In education, geography becomes history

Tuesday, 19 February 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Distance education is nothing new. Students of my vintage would remember how reliant learning in the humanities and the social sciences was on the model answers to past questions at the G.C.E. Advanced level, published by Atlas Hall. Similarly, model answers to questions set for the British Advanced Level examination were popular, for subjects such as Western History and Civics.

Some of these publications available at all the leading book sellers claimed to be located in the cities of Oxford and Cambridge, convincing many to believe that they were connected to the leading universities located in those towns. In truth some young and not-so-well-off undergraduates of the Oxbridge Colleges may have been inveigled into writing some of the model answers for publication for pecuniary gain, in most cases this would have been the only, tenuous at best connection to the university.




Law students will also recall with nostalgia the ‘Nutshells,’ which were an essential part of the armoury of a student taking on subjects like Roman law and Delict. These Nutshells were small textbooks into which one year’s learning was claimed to be crammed! These books too were published in England, with the names of venerable Barristers of the Inns of Court and senior Solicitors or university professors on the cover as the purported author.

Again, this would have been a ‘passing off,’ a raw young junior barrister in the chambers, a young apprentice Solicitor or a young Assistant Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, would have done the leg work, for the publication. Serious students of Law looked down upon Nutshells, but for the young undergraduate living life to the full and putting minimum attendance in the lecture hall, these Nutshells were a lifeline.

At the Law College, some entrepreneurial members of the minor staff ran a business of asking the lecturers for their lecture notes, printing them and selling them to the students. At the undergraduate level, many local institutions conducted classes for foreign university exams, mostly in India and Britain. Those universities conducted their examinations in Sri Lanka. With payments in foreign currency, for exam fees, etc., being curtailed due to the foreign exchange crisis in the early 1960s, this avenue for distance education was closed. Later this sector opened up again with professional courses in accountancy and foreign university degrees being awarded and classes being conducted locally.

The demand for university education increasing by leaps and bounds and the inability of the Government-funded universities to take in the majority of students qualifying for university admission drove this process. The Sri Lankan universities themselves began to conduct external degrees. The push for the legitimisation of private fee-charging universities is also driven by this inability of the State universities to cope with the number of students qualifying for admission. Critics call upon the Government to increase investment in higher education in order that more students will be able to access higher education and the ambition of the Government to become the knowledge hub of South Asia could be realised.



Students deprived

Recently a decision of the Supreme Court ordered the Government to increase the size of the intake to universities, following litigation over the Z score conundrum. Reports however indicate that this increase will be done away with in subsequent years. Commentators point out that lack of action over the years by the State has deprived large number of students to who qualify to enter universities from receiving a university education due to lack of space.

They also accuse the Government of being obsessed with the idea of establishing private universities as the only solution to this problem. They concede that in most countries university education has long ceased to be a state monopoly. This is the unavoidable and inexorable global trend in tertiary education. However private education is costly.

In Sri Lanka today the children of poor parents who manage to enter university at least get tuition and subsidised facilities at the taxpayers’ expense. The Sri Lanka university system faces one major problem – the lack of funds for investment. As long as the Government is dependent on deficit budgeting and foreign borrowings, this situation will not and cannot improve. Other alternatives must be looked for. The Minister of Education has stated that 63% of students who sat the GCE ‘A’ level have passed, but the fact is that a very small percentage of these students will actually gain admission to State universities.



Open University of Sri Lanka

Distance learning, in its modern form, came into being with the inauguration of the Open University of Sri Lanka. The Open University was created by Act No. 16 of 1978. It was designed to provide an education from the lowest level – basic literacy right up to the Post Graduate level. The concept was based on Britain’s Open University.

The Open University today has a dynamic network of Regional Study Centres, pushing its outreach into the periphery in a commendable manner. The vision of the Open University is to be the premier open and distance learning institution in Asia, through excellence, efficiency and equity in lifelong learning. The mission of the Open University is to enhance access to high quality, affordable and relevant education through open distance education and ensure lifelong learning opportunities.

The Open University has provided an opportunity for many young and middle aged people, most of them already in full time or part time employment to access university level tertiary education. It is estimated that current enrolment is around 30,000 students.


Modern technology

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 inter active, live engagements with teachers.

In Sri Lanka, Dialog Axiata PLC, the largest mobile services provider, has recently introduced eTeacher, 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. Through this facility education is brought to the computer screen. Any subscriber who has access the web can access eTeacher.

The great advantage of eTeacher is that time is not a constraint. Students who have other commitments, sports, drama, music, etc., which in today’s world are sacrificed by the regular school hours and tuition classes after hours, are not a hindrance to accessing eTeacher. A student, after all these time-bound commitments are done, can access eTeacher on his personal computer at home, at the communication centre or at a Nanesa, when convenient. On demand video lectures are available 24 hours of the day, seven seven days of the week, and 365 days of the year.  eTeacher 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 teaches have been trained in the process and procedure in assisting students to access Nanesa programs in their schools.



Online opportunities

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 what is now described as 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, is following a course in astrobiology in her remote village in Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province, through a satellite connection to her home computer.




Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses on line to anyone to take, free of charge. 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, 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 their 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 other MOOC that Niazi used, Udacity, is a private educational foundation founded by three Stanford University professors – Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky. The origin of the brand, Udacity, according to the founders, is from the company’s desire to be ‘audacious for you, the student’.

Udacity is in reality the outgrowth of the free computer classes offered in 2011 through Stanford University. As at the end of academic year 2012, Udacity had 15 active courses. Professor Thrun said that 90,000 students had enrolled for the initial two classes on Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, as of March 2012.

