Education; planning for the future
by Douglas King
Few can deny the success of the eradication of the LTTE and the opportunities it has created for Sri Lanka to develop peaceful and economically viable policies. Similar bold decisions need to be taken about education and must surely rank uppermost in priority. Despite numerous initiatives and huge amounts of money, donations or long term loans, most aspects of education remain in the doldrums. No longer can the government rest in the satisfaction of a 95% basic literacy, and a virtually free education system available to every child everywhere in the country. Now is the time to look beyond the here and now towards a future educational system befitting a third millennium perspective.
It surely seems a misguided policy to aim for a laptop for every child. The sheer logistics and cost of such an initiative are prohibitive. Is such an idea deemed a panacea for all educational woes? Is it the magic bullet that will catapult Sri Lanka into the club of first-world countries? The recent donation of 100 laptops by HNB to the children of a rural primary school, makes for good public relations but of little educational improvements. Apart from the security and maintenance difficulties, computer classes for parents were not initiated. Anyone, especially those in rural areas, who uses the internet provided by SLT or Mobitel knows only too well the varying reliability and speed according to day and time. How will these laptops really benefit these children? Has there been any research or pilot studies into such a project? How much better it would have been to provide the school with a small purpose built computer classroom complete with a multi-media projector.
A visitor to many classrooms in schools (or universities) would see little difference from their own school days. For the most part teaching still relies on the chalk and talk monopolized by teachers. Blackboards (and a few whiteboards) still display basic computation sums and spelling lists. New text books come and go, with thousands of outdated books piled high in storerooms. Seminars that give teachers time away from the classroom rather than providing educational inputs, remain the standby of in-service education. A bureaucratic administration includes many thousands employed at the Ministry of Education, the N.I.E., Provincial and Divisional educational offices.
Yet go into numerous schools, not only in rural areas, and all too often several grades will be sharing a common hall, with only a small space separating each class. Teachers may put a brave face on such conditions but know they cannot teach effectively with such visual and noisy distractions from adjacent classes. Even where separate classroom exists, the divide between classes maybe a half wall, so each teacher must still compete to overcome the noise interference from her neighbours. Beyond the classrooms, toilet facilities for students and teachers are basic, and many smaller rural schools have no running water or electricity. Numerous so-called popular schools blatantly ignore rulings on maximum class size by allowing in excess of fifty students in some classes.
One area of success that the government can claim is the gradual privatization of education. In numerous ways it has encouraged private institutions from pre-school to higher education. The rapid bourgeoning of international schools, which in reality are private English medium schools, says much for failed language policies of successive governments. The best of these schools receive official endorsement with key government luminaries invited as special guests for speech days and sport meets. With fees as low as Rs;1500 a month, these schools ensure that their students acquire the advantage of English language, written and spoken, without the need to attend extra and sometimes useless tuition classes. Only a minority of students at government schools achieve a similar standard of English.
Tuition classes are now a parallel education system with an estimated 80% of students attending one or more classes every week. The government turns a Nelsonian eye on thousands of these unregulated classes, as to their operation. Anyone, anywhere at anytime can conduct a tuition class from a few students in the teacher’s home to several hundreds packed into makeshift halls crammed with wooden benches. If students achieve good grades in their ordinary and advanced level examinations, much of the credit is due to the tuition classes that virtually all students attend.
As many as 12,000 pre-schools, wrongly termed Montessoris, can be found in every town and village. The majority are privately run for profit and like the tuition classes abide by few regulations as to physical conditions or qualifications of teachers. Most are little more than playgroups with educational input confined to workbooks that children fill with repetitive copying of the alphabet and numerals. The thousands of teachers with relevant pre-school qualifications appear not to have understood basic good practice in early childhood education.
Student numbers in private higher educational colleges far exceed those attending government universities. A walk along the full length of the Peradiniya Road in Kandy indicates clearly how many of these colleges exist. There are few regulations, government supervision or quality control, and degrees covering every subject are awarded, usually endorsed by a foreign university. Competitions to enroll students is intense, and various inducements are offered by way of minimum entry requirements and extended loans. No need to study for A levels, as some colleges offer direct enrollment to degree courses after completing O level examinations. The fact that many of these graduates will be adding to the list of the unemployed, seems of little consequence.
