Tuesday, 27 August 2013 00:00
The problem which Sri Lanka is grappling with is one of large numbers of students ‘qualifying’ to enter State-run universities and the inability of the State system to absorb these numbers. The few who are successful in accessing the State universities, except for courses like medicine, science, engineering, architecture and law, face major issues in finding employment opportunities after graduation.
At one time a solution for the first problem was attempted to be solved, by the provision of ‘external’ degrees, in which the universities tested students who sat for an external degree exam, and gave them credentials if they passed, but classes were conducted by private individuals and institutes, operating independently.
While these external degrees were mostly in the humanities and social sciences, the second problem of employability could not be solved. In fact, the external candidates found that they had more difficulty in seeking jobs than the internal degree holders in the humanities and social sciences. The Open University was an extension of this concept.
The Government had to become the employer of last resort, absorbing large numbers of university graduates into the service of the Government, statutory agencies and State corporations. This was clearly not a sustainable solution and soon the external degree programs were discontinued.
The alternative solution that evolved over time, was that degree-awarding institutes were set up, training students for degrees of foreign universities, for which the exams were conducted in Sri Lanka. This system had existed for a long time, before the restrictions of foreign exchange usage, imposed limitations on payments to feign universities for exam fees etc. and the local State universities provided a viable alternative.
There are well-established degree-awarding institutes, training students for exams of the University of London, for example. At one time, a large number of Sri Lankan students offered themselves as candidates for degrees of Indian universities, at one time, following classes in this country. However, limitations on remittances using foreign exchange put an end to this practice.
Professional courses, in accounting, management, marketing, etc., were also developed over time, to meet the demand for tertiary level education and the limitation of supply from the State-dominated system. These courses were in most cases from internationally-recognised institutes, whose credentials were recognised even in other countries – Sri Lankan Chartered Accountants, for example.
However, to date, given the financial limitations for the State to expand the State-funded university system and the credibility issues with private degree-awarding institutes, no lasting solution has been found to provide a solution for the problem of limitations of access to tertiary education for the thousands who qualify.
One solution, which has proved extremely controversial, has been the option of private universities. Not private degree-awarding institutes, training students for accreditation by foreign universities and institutes by sitting for those examinations, but fully-fledged local private universities, recognised by the University Grants Commission in terms of their enabling statutes.
This has been a controversial issue due to the ingrained thinking that tuition at the university level should not be charged for and that the State should provide the tuition free of cost to the students from taxpayer’s funds. Given the dire state of revenue collection in the country, this is not feasible proposition.
Sustained pressure by all governments to oppose this thinking – the legacy of the ‘socialist era’ – and allow Sri Lanka fee-charging private universities in Sri Lanka, recognised y the University Grants Commission, is slowly being accepted amidst much hostility and obstructionism. Almost unnoticed, the defence sector is setting up its own degree-awarding mechanism to officers of the services and, it is said, even to civilians, through the Defence Academy. It is said that civilian students are charged fees for tuition.
Massive Open Online Courses
All these responses have failed to provide a sustainable solution for the issue of fair access to tertiary education to students who qualify. Much has been written about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which can reach millions of students around the world, which may provide a sustainable solution to us in Sri Lanka to deal with our problem of access to tertiary level education by qualified students.
MOOCs provide a new way of teaching and learning which is poised to usher in a new credentialing system that will in a few years compete with the traditional brick and mortar universities. The emerging on line delivery system is more than just a distribution mechanism, it promises students faster, more consistent engagement with high quality educational content as well as measurable results. The MOOC innovation has the potential to create enormous opportunities for students, employers and teachers, even as it upends the cost structure and practices of traditional campuses.
Distance education is nothing new. It has existed for many, many years – ranging from Sri Lanka’s Atlas Hall to the printed lecture notes made available by the minor staff of the Sri Lanka Law College for students who miss out on lectures. Modern technology has revolutionised distance learning. The use of television for distance education was pioneered by the Open University in Britain. Recorded video tapes and scheduled broadcasts were used to supplement printed matter sent by mail. Later these television programs became interactive, live engagements with teachers.
In Sri Lanka Dialog Axiata PLC, the largest mobile services provider, has recently introduced e-teacher, a web-based education portal which allows subscribers to follow tuition classes conducted by popular lecturers via the web from any place convenient to them, without the hassle of a commute to a central location. On demand video lectures are available 24 hours of the day, seven days of the week and 365 days of the year.
e-teacher is a commercial proposition, there is a charge for the service, but Dialog claims that it is competitively priced, when compared with travel and fees for conventional tuition classes. There are a variety of subjects and levels of education available – ranging from the Year 5 Scholarship examination to the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level and Advanced Level syllabi. Also at the tertiary level, even entrance exams for the Sri Lanka Law College are said to be available.
Sri Lanka’s National Institute of Education (NIE) has an education TV channel that is said to broadcast programs through a satellite network to over 1,500 Government schools. Students can watch educational programs aligned to the school curriculum produced in house by the NIE. Over 1,000 Government teachers have been trained in the process and procedure in assisting students to access Nanesa programs in their schools.
Khadija Niazi’s experience
The internet and the World Wide Web have given distance education a huge opportunity to expand way beyond the limits of traditional constraints. At the recently-concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, Switzerland, the attention of the assembled business persons, politicians and Non Government Organisation representatives were mesmerised by a presentation by young girl – Khadija Niazi, aged 12 years, describing her experiences with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) on the World Wide Web.
