Within six weeks after the introduction of COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020, 90 per cent of university education in Sri Lanka returned in a digital format. This was only possible through an effort initiated almost two decades earlier.
“In 2002, we received a grant from the Swedish development agency Sida which allowed us to start activities in e-learning. This led to a research and development program, that again led to a center for e-learning in Colombo. So, when the pandemic hit, we already had the necessary software and infrastructure in place,” says Professor K. P. Hewagamage, Director of the School of Computing at University of Colombo. Back in 2002, then a young researcher at the university, he became head of project for the new activities in e-learning.
“At that time, internet connectivity was only available in Colombo City, and was of a poor quality. Still, we decided to move ahead. We saw e-learning as an important future solution and as an interesting problem from a computing science point of view,” Professor Hewagamage recalls.
Over the following years, several important decisions were made based on results from experimental activities: “We had to realize, that even very modest fees would be an obstacle for students using e-learning. Therefore, we needed to find software which was open source.”
As the common LMS (Learning Management System) for the research and education sector, the young e-learning center chose Moodle. The necessary functionalities were to a large extent developed in collaboration with partners in Sweden, the Royal Technological University (KTH) and the University of Stockholm. Further, Sinhala and Tamil language interfaces for Moodle were developed.
“We got to a point where we had the necessary tools for content distribution. Besides the increased educational quality, we also began to see e-learning as an environmentally benign solution, reducing the amount of printed material. So, we could start promoting e-learning with confidence.”
To speed up implementation, Professor Hewagamage conducted a series of workshops at the research and education institutions.
“My philosophy was always to empower people to operate the e-learning themselves. After all, I would not be there forever. So, I would help them getting started and then go away.”
Thanks to the workshops, e-learning soon became an option at close to all institutions.
“Still, I must admit that real progress was slow. Many wanted to play with the different tools, but the number of long-term users remained low,” says Professor Hewagamage.
This all changed, as COVID-19 lockdowns were introduced.
“At first the feeling was having everything destroyed. However, we soon realized that we would be able to introduce large-scale e-learning very quickly. The institutions already had the necessary software – even if they didn’t use it so much. So, this was a matter of scaling things up.”
The upscaling campaign was to a large extent conducted by LEARN (Lanka Education And Research Network), the national research and education network (NREN) of Sri Lanka.
“LEARN did a great job for this educational revolution in Sri Lanka,” says Professor Hewagamage, while noting that he is a member of the board of LEARN.
NORDUnet, the regional research and education network of the European Nordics, would also lend a hand through a joint project with LEARN.
“As we converted education to the digital format, we encountered a problem as students would be charged by their mobile phone company for the data traffic related to e-learning. With assistance of the President of the country and the chairman of the University Grant Commission, it was possible to whitelist LMS servers in all universities. LEARN and NORDUnet were very helpful in identifying the servers, setting up Zoom servers, and creating a whitelist for the telecom operators,” explains Professor Hewagamage, adding:
“This demonstrates an added value of having a national research and education network. When all institutions are connected to the same network, and thereby also to international networks, things become much easier.”
Savindu Wannigama is a third-year student of Computer Engineering at the University of Peradeniya:
“For almost two years now, all lectures and workshops have been mastered on the Zoom platform. Give and take a few mishaps here and there, everything has worked out fine and we are now on track with our education.”
As an example of bumps on the road, Savindu Wannigama points to online exams:
“Many students were hesitant to have their exams online. They were simply uncertain regarding the quality of their internet connection, not trusting it would remain stable during a two-three-hour exam. Further, many did not feel their hardware such as laptops, cameras, and microphones would be up for the task.”
“However, these issues have subsequently been resolved not least thanks to a scholarship scheme, which enables students to get the equipment they need. Thus, it seems that the upcoming online exams will have a very high degree of participation.”
Savindu Wannigama further notes, that LEARN has not only assisted in keeping up the academic activities:
“When e-learning was initiated, students were generally very supportive. However, after a while many of us were beginning to get fed up only having digital contact. That is only natural – after all, we are human. Fortunately, we found that Zoom could also be used for more than education. We have held many club events, just as other socializing activities which we had before the pandemic were continued.”
“Also, Zoom was used for workshops on mental health. To many of us, who were stressed out from the lack of social contact, this was a great relief. I also felt these problems, but now I am doing fine. Knowing that we are close to the end of lockdowns helps, of course. As things look now, we should be able to resume physical education by January 2022.”
A few institutions in Sri Lanka introduced e-learning later than the others, notes Professor Hewagamage, smilingly:
“Some were reluctant at first. However, they soon became subject to a healthy type of community pressure. Students would complain: other institutions are back with remote education, why not us? After 3-6 months even the most stubborn had to provide e-learning.”