Need to regulate online education providers stressed | Sunday Observer

Need to regulate online education providers stressed

27 September, 2020
Online learning

“Disruptive innovation fundamentally transforms a sector by replacing expensive, complicated and inaccessible products or services with much less expensive, simpler and more convenient alternatives.” (Staker, P.1) Let’s take a few examples of disruptive innovations; Within just a decade, an expensive helicopter, a pilot and a camera were replaced with an inexpensive drone, a single software reduced the requirements for many drafters to one, the computer creates an inexpensive, simple and convenient work environment when compared with the pre-computer era work environment.

Online learning is also a disruptive innovation which provides an inexpensive, flexible and convenient learning environment compared to the traditional face-to-face learning.

Online learning has been started as a solution to provide learning facilities to students who have no alternative for learning and also to provide high-quality courses for the schools in rural areas where experienced and well-qualified teachers are hard to find. (Staker, P.1).

Online education in Sri Lanka

Until early 2000, distance education in Sri Lanka was limited to a blended program which consisted of a print-based system with a few face-to-face lectures conducted mainly by the Open University. In 2002, the University of Colombo School of Computing established the National e-Learning Centre (NeLC) funded by the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) to provide “Open, Flexible and Distributed e-Learning Environment to provide effective, efficient, scalable and economical learning opportunities to stakeholder communities in universities, schools, the public sector and society”. It provides over 40 free online courses and is branded as ‘Vidupiyasa’ (www.e-learning.lk).

Later in 2003, the Distance Education Modernisation Project (DEMP) aided by the Asian Development Bank commenced resulting in a positive movement in the resources available for online education.

The DEMP has established the National Online Distance Education Service (NODES) to facilitate universities and other private and public sector post-secondary educational institutions to deliver the online educational program. The ‘Access Centres’ established under the DEMP, the Nanasala established under the E-Sri Lanka initiative by the Information and Communication Technology Agency (ICTA) and Sarvodaya centres, played a virtual role in providing access to the online component of educational programs.

Among many other government initiatives, ‘One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)’ initiative launched by the Ministry of Education in 2011, and eBIT, the online version of the Bachelor of Information Technology degree offered by the University of Colombo introduced in 2003 are remarkable.

The online learning era of Sri Lanka has started as a novel tendency during the coronavirus outbreak in 2020. It started becoming popular among learners from grade 1 to postgraduate level, as a solution to continue the education since the traditional face-to-face learning has stopped as the schools and universities were closed as a result of the action taken by the Government to manage the coronavirus outbreak.

Even though many other developed countries use online learning to deliver various courses, including post-graduate-level courses, in Sri Lanka, its use is minimum. Online courses were conducted by a few Government and private institutions. Currently, there are many online courses delivered by public and private institutions. However, this will grow up further in the online learning era.

Online education is more popular over traditional education mainly due to its flexibility and convenience. It’s not a necessity for the students to attend lectures according to a specific timetable and they can watch recorded lectures later which is very convenient specially for knowledge seekers who are also working.

Since learners only need a good internet connection and a device like a computer to attend lectures, it saves the travelling time while overcoming the geographical barriers of learning.

On the other hand, course fee of online learning may be lesser when compared with face to face learning, as the number of attendees in the former is theoretically unlimited, many costs associated with face-to-face learning, such as building rent, utility and insurance cost are also eliminated. According to Loxley, Ho et al. (2003) as cited in Liyanagunawardena, T.R et at (2014), the average unit cost of the Open University of Sri Lanka (Conducts Distance learning) is circa 20% of the cost of the conventional university system.

Government intervention

The multi-modal approach using a diverse range of teaching and learning activities will make online learning more effective and interesting. It creates a conducive environment for the learners to interact with peers and the lecturer. There is a strong government intervention to regulate tertiary education and vocational education through the Act No 20 of 1990(Tertiary and Vocational Education Act).

According to Article 14 of the Act, any institute which provides tertiary education and/or vocational education courses shall be registered under the Act (with Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission). Applications for the registration shall be submitted to the Director-General and the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission shall approve such application if they are satisfied with the report submitted by the Director-General on the institute’s ability to provide tertiary education and/or vocational education.