Whether because of, or in spite of government policies, education has become an obsession with so many families. What is not questioned or properly understood, is that quantity is replacing quality. Many primary schools now begin intensive scholarship examination tuition from grade three, whether from parental pressure or from improving their status and image. Research indicates that such measures make little difference to results, since the tuition is confined to an endless completion of previous test papers rather than intellectual development.
Only massive investment will ensure a real improvement, and although hundreds of millions of dollars have been fed into the system, the gains are marginal. Like too many policies, solutions are arrived at before a proper understanding of the problems. State education is so politically entrenched, that it requires the authority of an executive President to initiate a change of direction and even then his subordinates are reluctant to follow through. The best education is available to a minority of students in both government and private schools. A recent Presidential donation of Rs:30 million to the Ananda School swimming pool in Kandy, may have boosted his popularity for election, but other schools in the vicinity could have benefited from this money to have improved their very basic facilities.
Computers and ICT must become part of a modern educational system. Virtually every school in the UK maintains a website, often designed and maintained by students. Very few schools in Sri Lanka have websites and even fewer schools incorporate computer technology into their administration. Traditional typewriters are still in wide use. Real computer literacy among government servants is still low and institutions such as the courts, police and hospitals have hardly been touched by IT. Exploring web sites of Ministries and few have web sites that show innovation or creativity, and too often links don’t function and information is out of date. The Ministry of Education has never exploited basic audio-visual materials such as audio cassettes or more recently CD and DVD disks. In language studies there are easy ways to make stimulating and meaningful lessons. Few schools can provide the science equipment or experiments that could be made available on purpose-made DVDs displayed on a large screen from a multi-media projector. Studying aspects of science, maths, history and music through high quality multi-media could greatly complement the chalk, talk and textbooks that do little to inspire many students. The best and gifted teachers can now be available in every classroom even in remote rural schools. All that is required is a laptop computer with a multi-media projector at a combined cost of around Rs 130,000. A further Rs: 50,000 would provide a small petrol generator.
At the heart of such innovation is the quantity and quality of the multi-media content. Several years ago the author offered to personally fund in full a project to produce suitable cassettes, CDs and DVDs, mainly for English language but also for science. He suggested that a team of four experienced teachers be seconded to the project for an initial 3 months. Despite numerous letters to departments, colleges and individuals, as usual, not a single response was forthcoming. Had the same proposal emanated from the World Bank along with a multi dollar donation, the interest would have been immediate since money would have been available in a "flexible" way. It seems that the adage "we do what we know and we know what we do" is all pervasive.
With current technology, making multi-media lessons and content has become simplified. A good working knowledge of PowerPoint, Adobe and Audacity programs are ample to produce CD or DVD lessons. Producing quality websites is easily learnt using WYSIWYG applications. Since recordable disks cost less than 20 rupees each they are well within the budget of schools and individuals. As for hardware, computers and quality cameras, are now relatively inexpensive and filming and editing skills easily acquired. The sooner government realizes that a computer is just a piece of technology and the real question is how it is utilized and for what purposes.
Already some influential people in government are saying that interactive whiteboards are the way forward. Educational research, which seems not to have been consulted, points out conclusively that at the heart of educational excellence is a teacher who thoroughly knows her subject; how to teach and test it effectively; has suitable teaching conditions, and is dedicated to her students. The computer, and its multi-media applications, can make teaching more stimulating and effective, but since such teachers are only found in the top 10% of the profession, even more reason to provide the remaining 90% a technological backup.
Meanwhile, the political gains from a "laptop for every student" and "2009 Year of IT and English" will continue to dominate the education scene, albeit that they will have little real educational impact. The President has an opportunity to appoint a new Minister of Education. Hopefully he will offer such an important Ministry to someone with political will and educational experience, and of equal importance a person who is innovative and pro-active.
Douglas King firstname.lastname@example.org
Footnote: Take a look at the internet site www.youtube.com/jarjumsinkandy to view many short pre-school teacher training videos made by the author using a small digital camera and laptop with a total value of Rs:60,000. He has also made many short programs to assist with teaching English.
The writer is an educational consultant specializing in Early Childhood Education, TEFL and ICT. His experience includes teaching at every level from pre-school to university, in several developing and developed countries.