Universities take to online transition | Sunday Observer

Universities take to online transition

In a bid to protect the next generation from the fast-spreading pandemic, the Government made a proactive decision to shut all universities and schools on March 12, a decision taken within 24 hours when the first local case of Covid-19 was reported. As a result, all university students were sent home, and almost all academic activities ground to a halt.

Being a country where e-learning is still on its way, physical presence is looked upon as a must in university education. However, several state universities commenced their academic activities through online platforms a few weeks ago.

In this route, they (universities) use a similar platform named Learning Management System (LMS) to conduct their lectures which is being used to upload almost all materials related to lectures including PowerPoint Presentations, Notes, Ebooks and other references.

Novel experience

Even though lectures and other regular activities at universities were put on hold, the liability of the Government was not on hold. In other words, taxpayer money had been used to cover expenses such as maintenance costs and salaries which are compulsory overheads in the process of producing graduates.

“A delay in our output is a delay in national output” Dr Narada Fernando, former Dean, Faculty of Commerce and Management Studies (FCMS) at the University of Kelaniya said in an interview with the Sunday Observer.

FCMS currently offers 11 undergraduate degree programs and roughly 2,750 students are studying at four levels. e-learning and also e-teaching was a novel experience for both undergraduates and the academic staff. “I must give credit to all of them for accepting this with utmost positivity,” he said. When the curfew was imposed and health authorities advised to reduce public gatherings, the University of Colombo had decided to continue their undergraduate programs via online platforms to which the Government also gave the green light.

Hansa Jayarathne, a lecturer attached to the Department of Demography, University of Colombo acknowledges utilising digital online platforms as the beginning of a new chapter in the Sri Lankan higher education history. “We always talk about a digital revolution, Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. Online learning is perhaps the first step to prepare our graduates to embrace such novel concepts in the contemporary world” he said.

Criticism

Student Unions in several state universities highlighted the fact that some students are marginalised due to e-learning methods introduced by university administrations, as all students do not have equivalent resources such as digital devices and broadband facilities.

In a recent quiz that Dr Fernando conducted for second-year students in the Department of Finance, 127 students out of 131 had participated, a satisfactory turnout even under normal conditions. “Even at a final year examination, we do not see 100% student participation,” he said.

Contrary to the allegation by student unions, there is a loan scheme running under the University Grants Commission (UGC), facilitating students to buy laptop computers. The UGC also announced free broadband facilities to those who are accessing e-learning platforms, subsequent to an agreement with local broadband providers. “In a physical classroom students are reluctant to raise a question. I do not see that passive behaviour in the online (zoom) lectures. There is always a high level of student engagement” Dr Fernando added. In his online lectures, Hansa Jayarathne also witnessed an attendance of about 80 per cent which he thinks is a remarkable achievement.

“We, the Faculty of Arts and of course the Department of Demography did not do it blindly. First, we got a feedback from students and then commenced online learning programs” Jayarathne said.

“I admit that there are some students who do not have devices to access the online learning platform. But they can always receive recorded lectures,” he said.

In contrast, he thinks it was a good opportunity for all universities to assess the problems in online learning methods such as lack of digital devices and poor broadband connections. “It is a pleasure that the University of Colombo is performing well in online teaching. The university has adapted well to the new format in a short period of time,” he said.

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