Sri Lanka’s Budget 2017 included an expenditure of Rs. 5 billion to “provide free tabs for almost 175,000 students who enter the Advanced Level (AL) classes and around 28,000 A/L teachers.” The evidence is overwhelmingly against haste in ICT initiatives in education but now that politics has spoken, planning and implementation has to follow with the objective of maximising the benefits of the proposed expenditure.
The priorities in implementation would be to procure sufficient digital content in Sinhala and Tamil, facilitate peer-to-peer learning by teachers and spend a good portion of the allocation to evaluate tabs’ use by students. Of these, the priority of priorities will be to procure digital content but first we need to understand the unstated political imperatives behind the tabs initiative.
Bringing would-be O/L dropouts back to school
A key promise of the UNP manifesto of 2015 was to keep youth in school until they were 18 years of age or in Year-13 of school. It is a promise that touches on a critical issue in education. Currently, from a cohort of 325,000 or so who first enter school as five-year-olds, a maximum of about 150,000 students continue to study up to Grades 12 and 13. About 50,000 have already dropped off by Grade 9, another 125,000 or so would fail the GCE (O/L) and are not able to continue.
The UNP proposal is essentially to disconnect school education from the success or failure of students at national exams by allowing those who fail the GCE O/l to continue in school for another two years. It is basically a good concept but for a school system which is used to keeping students engaged in book learning and weeding out those who can’t, keeping less academically inclined students in school would require major structural adjustments.
Due to logistical reasons, even academically inclined students who are likely to pass the O/L have to wait it out from January to about June each year until students in Grade 13 sit for the GCE (A/L) and leave school. The UNP’s new policy of allowing everybody including those who failed the O/L - i.e. failed to obtain passes in seven subject including language and math - to stay in school is a formidable implementation challenge for the officials.
Children who are driven to succeed at examinations have a thriving ecosystem of tuition masters who give them the push they need to succeed. Giving tabs to students in Advanced Level classes has to be viewed in the context of engaging this 125,000 or more would have been dropouts.
Technology as a helping hand for teachers
A lack of content is a major issue with the use of ICT devices such as tabs, laptops or computers. With a voice or text only mobile phone, consumers create their content which is meaningful for them. Asking a loved one ‘where are you’ or ‘how are you’ has meaning. As a phone gets smarter or the mobile networks get smarter with each new generation or ‘G’, mobile communication has moved from voice or text messages to the access and use of streaming videos, audio files and interactions through social media.
Children and adolescents take to entertainment and social media like fish to water but how good are these media as educational resources? More importantly will tabs with or without Internet access help teachers to keep their students engaged?
Online content is available, but …
Three major issues connected to online content are reliable access to the Internet, availability and suitability of content in Sinhala or Tamil and the readiness of adolescents to access and use this content.
Access to the Internet through broadband or always-on Internet will not be viable in the short term in schools in Sri Lanka. According to the latest data from the international Telecommunication Union (ITU, 2016), 30% of the population in Sri Lanka reported that they used the Internet in 2015 and only 16% reported having mobile broadband subscriptions. In contrast, in South Korea, an exemplar in global ICT indicators, 90% reported that they used the Internet and there were more than 110 mobile broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. These disparities are related to the level of the economy in each country and are not expected to disappear soon.
As regards content, the available Sinhala or Tamil content may not reach those who need it most due to poor Internet access and/or the unsuitability of content. During a recent seminar on ICT in education, LIRNEasia was able to bring together several local and foreign developers of educational programs. Local initiatives included E-Thaksalawa by the Ministry of Education and Web Patashala by Etisalat offering web portals and Guru.lk by Dialog offering educational videos. Data is only available for E-Thaksalawa, which reported a maximum hit count of 641,529 in July 2016. We don’t have information on who is using and how they are using the content.
Finally, the Internet is full of misinformation and content such as pornography which adolescent are not ready to handle. Believing misinformation on the Internet is a challenge for adults too. A recent post on social media stating that the Sinhala language had moved from third place to the top of the endangered list of languages is one such instance. Sinhala is nowhere on the UNESCO list of endangered languages but this untruth would have been shared and believed by many.
Access to pornography is something which is particularly worrisome for youth as they make sense of their own sexuality and relationships with the opposite sex. In their report titled ‘A quantitative and qualitative examination of the impact of online pornography on the values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of children and young people’, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children estimated that 65% of 11-16-year-olds in the UK had been exposed to pornographic material.
The growing exposure to pornography via smartphones among middle school students has emerged as a social issue in Korea too. However, the initiatives by the Korean Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in 2013 to limit access to undesirable sites are not without controversy.
Here in Sri Lanka we need to address the access to and use of, and the appropriateness of online content for students through discussions to find the optimum fit for our context. The finance minister’s call for telecom operators to take up the challenge of providing Wi-Fi access to complement the free distribution of tabs is premature in my opinion. A smarter strategy would be to provide tabs with uploaded content or content accessed through local area networks within the schools. Internet access during school to even senior secondary students should not be encouraged at this point.
Local area networks and offline digital content
In their report on making universities more competitive, Sarvi and Pillay of ADB (2015) argue for better use of local area networks by universities. Better universities in most countries in fact have Learning Management Systems with educational content which is uploaded on institutional servers and accessed by faculty and students through local area networks.
Raspberry Pi is a device that has made such local area networks economical for small groups such as those with 20-30 students and their teacher each with their own or shared smartphones, tabs or laptops. Here a complete syllabus with interactive interfaces can be uploaded into a thumb-size chip and the digital learning material made accessible to all in the classroom with the Raspberry Pi device mimicking a web server.
I asked Kagnarith Chea, a young social entrepreneur from Cambodia with experience in delivering educational content at affordable prices, what he would say to a Government which is ready to spend money on free tabs for senior secondary students.
“The best solution is to have both online and offline content that can sync seamlessly. To use a Raspberry Pi technology (the one I am using currently) costs about $ 60 per set, which allows up to 30 students to access the content (even videos) at the same time. If a school runs classes at three different time slots, it could allow more than 90 students to learn from a single Rasberry Pi. Thus it costs approximately $ 105,000 to have an offline content version to cover 175,000 students. More importantly, though the technology does not employ an Internet connection, it can function like an online platform, where students can receive instant feedback and results, do interactive practices as well as tracking the performance (i.e. test score attendance, and video viewing time),” he replied.
Niranjan Meegammana is a social entrepreneur here in Sri Lanka. His team won the TADHacK or the Telecom Application Developer Hackathon of 2016 for their ‘Walking School’ application. Walking School delivers content offline using the Raspberry Pi technology and mobile devices. Over the years he has developed much content which is compatible with the local curriculum.
Learn from social entrepreneurs
Providing equitable access to good content is an aspiration shared by many ICT entrepreneurs. Kangarith and Niranjan are just two such entrepreneurs who have willingly staked their time and money chasing the dream. What they can achieve is a drop in the bucket compared to what can be done by an informed and committed government agency.
The Ministry of Education has appointed a committee headed by Tissa Hewavithana, the Secretary to the State Ministry of Education, to oversee the implementation of the tabs initiative. The committee is well advised to tap into the knowledge base of these social entrepreneurs from both here and elsewhere in Asia.