In late March 2020, Roshan Ragel, head of the national research and education network (NREN) of Sri Lanka, received a call from a senior government official. In light of the recently announced COVID-19 lockdown, would it be possible to convert university classes to a digital format?
“I replied that we already had an operational platform for remote learning, and that I had actually been trying to promote it for quite a long time!” Roshan Ragel recalls smilingly.
From April to December 2019, the NREN of Sri Lanka LEARN (Lanka Education and Research Network) had held more than 15 workshops to introduce remote learning in the research and education community.
“We did make progress, but slowly. Many would use the platform during the workshop and right after but then drop out. By the end of 2019, we had something like 300 teachers using the platform.”
So, while the platform was indeed operational at the start of the pandemic, some preparation was needed to introduce remote learning on the scale that had suddenly become relevant.
“We decided to close down the platform for one week. We wanted to be sure that everything was running smoothly, and that systems would not be flooded when a much larger traffic was introduced. Further, we synchronized our video conferencing platform which is based on Zoom with our offline Learning Management System which is Moodle,” explains Roshan Ragel.
Following that one very hectic week of preparation, LEARN made online education available to all its more than 50 member institutions. By now, the platform is able to host up to 12,000 meetings simultaneously. The total usage time per month is currently about 300 million minutes.
Contributing to the success of the platform was a new scheme for smart phone tariffs. While in Sri Lanka higher education is provided by the government, many students suddenly found themselves indirectly paying for their studies through their use of smart phone data.
“In collaboration with the government, LEARN initiated discussions with the largest telecom corporations. Fortunately, an agreement was found. A student connecting from his or her smart phone to the LEARN servers will be given access for free,” says Roshan Ragel.
LEARN also had to face another problem. The distance learning campaign in Sri Lanka had been inspired by participation in an international project running since 2018 when NORDUnet (the regional research and education network of the European Nordics), LEARN and several other NRENs decided to unite their powers to promote distance learning.
“As part of the project, NORDUnet offered to host our traffic for distance learning. That didn’t create any problems when we only had some 300 users, but as demand sky-rocketed this was not sustainable,” Roshan Ragel explains.
“Fortunately, we had some spare servers. In collaboration with NORDUnet we were able to set up a solution on premise. Today, we have a stable situation with a decent amount of server capacity.”
Having the e-learning platform hosted on premise fits in nicely with the thinking behind the international project, comments NORDUnet CEO René Buch:
“We never saw this to be an aid-like project with us providing LEARN and the other emerging NRENs with licenses and knowledge. The old saying applies “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, our initial help was just to get things going and obtain proof of concept. We were confident, that once the national research and education community saw the benefits in practice, the demand for online learning would come in place.”
The formal name of the project created by LEARN, NORDUnet and other partner NRENs is “Facilitating Distance Learning using Digital Conferencing Facility”. Most of the partners are emerging NREN’s. Founded in 1989, LEARN doesn’t quite fall under the emerging label, Roshan Ragel underlines:
“The international project did serve as a catalyst for distance learning in Sri Lanka. However, we had been active within e-learning for many years. We did initiate various small projects on Open-Source video conferencing etc. And we have used Zoom for our meetings and Moodle for learning management for some ten years.”
Finally, how does Roshan Ragel view the future of e-learning in Sri Lanka?
“Right now, we find ourselves in the fourth wave of COVID-19 driven by the Delta variant. So, the demand for e-learning remains high. Once the pandemic is over, I do believe we will see the current usage numbers go down, but they will surely not go down to zero.”
“Besides for education, the platform is being widely used for meetings. Like in many other countries in Asia, the road system in Sri Lanka is heavily congested, and the advantage of conducting a meeting virtually instead of having people spending many hours on the road is obvious.”