Digital disparity in rural and urban schools | Sunday Observer

Digital disparity in rural and urban schools

Recently, Sri Bodhi Vidyalaya, a 70-year old school of 200 students in the Galenbindunuwewa Education zone published its eight-page maiden Newsletter in English. The school has up to the 11th grade and is located 7km (only the last kilometre is gravelled) off the A-9 highway.

I was told that this newsletter is the first of its kind in the North Central Province. I leafed through and found it an extraordinary achievement as can be expected from a school with asthmatic computing support. The English teacher made over half a dozen trips to Anuradhapura to get the submissions word-processed and set in a readable format before printing. It was complete with photos, essays from students,teachers, and alumni. After some time , when the Newsletter was brought to the school, the students were ecstatic and proud of their literary cum media milestone.

When the children saw their masterpieces in print,each date-lined with the name,they felt as if they were short-listed for the Gratiaen Award. The articles written in their own brand of English, were vivacious and remarkable. They were pleasingly readable and had been presented with fine quality,though under trying circumstances.

A few articles drew my attention. Paboda Ashani, a 11th grader wrote: “Once I happened to visit a nearby school… There I found a room prepared … it was for English improvement. … idea knocked on my mind to establish the same … in our school.

My eyes attracted… to name boards such as…‘Reading Corner, Grammar Corner, Multimedia section .”My heart sank when I read the melancholic article of 6th grader Viduni Nethra ,titled“WHEN DO HAVE INTERNET……. ?”She wrote that her school is … old, and that she does not have Internet while “many schools getting … internet … carry out their education .”

Trinket of Gold

This is a trinket of gold written by a 6th grader for all of us to reflect on and feel ashamed about the level of disparity we have allowed to exist in rural and urban schools. Sri Bodhi is 7km from the nearest land-line phone, a common denominator for thousands of rural schools, preventing them from the luxury of Internet - the spare artery of knowledge common in schools in the city. Regardless of the putative negatives of the Internet, it is still a powerful tool in education.

Unknowingly, but fittingly, her cry echoes a moment in our history when 150 years ago, Charles Bruce,a Director of Education in colonial Ceylon witnessed first-hand unfairnessand paucity in our education policies. To the bubbling radiance of hope in little Viduni, history doesn’t throw any colour. In the 1880s too , the gap between, and fairness and unfairness, loomed large. As unfair as unfairness went then, a large number of schools were squeezed into urban areas. Director Bruce found 60 schools cramped within half a mile of Galle Road between Wellawatte and Moratuwa, a distance of 12km. There were no schools beyond the half-kilometre horizon of this stretch, mostly rural at the time. A repetition of this is today’s digital disparity experienced by rural schools all over the country. Its continuation without being addressed affected the future of hundreds of thousands of lone lights in the dark like Viduni. By releasing more funds to establish schools in rural areas, Charles Bruce put a stop to an aberration of his time and introduced policies such as the Bruce Revised Education Code.

Viduni’s observation has brought us to an inflection point in need of a thorough review of the digital age impact or lack of it on obscure, obfuscated schools like hers. Charles Bruce’s present-day cohorts are yet to address the most pressing need of our time- sparsity of equitable education support. For example, three schools - Netiyagama, Kahapathwilagama and Wellaragama in a 10 square kilometre area in the vicinity of Viduni’s school, also do not have Internet support. In eight schools within one square kilometre in Kandy city, all schools are equipped with Internet.

These facts correspond with the thin computer ownership in the country. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, in 2017, 38.2 per cent of the urban population and 20.6 per cent of the rural population owned computers at home. In the Colombo district 44 per cent of the population used Internet while the same sampling for rural districts was atrociously in 4.4 - 6.8 range. The reason for this 10-fold drop in Internet use in rural districts (correspondingly, schools) is in a large part due to the unavailability of broad-band connectivity with land-lines or towers nearby.

Towers of Relevance and Irrelevance

It is refreshing that some schools are going out of their way to provide the best for their students and find solutions for their inadequacies. Recently, the energetic principal of Sri Bodhi contacted a bevy of young engineers from Mobitel and Dialog to see if there was any technology to break this digital impasse and get the on-line concept across the perimeter into his school. They told him that if there are powerful communication towers, engineering is available to get schools connected digitally.

They visited the Sri Bodhi school and found that the nearest tower is 7km away hidden behind a hillock on A-9, making it difficult to apply their magic. In areas where towers are not accessible, which is common, a linkage can be established just for the school with a 20-metre dedicated antenna. The cost is about Rs. 40,000 with a monthly service of Rs. 3000-5000. It is encouraging that these engineering maestros continue to work on this specific problem.

Large communication towers are mushrooming all across Sri Lanka. In the process, they have become eye sores to the green velvety expansion of the sweeping landscape.A good example are the Dumbara hills near Kandy. The communication towers on these mountain-tops look like a row of dead Pinus trees across the blue expanse all the way to the Knuckles range spoiling the serenity of the panorama. Nevertheless, these towers have become a necessary evil.