Udacity is funded by Professor Thrun himself and two of Silicon Valley’s prominent venture capital firms Charles River Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. The first two courses ever launched by Udacity – entitled ‘Building a Search Engine’ taught by Professor David Evans of the University of Virginia and ‘Programming a Robotic Car’ taught by Professor Thrun – were launched on 20 February 2012.




Another well-established MOOC is edX, a massive open online course platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University to offer online university level courses in a wide range of disciplines to a worldwide audience at no charge.

The two institutions have each contributed US$ 30 million to the non profit project. edX’s learning platform is developed on open source software and is made available to other institutions of higher education which want to make similar courses, there are plans to allow other universities to offer their courses on the edX web site also.

Online learning software has been created to move beyond videos of lectures to provide an interactive experience in real time. College credit is not offered yet, but for a modest fee, certificates of successful completion will be issued. At MIT Professor Anil Agarwal leads the project together with Provost of Harvard Alan. M. Garber, assisted by Dean Michael D. Smith of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.



Sri Lanka

For the problems that Sri Lanka faces, a massive demand for tertiary level university education, the financial inability of the State to expand the State university system, the resistance to private universities, due to misbegotten concepts of defunct socialism long past its time, and the fear that a fee-charging system will create a huge inequality in access to university education, access to MOOC’s courses may provide the answer.

Of course, the issue of the courses being in the English language is a problem. But to us Sri Lankans who many moons ago have caught up with the fundamental dishonesty of our politicians and their policymaking acolytes, who, while mouthing platitudes of the virtues of a Swabhasha tertiary education, make sure their children learn in the English medium, this will not be an issue. It will be only an issue for the elitist political class who make sure they enrol their children in elite secondary schools, universities or professional colleges, which teach in the English medium, while making sure their dishonest rhetoric deprives the vast number of Sri Lankan youth of any tertiary education at all.  I can think of two leading Sri Lankan not for profit organisations outside Government, one being Sri Lanka to College and Back (SL2C&B) which guides local students who wish to enter foreign universities and encourages them to return after a graduation to generate a brain gain, as one which can play a critical role in making Sri Lankan youth aware of the potential of MOOT courses. The other is EDEX, the groundbreaking organisation which provides exposure to Sri Lankan students to opportunities in tertiary education.

There is much talk of burgeoning exposure and access to computer terminals, personal computers at the home and office, laptop computers, computers at private communication centres, Government facilities such as Nanesa, Vidatha Centres, etc., so both the push and pull factors are present; MOOC courses online and access to computer terminals. All those genuinely interested in the rapid increase in access to tertiary education should get together and promote knowledge and information on MOOCs among Sri Lankan students in particular and society in general.



Humongous advantages

The advantages are humongous. Stanford University , located in Silicon Valley, the starting place for many groundbreaking technology breakthroughs, including Google, is the location for Coursera, which after a short existence has around 214 courses, attracting 2.4 million students from 196 countries. How many from Sri Lanka? Does anybody know?  The fact that there are questions on what economic model will finally eventually emerge to finance these courses has not been definitively been answered, but it has been raised. So far they have been offered free mostly, in a global test marketing phase. There are yet unanswered fundamental pedagogical questions too – can such courses teach the humanities? Can they ever grade a piece of creative writing?

Professor Daphne Koller, a computer science teacher at Stanford, who with colleague Professor Andrew Ng, introduced Coursera to the world, has justified this revolutionary exploding of access to learning initiative, by asking: “Do we know where the next Albert Einstein is? May be she lives in a small village in Africa.” Coursera can reach out to her to enhance her knowledge. Traditional university education will take another 100 years.

Professor Thrun also of Stanford and founder Udacity after seeing more than 160,000 students sign up for his online class on artificial intelligence, predicted that this kind of learning would eventually upend American and perhaps other Western academic institutions.

After Niazi’s groundbreaking presentation at the WEF, Davos, Lawrence Summers, one-time Treasury Secretary of the USA, former Harvard President, acknowledged the potential for MOOT courses ‘to be hugely transformative’.

edX, the joint venture of Harvard and MIT, has enrolled 753,000 students in 2012, with India, Brazil, Pakistan and Russia among the top 10 countries from which people are participating. At the WEF, Davos were professors from the new Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) in Russia and representatives of China’s best universities, looking at the MOOC model for solving the problem of equality of access to tertiary education in their countries.



Future of education

There is no doubt that global online education on the MOOC model is the future. Education is the most proven way of lifting people out of poverty. It has the potential to unlock the capacity of billions of brains to work to solve the world’s problems.  In May 2012 Coursera had around 300,000 people taking 38 courses taught by professors from Stanford and a few other elite universities. In January 2013 it had 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international universities. At edX, since May 2012, 155,000 students worldwide have taken its first course. President of edX Professor Agarwal says: “This is greater than the total number of MIT alumni in its 150 year history.”

Imagine the applicability of this model to Sri Lanka. One has only to rent space in a suitable building in any of our villages which has electricity and high speed satellite internet access (which at our present state of development is not rocket science), install a couple of computers, hire a local person and train him or her as a facilitator and invite any person who wants to take an online course with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Sinhala or Tamil. Of course there is more work to be done. A cost recovery payment model has to be worked out. But this is within the realm of the possible. There are so many online service payment models available for copying and adaptation.  Then there is the vexed question of certification. Our society is hung up on paper certificates and not on depth of knowledge. Credentials and capacity are not on paper but in the brain, in attitude, personality, can do spirit, etc. Employers will soon learn, and in fact some are already testing aptitude, attitude and knowledge levels, not withstanding certificates, before recruiting.  All stakeholders must get together to maximise Sri Lankan youth’s exposure to the Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) in university education. Geography, physical location, in a virtual context, will really become a part of history, for the purposes of online education at the tertiary level


(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years 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.)

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