By Nadia Fazlulhaq
Pandemic reveals the digital learning gap between students who can afford online learning and students who cannot
For mother-of-three Denuka Weerakkody, online classes and online school sessions due to pandemic shutdowns have become a costly affair, despite sending her three children to public schools.
From Rawatawatte, Moratuwa, his children, in 6th, 9th and oldest, a candidate for the regular level exam this year, all at home are studying online because schools in the Western Province are closed and classes are not allowed.
“We spend Rs. 5,000 for monthly online classes for our daughter who attends group classes for five subjects. Our second child is taking lessons in three subjects paying Rs. 2,400 per month and spending another Rs. 1,200 on the younger ones taking math and science lessons, ”she said.
Their home broadband setup takes around 15 days as all three students learn through Zoom.
“Apart from Rs. 1,500 for wi-fi, we use two more data cards costing Rs. 495 each and two more Rs. 199 cards for a month. Fortunately, some of their school sessions are between 7am and 8am and we can use the extra data at night. The mobile and the laptop at home are used for studying. The youngest misses his studies when the three study sessions fall at the same time, ”she said.
Advanced level students pay more for courses with monthly fees of between Rs 6,000 and Rs 9,000, while individual online courses go up to Rs. 2,000 to Rs 3,000 for two hours per week.
Housewife Kumudini Fonseka from Hendala, Wattala is the mother of an advanced student. She says, “It hasn’t been easy for us. When they started their studies online, we bought a cell phone for Rs. 23,000 while she was studying for A / L. Apart from that, we pay Rs 6,000 for the online courses. We must pay on time, otherwise the child will not receive the tutorials and the link.
She said they had to get a home broadband facility and pay around Rs. 2,500 for the internet for their advanced daughter and graduating son who are taking an online English course.
Communication stores have seen an increase in sales of data cards, especially for e-learning.
“The students come to request recharges of Zoom data. Most buy the Rs. 165 data recharge for 25 GB, also called the Zoom pack. Some come looking for the cheapest data offerings to take online courses, ”said one owner.
Among the requested offers is a special 20GB anytime data add-on at Rs.100 for Office 365 and MS Teams and unlimited data for Zoom and Microsoft Teams for Rs.540 per month.
“Some students had to access online education through smartphones, using mobile data packages that many could barely afford. Students from low-income households have suffered disproportionately and the gaps have widened in access to higher education, ”says a report titled“ E-learning in Sri Lanka’s higher education institutions. during the COVID-19 pandemic ”published by the Asian Development Bank. It was similar to secondary and primary education in the country as well.
Sujeewa Kumara, director of Hewavitharana Maha Vidyalaya in Rajagiriya, said that despite being in Colombo district, only a handful of students come online for classes.
“Out of 74 students in regular level classes, only about 20 can afford to come online. Parents cannot afford to provide online classes or online classes. Many provincial schools in the Western Province are experiencing this situation, ”he said.
A teacher from a rural education area in Kalpitiya said: “We wish that there is no pandemic situation where our children will only have the online option. They will be lost. I created a WhatsApp group, unfortunately a majority of students couldn’t afford a phone with an internet connection. ”
Stories of such deprivation are common in many rural areas.
MG Dewmi Vimoksha, a student at a school in the Walasmulla Education Zone in Hambantota, said throughout the pandemic that she was limited to reading books and activities in textbooks.
“We don’t have a phone, laptop, or even the Internet. Our parents are not financially able to provide us with such facilities. I was good at studying, I’m sure I will also be able to learn a lot using a computer, ”she said.
DK Nethindu also from the same region, learned to use Zoom with a lot of effort.
“Although I am interested and use my parents’ phone, most of the children in our schools do not have such facilities,” he complained.
Students from Wijeyapura Village, Wanathavilluwa Area, Puttalam District, were seen climbing trees and lake bunds to connect to Zoom sessions. There were scenes of several students gathered around a student holding a phone to help them take notes posted on WhatsApp.
Dr Sakuntala Yatigammana Ekanayake, senior lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Peradeniya, said the coronavirus has created a digital learning gap between students who can afford several online courses taught by the best teachers and those who cannot afford or have access to online learning.
“The state should make it a priority to provide teachers and parents with the ability to purchase cell phones / laptops through bank loans or easy payment programs. Improving the digital literacy of teachers by developing a pedagogy on online teaching is a must. Mobile learning should be promoted with the safe use and monitoring of the Internet, ”she said.
Dr Yatigammana, who has researched online education, said poor connectivity is a concern.
“Online learning is one of the best methods of reaching areas where there are teacher shortages, pandemic situations and attending top speaker classes from anywhere in the country. But it should be accessible and affordable, ”she said.
The director of the ICT branch of the Ministry of Education, Udara Dikkumbura, said that at present, only 30 percent of the student body have access or can afford online learning.
“Plans are being made with the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to improve network facilities in rural areas. We are preparing guidelines for parents on the safe use of the Internet and are including online education in teacher training modules, ”she said.
(Additional reports from WA Nelka, correspondent for Hambantota and Jude Samantha, correspondent for Puttalam)