By Dimithri Wijesinghe
With the presentation of the budget for 2021 on 17 November, it was shared that as the first step in educational reforms, there is a requirement to formalise the learning methodologies within schools as well as a need to expand the provision of internet facilities to schools.
There was also the mention of a requirement to update the E-Thaksalawa learning portal along with the strengthening of the provincial IT education centres. The budget called to minimise the difficulties faced by students in rural and non-national schools due to the shortage of teachers. Moreover, to ensure the provision of continuous school education in the face of the Covid-19 epidemic, the “Guru Gedara” education channel should be made available to all students by providing television sets to schools in difficult areas, for which purpose it was proposed to allocate Rs. 3,000 million.
All educational institutes, educational reforms including the expansion of the syllabi in line with the contemporary requirements, regulation of teacher education and training, and examination procedures are planned to be regulated under a national education policy.
Focusing on the areas that were discussed, the recognition of a need for wider internet facilities is encouraging, upon the proposal of funds allocated for the further development of the existing distance learning portals for students.
The two learning portals referred to as E-Thaksalawa and Guru Gedara are tools that have been accessed by students for some time now, with the former being an e-learning tool and the other being available via television. We took a look at the feedback from teachers and students on the overall effectiveness of these resources and also took a look at it ourselves.
E-Thaksalawa is a learning portal where all subjects from Grade One up to the Advanced Level (A/L) are laid out, including special needs education curricula. However, the extent to which each subject may be available would vary depending on the language medium you require.
Speaking to a number of teachers, many of them shared that this e-learning portal, as it stands now, is lackluster at best.
Rizka Ismath from Zahira College, Colombo said: “I have logged in to access certain guides, text books, and past papers, but I have to mention how the website is absolutely not user-friendly. To access English medium lessons, I had to wade far into the system and click multiple links to gain access. The interface is not simple enough, and the system is fragile and unstable as a network.”
She said that while it is a wonderful effort, it needs to be further streamlined, adding that although it is good to have all the resources in one place, as it is online, those who are likely to access the platform are English medium students. However, the resources available for them are less, she said, noting that while for Sinhala medium subjects there are video guides as resources, for English medium subjects it is just the texts and past papers.
- Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia Sub Warden Asanka S. Perera shared: “I am aware of this platform and I know that there are some O/L (Ordinary Level) students who have used it to download the teacher’s guide, but I myself have not utilised it.”
If you have the time, we encourage you to take a look at E-Thaksalawa. Even for us with our semi-stable internet connection, as we went along exploring the resources available, we often faced network crashes as the website would simply stop working on multiple occasions.
Furthermore, while at first glance the user interface may seem simple, as you make your way through the endless hyperlinks blinking at you, you are likely to feel uncertain as to how to return or keep moving forward, as the interface is rather rudimentary and not user-friendly.
For the most part, the platform offers students textbooks which they likely already have on hand, teachers’ guides, and past papers, the latter of which only dated as far back as 2011 for most subjects. Only some subjects in Sinhala and Tamil mediums offer video guides to certain subjects and topics.
While the fact that this resource exists at all must be applauded, simply existing feels redundant in this information age where an internet connection should ideally guarantee access to just about anything, especially an education.
We also spoke to Lanka Sabha Junior School, Battaramulla Principal Chamila Wasanthi Gamage about E-Thaksalawa and her students. She said there is no point even asking about these online platforms as they do not have access to a stable internet connection, and they are unable to get the parental guidance you need to access such resources as well.
Guru Gedara is a government-mandated TV programme conducted under the guidance of the Ministry of Education and executed by the National Institute of Education (NIE). The programme is telecast in three Sri Lankan tele-network channels: Originally Rupavahini, Channel Eye/Nethra TV, ART TV, and now on Ada Derana 24, featuring revision lessons starting on 16 November. For students who are unable to gain access to a television, it is also broadcast on the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Radio channel.
The lessons begin at 4 a.m. daily and the TV times for the subjects to be telecast have been made available, with many of the teachers sharing that the schools were sent the timetable asking that they share it with the students. For any queries students may have with regard to the lessons, they are encouraged to text it to 1377.
A teacher from a private school in Colombo 7 is one of the teachers who has taken part in the Guru Gedara programme. She teaches English in the series and shared her thoughts on the effectiveness of the initiative.
She said she feels there are two sides to it, stating that as a teacher of a private school, she chose not to ask her students to watch the programme as she had to adopt a tone that was drastically different to what she would use with her own students. She said that upon being called to record the programme, the teachers were asked to break down the subject matter so that any average to below-average student could grasp it.
However, even still, it was conducted entirely in English and she shared that in her experience, if this is expected to have a broader islandwide appeal, then they should have included some instructions in Sinhala/Tamil as there are students who would not be able to follow even at the level they are conducting lessons. However, she said the show runners are of the opinion that at least the use of English language words and instructions would help familiarise students with the language.
The private school teacher also shared some insights into a second round of recording that has not yet aired for the third term, adding that following their experience gained from the first time, they have attempted to make some changes, i.e. doing some lessons in pairs, allowing for some dramatisation and dynamic content.
She shared that while the initiative may not be perfect and schoolchildren in urban areas may scoff at the attempt, it is likely to help a great deal of students in rural areas to access a certain level of education and coverage they may not otherwise experience.
A number of other teachers we spoke to also shared similar thoughts about Guru Gedara, with many adding that out of the resources made available to be accessed remotely, this is a programme that is largely consumed and is the most helpful as it is available on television. However, many of them proposed a text service where the timetable is shared with students upon request, so they do not have to rely on other means to gain access to it and therefore avoid having to wake up at 4 a.m. in the morning to catch, for instance, A/L accounts when you are a biology student.
Considering the thoughts shared by both students and teachers, the consensus so far is that Guru Gedara, with its ambitious attempt to establish a one-stop shop for students of all levels in the island, is far more accessible than E-Thaksalawa, simply because it is on television, does not require an internet connection, and therefore is more accessible.
However, with the new budget of 2021 pledging Rs. 3,000 million for the purposes of expanding these remote learning initiatives, it can be expected that by the end of the year 2021, more students around the island would have access to these resources and thereby a quality education.