Shifting away from traditional methods of learning in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) paired with a pandemic, is changing models of education utilized by Sri Lankan schools. Students across the island are experiencing learning in digital spaces – a world of education once unfamiliar to previous generations. Despite the unfamiliarity with the “new-age” technology unencountered by humankind till now, parents and teachers have taken to the internet to facilitate learning through various means; from virtual learning environments to downloadable resource packs.
With news of the Education Ministry scheduling for a meeting on the 25th of May 2020 to discuss when schools are to reopen, webinars facilitating conversations between educators, students and parents to discuss the changes they have experienced are already underway.
Last Friday evening, a panel discussion hosted by IgniterSpace and ReadMe was set to address the big question “Will the way our kids learn CHANGE after COVID?”. The dialogue between Harshana Perera, Principal of Asian International School, Malithi Jayatisse, Directress of Leeds International Schools, Budhika Pathiraja, Principal of Alethea International School, Jehan Wijesinghe, co-founder and CEO of IgniterSpace, Nuwan Dissanayake, founder of SL Democratic Education Community, was moderated by the co-founder of ReadMe, Enosh Praveen.
The dawn of tech-based education and what does it mean for educators?
It was unanimously agreed by the panel that the way forward for education systems is to start pushing new frontiers and integrating technology within existing curriculums. As Harshana acutely described it, the education system we knew was 200 years old with minimal revisions made to the curriculum. It is only now we understand the urgency for transformation.
The silver lining of the pandemic has stressed that schools are in fact, the backbone of the education system. It has also forced educators, students and parents to embrace learning platforms that have previously existed, yet were overshadowed by the traditional teaching techniques. The discourse called upon the speakers to present their ideas on the topics of changing curriculums, the market for teachers, how online learning will support school syllabuses while understanding limitations of online learning when applied to a Sri Lankan context.
Further, the boom of technology-based education is opening up markets for young, passionate, skilled teachers to take over. In turn, introducing reform to methods of knowledge being transferred from teacher to students.
STEM learning for the future of Sri Lanka
Establishing systems of education gives children a platform. One that would ideally hone their natural abilities to create and innovate. In turn, is a breakthrough for the next generation of scientists, engineers, creators and entrepreneurs equipped with STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) based skills.
The Sectoral Oversight Committee on Education and Human Resources Development presented their report on a national policy on STEM education in Sri Lanka to Parliament in January 2020. The report predicted a 1% contribution to GDP during the next decade from every student who enrols in STEM learning.
The panel discussion touched upon these important points and stressed on the need to teach students entrepreneurship and innovation. Thereby, ensuring that future students entering job sectors would not stand the risk of becoming obsolete due to automation.
The importance of attracting capable individuals, including females who account for 54% of the 18 and above population into such fields, can grease the wheels to close the gender gaps in the labour force. The Institute of Policy Studies Sri Lanka stated that job losses for women are predicted to be more than for men and the need for more girls to study STEM can provide opportunities for job security, and protect from threats of technological changes.
No student left behind: Addressing the gaps to level the playing field for all
The panel of educators first acknowledged their privilege to have the opportunity to teach students in Colombo while understanding the limitations of platforms faced by students in other parts of the island. The panellists acknowledged the teachers across the island who took it upon themselves to learn how to operate new platforms almost overnight and in their success in overcoming the struggle in unfamiliar waters.
Ms Budhika’s analysis of the current situation was enlightening as she addressed the gaps in the conceptualised education models and its problems in reaching students across the island. Several students across Sri Lanka do not have access to online learning mechanisms, reported in a survey conducted by the Ministry of Education. An independent study done by LIRNEasia puts this figure to be as high as 60% of all school-going children.
To add to the above point, the role that parents are required to take in the new system demands more attention to the progress of their children’s skills. This problem was brought up by an audience member with a query of how parents who work full time were to assist with online learning for their students.
Working mothers manage their 9-5, running households and tending to their children. With the curfews imposed for the past 2 months, they have taken on the role of having an active part in their child’s learning process. An interesting thought would be to explore how to demystify the traditional role of women as the primary caregiver while providing fathers with the space to take on more supportive roles in helping to balance the workload with their children at home.
Nuwan also added his perspective on the localisation of education and approached the issue of long commutes that some students take daily, some even travelling across district lines to get to their schools. Cutting down on travel time can increase human time for students to explore projects of their interests. The model of localised learning should integrate online learning through a national education online platform that maintains a database of textbooks online while conducting lessons through a dedicated centre to accompany students in its given radius.
This model can accommodate learning in the estimated two-year timeline before a cure can be available to the world, and can mitigate the spread of the virus in smaller, concentrated areas at a time. These centres should be equipped with devices for the student that would not be available to them in their homes.
The holy trinity for tech-based education models to function
For tech-based education to function in any community, it requires active participation from all those involved; students, teachers and both parents. This holy trinity should work cohesively in facilitating learning to mould students not into worker bees but into upstanding citizens.
These new models of learning are changing conversations surrounding how students learn, the willingness to let go of traditional age-old methods of teaching that are about time to be taken to the grave. Malithi acknowledged that notwithstanding minor differences in curriculums between schools, the heart of the system in Sri Lanka is of exam-based, and extracurriculars offered in schools go a long way in shaping a student worldview and would have to be considered when moving forward with the integration of technology.
To add to the development of students skills, with the heavy reliance on education technology or edTech, it is important to facilitate conversations around digital ethics, the ways students interact within digital spaces. This is because when the internet is a double-edged sword, we should take it upon ourselves to help children understand how they can use the sword for the greater good of the realm and to produce the next generation of decision-makers.
Transforming a keystone institution in Sri Lanka
The school is a keystone institution in societies that have been thrown in the deep end ever since COVID 19, and for a country where multiple obstacles need to first be understood prior to the development of a highly efficient system of learning, it also requires unlearning of outdated models.
A takeaway from the panel discussion is that more spaces and educated panel discussions to advance the education systems that integrate the needs of all stakeholders are needed to make strides in our country and doing right by students in this pivotal moment in history gives them the room to reflect, learn and realise the power that they themselves have in this world.