Freedom of expression and fundamental rights

Online Education and Equal Right to Education

Aruna Lakshman Fernando

Online education is not new to the world, although it is pretty new to the broader society of Sri Lanka. The majority of Sri Lankans might still have not known online education unless the invasion of the island by Covid-19 in March 2020. After more than a year, the education system has converted mainly into online education. However, it is proving day by day that the purpose of education is far from online education. 

Neither students nor teachers were ready for online education in Sri Lanka, although it was hurriedly introduced. Parents also did not have thought of the cost of equipment needed for online education. Today, online education can be considered an extension of the inequalities in terms of distributing resources in Sri Lanka. We have to admit that online education has created an unfortunate situation in which the objectives of free education are violated. 

The network coverage in Sri Lanka has not improved to the level of efficient online education. The use of data increased rapidly, and the telecommunication service providers could expand their capacities. However, what they did was increasing the sale of connections without improving the connectivity. Not only have the children in the rural areas, but the students who live in the periphery of the Colombo district also lack proper connectivity. Some have to climb trees, rocks, and roofs to find the signal for online learning. The service providers did not change their cunning system of dividing data as day and night quotas. The role played by these companies is similar to the acts of pickpockets. Today, parents may be bearing the highest day-to-day expenses next to the essential commodities for data. There are state bodies who can mediate, but nothing seems involved. The government did not attempt to provide services at a fair price through the state-owned Sri Lanka Telecom. 

The lack of equipment is another crisis. Tabs and laptops are recommended for online learning and teaching. However, only a few students had access to them, and the majority of the students used mobile phones. The prices of smartphones are lower compared to tabs and laptops. However, the small size of the screen creates problems. Significantly, the text shown by the teachers cannot be easily read on smartphone screens. Also, the sound quality of the speaker is too poor for listening. Many students face difficulties related to vision now due to keeping the smartphones too close to their eyes, the ophthalmologists point out. 

The majority of the parents face the difficulty of supplying the equipment needed for the online learning of their children. There are times three children of a family has to participate in online learning. The three cheapest smartphones may cost Rs. 50,000 to the parents. When children use the phones of their parents, problems occur. It is not easy for the parents to commit their phones to the kids. Sometimes, the income sources of the parents are related to mobile phones. It is a vital tool for adults to maintain social relationships. The economic crisis does not pave the way for the parents to purchase equipment. 

On most occasions, the online classes of the primary students, especially the students facing the Grade 5 scholarship, are held for multiple hours continuously. Such lessons put the kids under severe pressure. The writer of this article noticed a few weeks ago that a student learning in Watareka in the Colombo district complained about headaches and vision problems. The majority of the parents are happy with some kind of teaching. Therefore, they ignore the terrible impact of this kind of stressful teaching on the minds of their children.  

Although there are problems, we cannot give up online education. If wisely used, online education can be a supplement to classroom teaching. We could have quickly adjusted to online education if we had experienced the use of television for distance learning. Therefore, the responsibility of the government is to plan online education properly at this juncture. The previous government proposed providing tabs for students, and the then opposition opposed it. This proposal must be implemented without seeking political mileage. The teachers can be educated on technology such as the use of equipment and software like editing tools. Every school can create a website and use it to disseminate educational programmes. The children have the right to best assets, and their needs must not be mere political slogans.  

The government must accelerate the programmes of electrifying and improving the network coverage of telecommunication. The laptops and tabs must be considered educational tools, and the taxes reduced for them. Online education can be used to reduce the number of school days, and the students can be given the opportunity to explore knowledge freely. Such measures might reduce traffic and stress. The safety of the student is also improved with these measures. The students can practice more research and self-learning. In a nutshell, online education can increase the quality of education if it is wisely used.

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The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

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