Estate Schools and Online Education
Even though you have educational programmes on TV channels, how would children study when these channels are closed and where do they find money to buy cell phones and even if they have the phones they have to climb rooftops or hilltops to access signals.
This is the grievance of an Upcountry parent. A mother says It is difficult for them to buy cell phones and data cards. Even when they have them, sometimes there is no signal coverage. Because of this, our children are unable to attend the daily online Zoom classes. Sometimes, about ten students of the same class get together and use one phone to attend these classes. This is the pathetic situation of our children’s education.
This situation didn’t erupt all of a sudden. The long historical background of the upcountry people is the cause. The purpose of this article is to study present ‘Challenges encountered by the Up-country Educational Environment’ in its historical context and the current Corona outbreak.
Free education for Up-Country People.
The very same year Sri Lanka became independent, the Up-country people were deprived of their citizenship rights granted to them earlier. When comparing them with the other communities, this is the reason why they are lagging behind others.
Free education was introduced in 1943 by C.W.W.Kannangara, also called the father of free education. Free education was available to the estate schools only 40 years after other communities had enjoyed these benefits.
When Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, the government took over the schools run by estate management. But, it only became effective in 1980.
Accordingly, changes in the school syllabuses, administration circulars, appointment of principals and teachers and their salaries took place. However, no changes were made to the physical resources, like school buildings, playgrounds and infrastructure facilities.
In 1990 when these necessities were felt, foreign voluntary organizations, GTZ (Germany) and SIDA (Sweden) came forward to help. At that time, the Plantation Schools Unit started functioning under the Central Ministry of Education.
Regarding the estate schools taken over by the government forty years ago, the question now is what are the special arrangements already made or taking place by the government to convert them into proper government schools, since the projects undertaken by the foreign voluntary organisations have already been completed.
Nationwide, 843 schools are functioning in the estate area. These estate schools are caught in the heart of the Corona pandemic.
These schools first closed during the 2020 virus lockdown, reopened in stages, adhering to health guidelines. While reopening these schools, big problems surfaced, due to lack of infrastructure and facilities. Need for physical resources, beginning from water supply to wash hands, toilet facilities and their maintenance, spacious classrooms for social distancing, and so on.
In a situation like this, how could they continue their education without anxiety? Parents are reluctant to send their children to schools.
Further, by 2021 the Corona impact has affected the education of the students, chiefly the online education through Zoom classes. Challenges before the up-country estate students, to adjust themselves to the e-learning trend, created by Corona is a subject to be studied.
The questions are: Do they have safe electricity connections at home and schools? Do they have computers or other devices like Android Mobile Phones, Tabs, iPads, or Laptops, etc? If they do not, who would provide them?
Through the views shared with me, the author, I could understand that many estate students, coming from a society living mostly in poverty, are interested in studying online classes but yearning for the devices to do so.
“Using smartphones, my classmates are attending online classes. I do not have a phone. The related channel is not available on the TV at home. This year I have to sit for the General Certificate of Education Examination, but how can I write the examination?” asks a student, and another Grade 8 student says, “My classmates are studying with I phones. I do not have that facility. I do not know how to handle it. Though I am interested and wish to study online, unfortunately, I am unable to make use of this facility”.
A Grade 5 teacher is preparing her students for the Scholarship Examination and shares her experience in this matter. “I am teaching 28 students sitting for the scholarship examination this year. Out of the 28, only 20 join the Zoom classes. Radio signals are interrupted very often. As a result, they experience many obstacles. When I ask them questions, unless their parents or siblings are by their side, they find it difficult to operate the microphones”.
The inability of students to reload data packages regularly on one side and the fact that cell phones used by their parents lack the facilities to study on the other are obstacles faced by these students. If this situation continues, there will be a drop in the success rate of the students. When this situation is not 100% favourable even for the upper-grade students, what will be the position of lower grade students?
Information Networks and Coverage
In the estate sector, most schools are located in mountainous areas where mobile and broadband coverage is very low. As a result, the students develop a tendency to hate online education.
In this regard, a student in Grade 12 share their views as follows:
“Online classes start at 6,00 am. Without proper coverage, lessons are interrupted. Even when we join the classes with interest, it is difficult to understand the lessons due to interruptions. When the teacher asks questions, we are unable to answer. I am frustrated with this continuous situation. How can I sit for the examination next year?” Most of the up-country estate students are frustrated like this.
In the upper-grade classes, Science and Maths subjects are taught rarely. Generally, these two subjects are taught in tuition classes. This is a source of income for teachers who conduct tuition classes after school. Separate classes are conducted, also on payment of fees.
Good Governance and Modern Projects
During the Good Government days, they were ready to provide laptops to school students and students studying in Universities. It was opposed by the opposition at that time. However, devices were provided to a few schools. Some schools now have ‘smart classrooms’. We must also remember that many schools rejected this (for political reasons).
After the spread of Coronavirus, Zoom became famous. The term Zoom-Class is widely used by parents, teachers, students and even small children. But, how exactly to use it is the question everyone is asking.
In this informational age, the world is digitalized. But, the subject of discussion is: how far can the up-country estate sector be able to join this digitalization in a functional manner:?
Views of Education Officers:
- Participation of estate sector students in online education is as low as 50%, in comparison with students from other regions. This came to light in a recent statistical study conducted in one Education Zone of the Central Province.
- Due to the continuous lockdowns, the number of students attending online classes have declined.
- Some students have access to cell phones, but they are not proficient in operating Zoom. Due to this, they are unable to attend Zoom classes, even when they have an interest in it.
In most houses, cell phones are the main mode of communication and the lack of sufficient knowledge to use them for educational purposes may cause frustration.
Only certain teachers conduct online classes. Leaving aside their technical knowledge, they are unable to coordinate with their students in mountainous areas where coverage is low. As a result, there is a big gap between teachers and students.
It has to be mentioned here that in certain schools, self-learning programmes were conducted for the teachers on Zoom. About 50% of the students who could not join the online classes have given up studying in this method.
The Ministry took special action to introduce the government’s Gurugethera teaching programme through E.Thaksala, Eye Channel, and Kurunchi Radio. But it is not possible for the students who do not have TVs or cannot access the wavebands. Though online learning is introduced, it is difficult to assess whether it is 100% correct. In this method, the achievement level of the students cannot be evaluated vis-a-vis direct learning classes.
Telecom companies should introduce a new policy to provide free internet services to students. As of now, the schools are functioning with Zoom technology via the internet. The students who cannot afford the data, fail to attain their targets. Among them are talented students and those who wish to progress who are now dropping behind.
Students who can afford to spend on data are evaluated as the ones who can progress in studies now. A proper programme for the students must be arranged through this. Even though we live in the information age, it is distressing that we are unable to help our students, who are our next generation, to learn.
It is questionable as to whether the online learning system that started with Corona is equally available to every student. There is the possibility of a widening gap between the affluent and poor students. With these challenges before them, how can upcountry estate students move forward, toward a better future? Under these circumstances, it is a mistake to depend entirely on programmes initiated by the government for the development of the educational environment in the upcountry estates.
Many of those from this community who are now in better positions must contribute to uplifting the standard of education in this community that is lagging behind others. It may be in the form of advice, funds, donations, and service. It is essential that Old Boys Associations and Development Committees of Schools, wealthy community members, Business people, learned persons in big positions, retired teachers, principals and academics coordinate together and develop a common programme to achieve this goal.