A policy dialogue on equitable access to distance education was held by the Education Forum Sri Lanka (EFSL) in collaboration with the Development Partners Secretariat on December 08 , 2020, via Zoom.
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Presentation: Equitable Access to Distance Education
The discussion revolved around the themes of 1) universal access to distance education, and 2) the quality of education provided. In his opening remarks, Mr. Patrick Vandenbruaene, Head of Development Partners Secretariat Sri Lanka, noted that COVID-19 could be the stimulus that we have needed to transform education, and he hoped the forum would generate new ideas towards this end.
The forum discussions revealed that although internet access by households in Sri Lanka remains under 50% (LIRNEasia, 2018; EFSL & World Vision, 2020) it is in fact possible to ensure a quality learning experience for ALL children for 2021 if we optimize the use of existing digital technology and content, and adopt a more student-centered and student-led approach to teaching.
Optimizing existing resources
A LIRNEasia survey also showed that 91% percent of households own a TV, but only 48% own a smartphone. Therefore, it is quite clear we should optimize broadcast TV and/or use of TV as a digital device for immediate and inclusive delivery of distance education to school children in Sri Lanka.
A pilot study carried out by Youth for Development in Kantale on behalf of EFSL demonstrated that educational videos broadcast by Gurugedera, the state media initiative, and provided over YouTube by philanthropists (e.g. dpeducation.org) and civil society organizations (e.g. openesrilanka.org/resources/) can be accessed offline, if, say, downloaded onto a flash drive and used on a TV via a USB port. This kind of offline content is important to reach those without access to the Internet.
Further, Mr. Charitha Ratwatte of Dialog Axiata informed the forum that the 1377 service by Dialog enables a teacher to have a discussion with a class remotely by connecting each child on an ordinary mobile phone for a conference-call as a class. If such existing technology is used, children will not just passively watch an educational video but engage in a discussion guided by the teacher.
Student-centered and student-led approach to teaching
Even the most sophisticated education technologies will have no effect if the pedagogy is merely focused on teachers transmitting content to students. The key to optimizing existing resources is to understand that simply watching a lesson on TV or receiving notes on WhatsApp cannot be considered quality education during this period. Quality education requires that the learner engages with the educational content guided on his/her own with some guidance by the teacher. This mode of learning is true in face-to-face education, but critical in distance education where the teacher-student interaction is limited.
Therefore, to deliver an effective distance education we need to focus on the learning experience of children rather than the mere transmission of content. For every one-hour or so of video content transmitted, there needs to be at least one hour of engagement guided by a teacher. This engagement can be created through activities that develop essential competencies in critical thinking, creating, collaborating, and communicating.
Teachers need guidance on developing and using activity plans around available digital content. That is the missing link to equitable access to distance education in 2021.
Universal distance education for 2021 is a real possibility
The year 2021 offers Sri Lanka an opportunity to turn disadvantages in access to internet technologies to an opportunity to transform education. This involves making existing digital content easily downloadable for offline use, and guiding teachers to develop student-centered and student-led activity plans around such digital content. As pointed out already, student-centered and student-led activities are essential when the teacher-student interaction is limited in distance mode, but this transformation in teaching should gradually be introduced to regular schooling such that if schools suddenly close, both teacher and students will be able to transition smoothly to distance mode.
If we change pedagogy to a more student-centered and student-led approach to optimize existing technologies, adapting to higher order technologies, when such are feasible, will come naturally to our school system.