy, Sri Lanka is struggling due to disparities in access to information and communication technology (ICT), Premadasa said in an online discussion this morning.

“We talked big about providing computers and IT education to school children, but it wasn’t implemented at the ground level. I’m not making excuses, but in a coalition government, contradictory approaches inevitably resulted in policy stagnation,” he said.

Quoting a recent study conducted by the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) on distance education in Sri Lanka, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) leader said policymakers must consider traditional approaches to distance education such as television, radio and the postal service.

A survey of mobile use in Sri Lanka by LIRNEasia in 2018 which found that only 40% of households  with children aged 5-18 had an Internet connection. More than 90% of these connections are accessed through mobile networks using a smartphone, which as noted by EFL in its report is not the ideal device for e-learning activities.

“Of these households with Internet access, an Online Real Time Classroom experience is enjoyed only by students attending a few select schools. This experience would be for about 1-2 hours per day, with a variety of self-learning educational materials supplementing the online experience. The percent of children receiving such an online classroom experience seems negligible given that even some of the popular schools in Colombo have not been able to provide that kind of experience to their students,” EFSL said.

Premadasa, however, said it was important to forge ahead with the resources available.

“We must also ask ourselves if we’re going to go ahead with what we have, or not do anything at all. We can use TV, radio, the postal service etc in a pandemic..It’s anomalies in implementation that have resulted in this stagnation,” he said.

The former presidential candidate was responding to questions he took from a panel of experts this morning on education reform in Sri Lanka.

Besides e-learning, Premadasa was questioned at length for over two hours about his policy proposals on a number of issues pertaining to education including English-language proficiency, the grade five scholarship exam, sex and reproductive health education, and disparities and systemic discrimination in the country’s decades-old free education system.

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Among Premadasa’s proposals to reinvigorate the country’s education system is to utilise proactive measures in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, working together with both government and non-government donors, locally and internationally, to address weaknesses inherent to the education system.

Stressing that English-language education at all levels was essential, Premadasa said that tribalist thinking going back decades has resulted in the ability to speak English being a luxury afforded to a privileged few.

“While ensuring quality english education for university students, a strong English-language education system must be introduced at the early childhood education level onwards,” he said, emphasising that “correct English” must be taught at all levels.

Quality English-language education is a national obligation, he added.

Responding to a question about the grade five scholarship exam, Premadasa said that change has to take place.

“One must have the necessary political will and determination to embark on such change,” he said.

However, the former MP acknowledged that the exam is seen as a means to provide opportunities to students of rural schools who would otherwise not be able to attend a so called superior school.

“For years now we have had many a programme – the names change with the administration – we had the Navodyda, the Isuru School programmes and al the Langama Pasela Hondama Paasela initiative – none of which have resulted in the creation of “good” schools within the divisional secretary areas that would negate the need for students in the periphery to attend schools at the centre,” he said.

Premadasa suggested expert-consultation to critically examine the grade five issue and any conclusions, he said, must be implemented without political interference.

“We have seen a number of reforms, with large amounts of taxpayer funds spent on these studies, seminars, group discussions etc, but once those decisions are arrived at we have various political and administrative bottlenecks preventing those decisions from being implemented. We have to examine the issue and arrive at a consensus with regard to future steps and implement them without political interference,” he said.

Premadasa also agreed that a single minster would be sufficient to oversee the entire spectrum of education in Sri Lanka, but argued that the reality of parliamentary majority politics dictates that MPs are rewarded with portfolios that ideally shouldn’t exist.

“The education system, the curriculum and teaching must change in a big way. When implementing education reform, someone with high proficiency should be in charge. We must move beyond the framework of a five, six-year parliamentary term and instead focus on long term planning. No one should be left behind,” he said.

Acknowledging that sex and reproductive health is vital, Premadasa deciding at what stage school children must receive that education should be up to experts rather than politicians. However, he further said, religious and cultural sensitivities must also not be disregarded when formulating such reform. Attempts by the previous administration to introduce a sex education text book to the grade 7 curriculum – titled Hathe Ape Potha – drew harsh criticism from sections of the Buddhist clergy.

“Like in any aspect of education, there must not be any political interference in this regard. The Health Education Bureau and similar departments must get involved,” he added.

The former opposition leader went on to say that a task force is needed to identify systemic disparities in free education and implement time-targeted policies as needed.

“There is declaratory policy and there is action policy. When there is a gap between those two, you have a huge problem. You have policy disruption or stagnation. If we narrow that gap, we can meet those targets,” he said.

The online discussion, facilitated by cross-party youth political initiative NextGenSL and moderated by Advocata COO Dhananath Fernando via Zoom, was streamed live on Facebook this morning. The panel comprised policy analyst and Education Forum Coordinator Dr Sujatha Gamage, Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Executive Director Dr Wijaya Jayatilaka, Trinity College former Principal Andrew Fowler-Watt, Open University Senior Lecturer Dr Mahim Mendis, Without Borders co-founder Kavindya Thennakoon, and PickMe Foods Head of Operations Mevan Peiris. (Colombo/May20/2020)

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