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COVID-19, Turning Challenges into Opportunities for Online Teaching and Learning

Dr Namali SURAWEERA

Former Director, National E-Learning Resource Centre (NELRC)

Head/Senior Lecturer, Department of Library and Information Science

Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka

In response to the ongoing concerns in relation to the COVID-19 virus, the Sri Lankan government has encouraged all Universities, Campuses, Higher Education Institutes to promote e-learning to ensure uninterrupted university education during this prevailing situation. This timely valuable decision should be highly appreciated because e-learning has power to move towards more effective and efficient teaching and learning process in any situation if we use it correctly with clear understanding. Although, in the Sri Lankan higher education sector, e-learning is still at the initial stage, teachers had to start their online teaching without thinking their preferences. So, before COVID-19 outbreak, there were number of excuses made not to use online teaching but due to the current situation, without thinking barriers, students as well as academics have been motivated to continue online teaching and learning which can be explained as turning challenges into opportunities of online teaching and learning.

Most of higher education institutes in Sri Lanka use their own Learning Management System (LMS) as an e-learning method which is mostly applied as a supplementary tool to the face-to-face education. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in Sri Lanka which have led to the closure of universities, the University Grants Commission abruptly requested for the use of e-learning in continuing university education for students wherever possible, in the light of the rapidly changing situation. Therefore, continuing education through fully online mode could be a newer experience for universities, their academics as well as students. During this interim crisis period, we cannot expect that all universities have fulfilled the relevant strategic dimensions, but after the prevailing situation in the country returns to normal, all universities or higher education institutes should plan for e-learning systematically through building the capacity of universities to drive, sustain and scale up their e-learning practices in order to face situations like this in near future. Otherwise, due to the sudden requirement, e-learning would continue somehow based on capacity of individual departments or faculties but that has limited sustainability and scalability within and across programs in the university.

Although today’s student can be branded as “Digital Natives”, it has to be accepted that not all university students own digital devices that support e-learning. However, to support such university students, couple of years back the Sri Lankan government has introduced laptop loan scheme. This is a special offer that provides an interest free bank loan of Rs. 75,000 to all government university students to purchase a computer of their choice. On the other hand, students mostly use technology for the purposes of entertainment and communication. They lacked experience of using technology for learning, generating and constructing knowledge. To overcome this issue, academics has introduced information literacy program and provided step by step guidance. Present President of Sri Lanka has instructed the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) to provide free Internet facilities for all undergraduates in State universities, who had registered for e-learning. This is timely important decision, so students may continue with their education without interruption. Not only during the crisis period but in everyday life, providing equity of access to IT/ICT, supplying rural broadband services, establishing National broadband policy, and decreasing cost of access to internet and other technologies are important to upscale e-learning opportunities.

E-learning master plan is absent in Sri Lanka. Therefore, universities should formulate an e-learning master plan and its corresponding policies, specific guidelines and mechanisms to promote academics staff to engage in e-learning. This will help each university to promote and motivate their all academic staff members to use e-learning equally and equitably, otherwise only those who have capacity and self-interested on e-learning will engage in it, while other academics may eliminate from e-learning.

Due to the urgency of current situation in Sri Lanka, we should continue with e-learning without thinking whether we did the pilot project or not. After the prevailing situation in the country returns to normal, we should consider this as a pilot project to identify issues and academics and students’ reactions. As a result, we will be able to implement successful e-learning programs in near future under any circumstances.

Universities should reflect upon their existing e-learning strategies, identify gaps with respect to their vision for how e-learning may enhance learning and teaching and possibly develop new strategies or revise existing ones to address these gaps. There is no argument that e-learning is the best solution to face the prevailing situation in the country due to COVID-19. Therefore, we should take this situation as a lesson to go forward with e-learning.

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