Into the midst of this comes the big brother of all towers - the Nelum Kuluna in the heart of Colombo. This is an impressive engineering edifice. It has, top of the line communication features, restaurants,and observation decks. It is billed as the tallest in South Asia. I have no doubt that the pilots have it on their pre-flight check-list. On a clear day, if you stand on your toes on its observation deck, you can see Diego Garcia. While this monster stands out swaying in the firmament of nothing, and having usurped 100 million dollars, a 6th grader is crying in her inaugural school Newsletter for her dream: a measly sum of 225 dollars for a modicum of antenna no taller than a regular radio receiver atop a house, so that she and her classmates can enter the Alice’s Wonderland of education sophistication with the benefits of the Internet like her peers in the urban sprawl are enjoying.

For many, such a trifling tower may look foreshortening and comical, but in the Sri Bodhi school, if they get it, it will be their beacon of hope standing tall with magic proportions to reach their next Utopian academic bliss and beyond. And, pardon me for the metaphor, but for small schools in the village, the tallest edifice in Colombo is no Mount Meru, but at best an unsavoury ivory tower. It is not that village children don’t have the enterprise, ingenuity, and enthusiasm.

The Sri Bodhi Newsletter is telling proof for otherwise. Also, just 25 km west of here, in the similarly rural area of Mahawilachchiya, school children of Horizon Lanka have proved their digital prowess with the help of a slightly large, dedicated antenna. These students didn’t ask moon dust for this. They did with with the help of some embassies and an energetic teacher. What they showed us is that the lack of opportunity and in a vacuum-like environment do not impede their want to flourish if right assistance is available.

Students in rural schools sit for the same government exams, competing with insurmountable difficulties with schools that augment teaching with primers and tools like Google Classroom or Khan Academies of the world. But in most rural schools obfuscated from public sentience and the Internet miracle, the primer is a slightly-changed version of the one the students’ parents and grandparents used once.

It is normal now for Colombo to send out circulars and advisories to schools across the country with links to on-line addresses which teachers are advised to access. Applications for some jobs in the Government or private sector can only be submitted on-line . This, as they say, is a piece of cake if you have a well-appointed computer lab at school or a computer at home with the benefit of broad-band connections as smooth as water passing over a spillway. But it is not how things are in the school at the end of the gravel road. Internet access for it is still illusory, for its nearest telecommunication tower or the telephone land line reaches only up to the beginning, not to the end of that proverbial pin para. The big brass in Colombo continues to ignore this fact.

They are beating their chest with the claim that modern educational aids are available to all schools fairly and in equal footing. Colombo being out of touch with reality is one thing, but some city teachers I spoke to surprised me by subscribing to their hypocrisy. One believes that since iPhones are common,it had raised the computer literacy rate. But how does even an iPhone work in places where reception is possible only if you climb an arecanut tree, literally? Honestly, such thinking is nothing short of pervading inequality foisted upon a sector of the voiceless student population. The playing field is not even as many want Viduni to believe.

Teachers in rural schools are struggling to keep the honour of their profession in the face of this terrible educational support disparity.

Harvard myth

They are being asked to do a Sisyphean task to bring the development of their protégé on par with the rest,without the blessing of the panoply of digital marvels their colleagues in sprawling and affluent academies in the modern-day equivalent of the Bruce Education Code schools across Sri Lanka are enjoying. But the reassuring part is that these teachers are not sitting idle. They challenge the challenge, being innovative with small steps like writing help and harnessing the efforts of enterprising engineers.

Recently introduced proposals provide a classic example for the misplaced priorities on matters of education. It suggests that those top-of-the-class Sri Lankan students who get accepted to elite universities like Harvard, MIT or Oxford are going to be provided with a $70,000 annual grant or interest free loans of some sort by the Government. I have reservations about this idea for the following reasons. Firstly, let’s not kid ourselves that a student will return to Sri Lanka after getting a degree from Harvard or MIT.So, it’s an investment with no return.

Secondly, if a Sri Lankan student got accepted to Harvard, chances are that the parents don’t have to pay a cent, for, according to financial-aid criteria of the university, children of low-income parents are automatically considered for free tuition and board. Generally, Sri Lankan parents fall in to low income category based on the U.S. guidelines. Harvard started this progressive policy in the last decade and many elite universities have started mimicking its lead. This $70,000 may not be needed after all. With the kind of endowment Harvard is sitting on, it can easily support a Sri Lankan student through his/her studies.

Harvard will be mighty glad to see the proposed money is kept where it can be best used. And I found what $70,000 can do here in Sri Lanka. After doing its calculus, the brigade of four engineers we talked to said that with that kind of money, they can install antennas in 300 village schools - approx. 60,000 students. It will provide Internet connections to schools such as Sri Bodhi sitting mired at the end of the 7-km moraine.

Finally, we are glad that without the highfalutin facilities to excel, the rural students have survived in the margin. But it is incumbent upon us to get this slight righted. Only then we can look at the faces of these children honestly and say,‘we did our best.’

The best is what is wanting in the top administrators and the polity to envision a structure of digital parity – a looking glass where all students standing in front will see the same image regardless of how far from or close,they are to an A-9, the highway through the city. 

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