MOOCs have provided a platform for professors at the world’s top universities such as Stanford, Harvard, M.I.T., Yale, Princeton and others to extend their reach into the virtual world, outside the brick walls of their university halls. Two of the earliest MOOCs , Udacity and Coursera, have been accessed by Niazi, who described to an enthralled and captivated audience of her seniors, how she, being fascinated by UFOs, was following a course in astrobiology in her remote village in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province, through a satellite connection to her home computer.
To take just one example, Coursera is a for-profit venture that taps professors from 60 universities to offer courses on line to anyone to take, free of charge. It has partnerships with 83 universities. The company has four million registered students who take at least one course. Coursera envisages a future in which the world’s top universities are educating not only thousands of students, with their brick and mortar campuses, but millions in the virtual world through the internet.
Through this Coursera intends to give everyone and anyone access to a world class education that, so far, due to the money and geography, mostly has been limited to a few. A student participant on a Coursera course will watch world class professors delivering lectures. They will learn at their own pace, in their own free time, test their knowledge and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises.
Coursera’s students are members of a global community of thousands of other students learning at the same time alongside the participant in a virtual world. Time management is no constraint. Coursera is aware that this is a busy and complicated world. Coursera’s courses are designed on sound pedagogical foundations, to help students master new concepts, quickly and effectively.
Key concepts include-mastery learning, to make sure that students have multiple attempts to demonstrate the students knowledge using interactivity, to ensure student engagement and to assist long term retention and proving frequent feedback. Students are able to monitor their own progress and know when they have mastered the subject. Coursera offers courses in the humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science and many others.
The issue would be credentialing, providing students who qualify through a MOOC with paper qualifications which employers and another academic institutes will recognise. However there have been some breakthroughs in this regard; Coursera recently announced that five of its courses have been approved for undergraduate credit by American Council of Education. Coursera has started charging to provide certificates for those who complete its courses.
The Colorado State University Global Campus has started giving credit for the introductory computer programming course offered by another MOOC provider – Udacity – if the student passes a proctored exam. Udacity focuses on working with employers on training present and future employees. In time students of MOOCs will be able to credential themselves routinely via such courses and assessments as a way to bolster their resumes.
How can these developments with MOOCs help to solve Sri Lanka’s specific problem of access to tertiary education? A facilitating institution, either in the public, private for-profit or private not-for-profit sector, could assist students who have obtained the basic qualifications to enable them to follow the MOOC courses, provided by providers such as Coursera, Udacity or Edx. Edx, a non-profit MOOC provider founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is now a consortium of 28 institutions, including the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai.
Even an existing university can provide access to MOOCs. Access to the internet would be essential, but at present penetration of connectivity in Sri Lanka would be sufficient to provide this opportunity. Further demand would drive up delivery of access. This would provide an education hybrid mode which would be digital centric (and much less costly) with a core online component supplemented by a study group, either self-organised or organised by the facilitator. This is already happening in MOOCs. Some digital-centred options may be associated with traditional universities serving as facilitators; others may be purely alternative credentials.
The attraction in the MOOC plus facilitator option for Sri Lanka to rapidly increase its access to tertiary level university education is multi-fold. Firstly, Sri Lanka students will have to access to world class lecturers. They will be able to obtain internationally-recognised credentials. Employers will be able to hire employees with cutting-edge skills, picked up from professors at leading universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley. The issue of time and cost of setting up new utilities for delivering the courses would be avoided. The cost of exam fees, access to the internet and knowledge of English would be the only requirements for access. These are not insurmountable problems.
Although we make a song and dance about ‘free education,’ in fact parents and well-wishers spend a substantial amount of money on the education of these students who are supposed to be getting this much vaunted ‘free education’. That is the reality. Parents would be willing to spend for a MOOC from a world class university. Also students follow MOOC in their own time, so even a student who is employed can follow a course and qualify. Further, some financial service providers and banks are willing to provide loans for higher education at the tertiary level. Companies may also provide scholarships as a part of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Program.
Given the level of internet penetration on our small island nation, access to internet will also not be a major obstacle. Demand will result in more supply. The infrastructure is in place. The value of English is well-accepted; we are far gone from the days where ‘Swabhasha’ was the much-vaunted battle cry. What is needed is some catalysing agency, State, private for-profit or even private not-for-profit, which will popularise access to MOOCs among Sri Lanka students who qualify for a university education but cannot find a place in an existing brick and mortar facilities of the State.
Sri Lanka needs thousands more of personnel trained in computing and other high-tech fields. The cost of setting up brick and mortar facilities to deliver the knowledge is prohibitive. In any event a politician has gone on record saying that no increase in budgetary funds will be provided for the education sector unless there are substantial reforms.
The nation cannot await the luxury of the delivery of such much-promised reforms. What we can do is to provide access to our students to other viable alternatives such as MOOCs to meet the students’ aspirations and the manpower requirements of the economy.
The latest MOOC provider is Future-Learn, a consortium of 21 British, one Irish and one Australian University. Oxbridge, yet, remains aloof. Coursera has stated that in time many established universities will soon offer credits towards their degrees for those who complete MOOCs. MOOCs is a way forward to open up access to a university education for the thousands of Sri Lankans who qualify for university admission but cannot find places in local or foreign universities.
(The writer is a lawyer who has over 30 years of experience as a CEO in both Government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)