Transiting to a digital mode: A disruptive innovation in tertiary education

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Given the resource limitations that prevent large numbers of A-Level students from getting a university education at present, an online education platform offers many more of them the opportunity to obtain a valuable degree and join the workforce – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

By Priyal E. Perera and Mayura Fernando

Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is an urgency on the part of the government and the higher education sector to assess the possibility of providing online education nationwide. This is an opportune time that Sri Lanka can avail itself with transiting to an online mode of education as it can position itself to cater to a wider student body at a reasonable cost to provide higher quality education in the future.   

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced global experimentation with remote teaching. Though online education is not new, the pandemic has revived the interest in this disruptive innovation with some urgency. Given the resource limitations that prevent large numbers of A-Level students from getting a university education at present, an online education platform offers many more of them the opportunity to obtain a valuable degree and join the workforce.  

Moreover, courses can be tailor-made to students’ needs with greater selection in course offerings. For the year 2017-18, 267,000 students sat for the Advanced Level examination, and out of which 163,160 (61.1%) qualified to enter the university. Out of the qualified, only 31,415 (19.3%) actually entered the university and 136,500 (80.7%) didn’t gain a university education (Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka and With an online education, not only would these excluded students have an opportunity to get a university education, but the country too would benefit by having a greater number of educated work force for its future economic development.

With an online education model, in addition to increasing the number of students, parts of some of the residential programs can be substituted, supplemented and complemented with digital technologies at a very low cost. One of the main attractions of online education for universities is that the marginal cost of providing online content to a large student audience is almost zero or very low. Hence, valuable resources can be saved for research-based teaching, problem solving and mentorship. 

From the students’ perspective, they benefit as they can save on associated costs relating to their presence at the lecture rooms being reduced, greater availability of cheaper learning material due to digitisation, and the access to library facilities. Moreover, students have the opportunity for work and study on a part-time basis.

The quality of education too can be improved with online learning as it is an effective approach to enhance productivity and efficiency of learning due to less time, money and resources that are engaged in the process. Most of the online content is provided by videos which provide engaging sensory experience, which can be viewed from anywhere anytime and provide digital proficiency for students. Online learning can also provide flexibility to design lesson plans according to students’ needs. 

A greater selection in course offerings will also motivate students and improve their educational experience. Moreover, based on the online delivery approach chosen, access to high quality educational curriculums can be sourced from reputed universities abroad. If collaboration with foreign universities is an option, it would pave the way for local universities to improve the quality of their programs and courses. For example, a course that is conducted in a foreign university can supplement or complement the local courses in a particular field of study. For example, in the US, in a pilot program, San Jose State University (SJSU) blended an edX engineering course on circuits and electronics created by MIT with its own on-campus engineering class. The pass rates for the course jumped from 55% to 91%.

The online platforms would also provide access to reputed academics in the expatriate community. Particularly in the graduate programs, their expert knowledge can be made use of in curriculum and program development. Some of the retired professors can also be invited to collaborate in research projects with Sri Lankan counterparts and also conduct courses. This can be the ideal platform for somewhat reversing the brain drain that has happened over the years and give these highly skilled expatriates the opportunity to serve their mother country.

Options available  

There are different approaches available for Sri Lankan higher education institutions to consider when choosing an online learning environment for teaching. These institutions can use a virtual learning environment with a learning management system (LMS) such as ‘Blackboard’, ‘Moodle’ or ‘Canvass’ to supplement courses traditionally delivered face-to-face with online course content or develop completely new online courses with few or no face-to-face meetings.  

For lecturing, instructors can supplement the online course content with live ‘Zoom’ sessions which are recordable and replayed for greater clarity or for convenience. Hence, with ‘Zoom’ sessions, both synchronous and asynchronous (not in real-time) learning can take place. Although the delivery of lectures does not exactly mimic the normal classroom lectures for both the instructors and the students, the experience can be very much similar to a classroom lecture.  

Where courses are conducted in ‘flipped classrooms’ or workshop mode, the use of ‘breakout rooms’ in Zoom provides students in smaller groups with more directed attention from instructors (in flipped classrooms, students do preparatory activities prior to face-to-face sessions where higher order learning during class time, active learning and peer instruction happens).  

Another approach would be to use a collaborative approach to deliver courses or programs where local universities partner with established world-renowned foreign universities that are already providing online courses. Such a collaboration can be done by either direct partnership with a foreign university or through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) platforms provided by both edX and Coursera. These two platforms are the most recognised where hundreds of courses in diverse disciplines are offered for the world.  

The edX platform currently offers 2,800+ courses in 31 subject areas whereas Coursera provides over 5,000+ courses in diverse subject areas. Although not every discipline or program (e.g. medicine) is suitable for such an approach, a range of new courses can be accommodated under such a scheme. 

The Sri Lankan universities can avail of this opportunity to offer online courses on their own for both the local and regional foreign students. All of the above options can be incorporated into a blended approach combining the socialisation opportunities that the classroom provides with the enhanced active learning features that online learning offers.  Depending on the type of discipline, some courses may be more amenable to a fully online delivery whilst others may be offered in a blended format.


Having pointed out the advantages in adopting an online educational approach, it is also necessary to consider some of the challenges of online learning. One of the key issues that needs addressing is the accessibility of online learning for the poorer segment of the student population. The costs associated with purchasing computers, internet connectivity and other related items may be a real burden for some students. 