Article 15 of the Act states that, “no person or establishment shall conduct any tertiary education and vocational education course or tertiary education course or vocational education course being a specified course without being registered under this act”.

The registration process accommodates only the face-to-face education providers and not the online education providers. The criteria for registration include the information regarding the institute’s permanent location, infrastructure, such as classrooms, sanitary facilities, safety and fire protection measures which are only required for face to face education providers. However, other criteria, such as institute’s information, recordkeeping information, details of courses and academic staff information are common for online and face-to-face education providers.

Registration of online education providers

The Act empowered the TVEC for the registration of any institute which offers tertiary education and or vocational education courses, therefore, it shall apply for the institutes which provide online education, whilst the act didn’t expressly address the mode of delivery either face to face or online. Therefore, the current registration process conducted by TVEC is doing an injustice for the online education providers. On the other hand, such a loophole will diminish the TVEC’s achievement of its third objective; “the maintenance of academic and training standards in institutes providing tertiary education and vocational education”, as no other mechanism is available to register, monitor and control those online education providers.

Kaye, 2002, as cited in Liyanagunawardena, T.R et at (2014) states that distance education programs conducted by state universities except the programs conducted by the Open University are heavily criticised for their quality. Therefore, it’s vital for online education providers to get registered to achieve the objectives of the Act.

Changes for registration

As mentioned earlier, some criteria for registration are identical in both modes. However, criteria related to physical facilities shall not apply for the online education providers. A new set of criteria related to the technical and other online education specific requirements shall be introduced.

Online learning industry comprises many stakeholders including providers of learning management systems (e.g. Talent LMS), online assessments providers, online libraries (e.g. the Construction Information Service (CIS)), conference facility providers (e.g. Zoom), the plagiarism detection services (e.g. Turnitin) and various other online learning resources (e.g. Wiki) and tools (e.g. Google Form).

Therefore, the technical and other specific requirements for the online education shall establish with due consideration to those stakeholders. For example, the criteria should include the specification for a Learning Management System (LMS) (as a substitute for the physical classroom) and a backup plan in case of a technical failure (as a substitute for the safety) among others. The current registration process shall be modified to cater to the above addressed technical requirements and facilitate any new institutes to provide face to face and/or online education courses.

Also, it is important to note that, since the current TVEC registered institutes have not been evaluated for their capability to deliver online education courses during the registration process, TVEC should assess their capabilities and permit them to deliver online education courses if they wish to deliver such courses. Even though the TVEC should treat the face to face and online teaching as two different methods as some capabilities required to deliver those are different, and register them differently, the Act has not differentiated them clearly. Therefore, any organisation which had been registered under the TVEC may conduct online education programmes even without any further registration whilst fully complying with the Act.

However, the Commission, can make rules, under the Article 4(g) or 4(i) of the Act and request any such registered institute to get the approval from the Commission to conduct any online education courses, until such time the Act amended to distinguish the mode of delivery; face to face or online teaching.

Requirement for online teaching course

Teaching online is different from face to face teaching. Lecturers may not possess expert skills in online teaching. So, it should be a mandatory requirement for all the online education providers to employ/hire a professional who has expert knowledge and skills on online teaching.

They can guide the institutes/lecturers on online teaching; on the use of available resources/tools to teach and assess the learners, how to keep motivating the learners, etc. However, currently no such online teaching education courses are available in Sri Lanka. Therefore, TVEC shall treat it as an urgent requirement and coordinate with the relevant authorities and introduce at least an NVQ 4 level online teaching course. Until a sufficient number of qualified online teaching personnel become available in the country, provisional registration can be granted.

Online Library

Even though the current TVEC registration process is not looking for a (physical) library, the quality of the online education might be enhanced if an online library is available for the learners. However, most online libraries/databases are based on foreign countries (e.g. UK) and may not be affordable for small scale local institutes. So, it will be beneficial for the learners if the TVEC can coordinate with the government and establish an online library for the Sri Lankan online education providers at an affordable price.

To get the best benefit from the online learning era, TVEC should act promptly on this matter and take immediate and long-term action to register online training providers, to get their contribution and also to expand the tertiary education and/or vocational education in Sri Lanka.

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