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Open and Distance Learning Initiatives in Sri Lanka – II by Rohan R Wasala

Dear community members,
I have come across this interesting article that explores the role of Sri Lanka's Nenasalas or telecentres in Open and Distance Learning.
Source: The Island

Like the OUSL, the NIE can benefit from the rapidly expanding network of Nenasalas (literally ‘Wisdom Outlets’ or telecentres) across the island as an ICT resource for its programmes including open and distance language learning initiatives. The Nenasala project was started in January 2005 with the first Nenasala at the Kirivehera Temple in Kataragama, which was inaugurated by Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister at the time. In fact, both the Nenasala concept and its implementation methodology were his brainchild: he decided in favour of establishing Nenasalas in every part of the country both urban and rural instead of internet cafes (which would be exclusively patronised by the economically better placed); he also saw to it that they are located in, and run in collaboration with, our national cultural centres such as Buddist viharas, Kovils, Mosques, and Churches. By mid 2009 about 600 out of the 1000 Nenasalas originally planned had been set up and the network is expected to be complete by the end of this year (2010).

This extensive telecentre system that covers the whole island is extremely important as the vital infrastructure element that is needed to support the ongoing and upcoming ODL programmes of both the public and private sector educational providers. The Nenasalas which come under the e-Sri Lanka Development Initiative are operated by the Information and Communications Technology Agency (ICTA) of Sri Lanka. The ICTA set up under the Information Infrastructure Programme is the apex national body responsible for the formulation and direction of ICT policy in the country. It aims at ‘empowering a knowledge society’ through a distance and e-learning network.

The importance of ICT-based learning (e-learning) had already been recognized before the establishment of the ICTA. The novel development, to which the ICTA’s creation was a response, was the growing awareness among both the providers and the users of e-learning of the fact that ICT-based learning and information sharing approaches would usually demand strategic harmonization and policy support for enhancing the impact of individual initiatives.

When the Nenasala project was launched at the beginning of 2005, computer literacy in Sri Lanka was 1%; by March 2009 (i.e. in just 4 to 5 years) it had risen to 25%; it is expected that the end of 2010 will see it rise to 50%. This achievement is largely due to the Nenasala initiative of the government. The success in the ICT field seems to have been widely recognised. The Asia Pacific Telecentre Network Secretariat was set up in Sri Lanka in March 2009. While advances in ICT benefit all aspects of national development, they have particular relevance to the dissemination of English language knowledge through ODL programmes obviating the traditional urban-rural divide.

The National e-learning Centre (NeLC) of the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) is an agent for the application of ICT for national development by promoting teaching, learning and research; it will explore and formulate new and innovative content development, delivery, and evaluation by exploiting ICT. The NeLC has been launched to provide the necessary e-learning capacity for the various initiatives of the government aimed at building a sound human resources base for the overall economic and social advancement of the country, communal harmony, and poverty alleviation especially of the rural districts through the promotion and dissemination of e-education.

The NeLC offers consultancy and other services to institutes of higher education, and schools in the public and private sectors. It is also introducing, in collaboration with higher education institutes in Sweden and several other countries, a full time PhD and MPhil program in e-learning, a part time Master of Information Technology (e-learning) course, specialized training in e-learning, and workshops and seminars. The centre also produces and delivers a number of online courses: Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT), Foundation in Information Technology (FIT), UCSC Certified Computer Assistant (UCCA), UCSC Certified Computer User (UCCU), and NAITA Certification.

The University of Colombo also uses Moodle as its learning management system. It has implemented a plan to compile a Sinhala version of Moodle under its PANdora project ( with financial support from the Pan Asia Networking (PAN) Programme Initiative of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) under a grant to the Virtual University of Pakistan for the project PANdora.

The University of Peradeniya offers a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) degree programme online, initiated by the Department of Management Studies. The course is delivered through the university’s Centre for Distance and Continuing Education (CDCE). The registered students can access the site from home or one of the NODES access centres. There is a virtual canteen which the students can use to get to know each other, and establish collaboration. Tutors are assigned for the component course modules. Students log in with them for instruction and guidance.