For educational success, online learning also requires some getting used to the new digital environment, and having strong self-motivation and time management skills. Sometimes, since online student feedback is limited, it can cause social isolation. So, students need to learn a new skills-set to be successful and the universities have to design preparatory material beforehand to make this transition easier.  

Another troublesome area in online education is the student assessments and examinations. Because students are not on campus, there is room for dishonest conduct and cheating when doing examinations and submitting assignments. To prevent or minimise such behaviour, the universities can have a blended approach where students attend the universities during exam period. With new technology and assessment methods, some of these shortcomings can be ameliorated. For courses where laboratory work is required, similar blended systems can be in operation. A blended approach has the added advantage of combining the socialisation opportunities that the class provides with the enhanced active learning features that online learning offers. 

Online learning is also limited to certain disciplines. In programs where laboratory/clinical work (e.g. sciences, medicine) is involved, the content has to be designed to suit what can be delivered online. With improvement in technology, more and more of the learning content will be available for online delivery.  

Policy recommendations

Whichever the options selected, an improvement in IT infrastructure and training efforts for both faculty and students are required before transitioning to an online teaching environment. A greater challenge however, would be to change the mindset of the faculty and students to accept a virtual classroom. To overcome any resistance, it is important to make aware the aforementioned benefits of online education to both the faculty and students. Especially for the students, they can incorporate flexibility to their work and study routines, save on travel time, gain remote access to study material, and be served in areas that were previously not served.   

As for selecting a particular approach, a blended one using an LMS with Zoom would be the quickest way to start under the COVID-19 environment. From the institutions side, the infrastructure and the technical aspects of internet/wi-fi/ band-withs need to be sorted out, and from the students’ side access to computers and the internet would be required at a minimum. Further to these, both students and faculty may need training when transitioning to adopt the new technologies.  

For acquiring faster technology transfer and improvement in quality online education, selecting a collaborative approach with foreign universities stands the best chance of long-term success as some of the courses have already been prepared by the foreign universities for online delivery and hence can be adopted right away. To add local content, minimal changes to the foreign courses will be required to align with the local curriculum/syllabuses. This approach has the added advantage that the local universities will have ample time to initially sort out the technical requirements (IT) which are necessary for online delivery. 

The involvement of the private sector for information technology support should be considered at this stage as the knowledge, skills and the manpower necessary for such an endeavour may be enormous and lacking in some of the local campuses/universities. This arrangement will be mutually beneficial for both the universities and the private sector and further pave the way for future innovative educational technology development in Sri Lanka. For example, the University IT department could collaborate with private sector to develop video conferencing software and LMS software in-house which could be tailor made to suit the student demographic of Sri Lanka by integrating open source, free to low-cost software such as Open Office. However, it must be noted that some courses or disciplines may not be suitable for such collaboration. 

Within a collaborative approach, using MOOCs, especially the Open edX platform, is very promising for a start as it is already ready-made for building and running courses with very minimum of costs []. The ‘Accessibility Best Practices Guidance for Content Providers’ in edX website stipulates under what conditions and how the platform can be used []. The Sri Lankan universities can benefit from this relatively cheap opportunity for quick transition to an online education system in the country. 

In other parts of the world, local universities have partnered with universities already offering courses on edX (and Coursera) and allowed students to transfer credits for courses done on their platform. There are other costlier options also available where local universities can partner with either the edX or Coursera for access and online delivery of courses. These options have to be negotiated with these two platforms.  With a significant one-time contribution to the edX, their platform can be used for offering programs/courses, blended learning solutions for on campus use, and access and offer edX courses on ‘My Campus’ on edX. []

An immediate opportunity that Sri Lanka can make use of, being the world’s most renowned destination for learning ‘Theravada Buddhism’, is to offer some of its courses on the MOOCs platform. These courses can be designed in a blended format, so that part of it is provided online and the rest to be done face-to-face at the Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka.   This approach may bring in the much needed funding to the university through foreign student-fees and popularise Sri Lanka as a study/learning/cultural destination.

There are benefits of using the MOOCs platform as the quality of the courses/programs offered by other international universities will be visible on the platform and therefore the local universities will get a chance to put in greater effort to match them by designing and developing better courses.  For faculty, the MOOCs platforms offer access to new content on subjects, so that they can update their knowledge. This allows developing faculty capabilities for new courses/programs. Similarly, students too can explore diverse fields for further studies.

The way forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the online pedagogy to the forefront. The trajectory of how fast and on which direction it moves will depend on how the pandemic pans out. As a stopgap measure, one quick option would be to use an LMS with Zoom to get going under the prevailing environment. For the longer-term, a collaborative approach working with a hitherto tried and tested online platform is the most suitable approach that Sri Lankan universities can undertake. The latter could be done in collaboration with reputed international universities that already offer similar online courses/programs either on the MOOCs platform or their own in a blended environment. These two approaches would enable Sri Lankan universities to offer high quality, low cost online education for greater number of qualified students. 

(Priyal E. Perera – PhD, MA (Economics) and BBA (Economics and Finance) Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Currently lecturing at La Trobe University and Charles Sturt University in Australia. Also, a tutor to the distance programs in Public Financial Management at the Centre for Financial and Management Studies at SOAS, University 

of London.)

(Mayura Fernando – B.Sc. Applied Science (University of Sri Jayewardenepura), F.C.A. (The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka), F.C.M.A. (The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants – UK). Independent Non-Executive Director of DFCC Bank PLC, Laugfs Power PLC, 

and The Lanka Hospitals Corporation PLC.)

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