The Centre for Open and Distance Learning (CODL) of the University of Moratuwa, which has a partnership with the DEMP of the Ministry of Education (MOE), started its online Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) degree programme in September 2007. Students who get enrolled at the university study on their own using the e-learning materials and other resources provided by the CODL. In addition to the MOE, the University of Moratuwa works in partnership with two local computer education institutes: the ESOFT Computer Studies (Pvt) Ltd, and IDM Computer Studies (Pvt) Ltd.

The students have the opportunity to avail themselves of individual online tutorial support from a tutor/mentor assigned by the CODL. The tutors are also available for offline advice through email and individual discussion forums. Individual tutors continuously monitor the students’ performance, provide feedback on assignments, quizzes, and examinations, and answer questions related to the course. Students can also email their instructor anytime, and chat with them at the chat room by appointment.

Traditionally, Sri Lankan mass media – both print and electronic – have been playing a significant part in community education as well as formal education, a process which could be described as open or distance education. Newspapers, TV and radio still carry on various informational programmes designed to raise public awareness of important issues, and supplementary lessons for school children, thereby contributing to the expansion of the general knowledge base of the country. With the recent exponential increase in revolutionary innovations in the communication technologies, this process has significantly accelerated.

While normal radio stations broadcast their programmes without centrally targeting a particular community, a community radio channel caters to the needs of the population of a specifically identified area. A community radio is "a broadcasting organisation established to provide communication support for the social, economic and cultural development of a community within a geographic location and owned and operated by the community on a non-profit basis." (IDS, 2002 p.2)

Thus, community radio stations usually serve the marginalised rural segments of a country’s population. Among the many regional radio stations in Sri Lanka the Kothmale Community Radio (KCR) channel, though still not owned by the community it serves as required by the definition quoted above, occupies a special position. It was inaugurated in response to an urgently felt need to educate the over 60,000 rural folk resettled away from their original villages which got submerged in the course of the Government’s massive Mahaveli development scheme in the 1980’s. The KCR was launched to provide these mostly indigent, illiterate rural poor with information about avenues of employment, education for their children, health for their families, etc and to secure their participation in the development of their own community.

The Kothmale Community Radio Internet Project (KCRIP) is an offshoot of the KCR. The KCRIP is intended to provide the target community access to the Internet. A preliminary survey carried out before the project was started revealed the following inhibitive factors affecting the target community: lack of access facilities such as computers and connectivity, a low high level of literacy and absence of a knowledge of English among the members of the community, paucity of appropriate information products in the local language, and lack of interest among the populace in using the information available on the Internet.

The KCRIP uses community radio as an interface between the community and the Internet through a "Radio-browse" model, which consists of the following features: 1)there is a daily "Radio Browsing the Internet" programme that is broadcast from 1900 hrs to 2000 hrs every day, when the broadcasters with the help of resource personnel browse through the Internet on air to locate information requested by the listeners, and this information is explained and contextualised by studio guests, e.g. a local doctor to explain data on a health web site; 2) at the radio station the members of the community are free to use the computers and the connectivity available to surf the Internet with the assistance of trained volunteers; 3) the radio station develops its own database from the requests received from listeners; and 4) the KCR, with its server, provides internet access at two public libraries in its vicinity, which turns it into a local internet service provider.

The TV channel known as ‘Learn TV’ is a new distance learning initiative launched in 2009 by the Dharmavahini Foundation of Sri Lanka at the instance of Ven. Mettavihari of Denmark of that organization in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and hosted by Dialog TV. It is a 24-hour educational programme, which broadcasts lessons of 40 minutes duration in all subjects offered at the GCE (OL). The lessons are conducted by qualified teachers of the relevant subjects under the supervision of subject experts appointed by the Ministry. These include English language lessons. The programme is a boon to students, especially those in remote districts, for whom private tuition is beyond their parents’ capacity to pay for. The organizers are planning to introduce similar sessions for the students of the Advanced Level from 2011.

The foregoing outline of some of the Sri Lankan initiatives towards expanding access to education and developing the employability of the youth of the country through distance learning will demonstrate the importance of improving English language instruction. Not only will proficiency in English and computer literacy ensure equitable access to a good general education for all on both sides of the chronic rural-urban divide, it will also prove to be the first step towards equipping our young with the capacity to continue their higher education through online learning either in Sri Lankan public universities or in private institutions both here and abroad.

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