With online learning now becoming not just an option but a must do, many education institutes are going through the learning curve of moving to the web. This means some are at the startup stages in setting up their online courses, whilst others have already begun running several of their modules online. Then there are those who were already prepared for online education and have got to midstream level in teaching and interacting with students in a remote environment.
It is just more than sharing online
“Perfecting this system is not as easy as one would think, it is not as if you are merely operating modules like sharing course material online. That is not really difficult at all, because it has already been in practice for many years,” says Dr. Malitha Wijesundara, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities & Sciences at SLIIT. He says the real challenge is going beyond merely being a billboard and making the courses interactive.
That is the stage SLIIT is now in the throes of perfecting. Upeksha Rathnasena, senior lecturer of SLIIT says what is most important at this stage is attitude. “For example, as a lecturer who specialises in the teaching of English language as a communication skill, I am not in any technical field, so it is easy to develop a phobia towards going online. But at SLIIT, we are guided and directed to this path from day one. Training goes on for all academic staff on a regular basis, on being tech savvy and how to deliver our course material and interact with students in a tech environment. This primarily changes our attitude and there is a paradigm shift in our otherwise classroom oriented academic culture.”
The lockdown is exposing some weaker links in the overall delivery systems of the internet service providers and the system is strained, under the unusual demand of Sri Lanka’s housebound citizens looking for everything on the net - from entertainment to buying essential goods and services. Whilst these are issues that impact SLIIT, and constrains the university from delivering 100 percent to their students, Dr. Nuwan Kodagoda says approximately 90 percent of their students are doing well with online lessons, despite the hiccups. Given the limitations of bandwidth in the current scenario, the academic staff is also figuring out ways to cut their coat to suit the cloth. The means sending out learning packages in smaller bytes and sharpening their delivery to make lectures short, crisp and that much more effective.
Sharing best practices
“The best that has come out of this from the academic staff’s perspective, is that everyone is sharing best practices, which is helping us fine tune the system to create a better experience for the student body as they learn in a remote environment,” says Kodagoda.
One may ask if students gain from this experience, as one might think the best environment for learning would be in a classroom having a one-to-one experience with lecturers and fellow students. Upeksha Rathnasena who teaches in the English language unit of SLIIT says that her experience in conducting English lectures for academic purposes disproved this thinking. She says that her less responsive students in the physical classroom environment changed drastically when they were following lectures in the remote environment, becoming way more responsive.
Breaking down inhibitions
“The mode of delivery and the remote learning environment is breaking down inhibitions as they are asking more questions and are absorbing more.” Rathnasena says she sincerely hopes that this breaking down of barriers will help her students become more interactive in a physical classroom environment, when they return to campus after the lockdown. The reason given for this changed attitude, the lecturer says, is probably because of the intrinsic present day culture of younger people relating more to what's on the screen rather than what’s happening in real life.
She says that online delivery provides the English language lecturers an opportunity to keep abreast with new digital technologies and improvise with online platforms which by extension leads to both learner and teacher empowerment. “Despite minor technical glitches, personally my learning experience has been amazing,” says Ms Rathnasena.
But as Dr. Charitha Jayaruk, a chemistry lecturer at SLIIT, says learning online does have its issues in some aspects. He says learning sciences is hands-on, especially in the case of chemistry where lab work is done. “After all, they would ultimately be doing research and the laboratory is the stamping ground for all scientists. Not only do they have to learn the theory but they have to learn to put it into practice, which means not only the experiment by itself but learning to handle the environment around it, like handling the glassware, chemicals and above all, figuring out the safety factors. This has to be a hands on experience.”
Dr. Jayaruk is also unhappy that he can’t see the faces of his students, unlike in a classroom environment. “When you are physically with them, their body language will tell you whether they understood the lesson fully, partially or not at all. There are impediments when working online.” The chemistry lecturer says the rate of success or failure of online learning in his view is 50-50 i.e. that it can only be 50 percent successful.
Innovating new teaching methods
However, Dr. Jayaruk feels that in a situation like this it is practical to conduct the lectures online stimulating and nourishing their students, especially on theory-based modules rather than wasting their valuable time. “Though the 100 percent success is a question, engaging the students in academic activities is much appreciated at all times. We will have to innovate new teaching methods to address the existing issues, especially regarding Laboratory modules of all students and the research module of final year students.”
Computer Science lecturer Dr. Nuwan Kodagoda, on the other hand, sees more pluses. He says that under normal circumstances, peer group learning for students was considered advantageous. “However, we have recently picked up that whilst students are in isolation, they have no option but to learn individually. Access the material by themselves and to be more attentive, especially as they can no longer ask a student beside them for an explanation as some are wont to do. Also, the online classes can be watched over and over again, so that the students can go back to what he or she may have missed.”
SLIIT is in the process of moving more seriously towards assignments being handed over online. “Of course we will be on the open book model and we have technology to check for plagiarism. With our partnership with Curtin University, we also have technologies like Turnitin to check plagiarism in computer coding.”
The lockdown due to the worldwide pandemic will certainly change the environment as well as learning and teaching practices in universities. Whilst the open university model has been there for some time now, the alternate possibility to the regular universities which relied on the brick and mortar environment, will be looking at hybrid models for the future, where online and one-to-one can be mixed.
Whilst all this will create disruption and change age old systems of teaching and learning, it will also present a great opportunity, with local universities being able to broaden their scope and boundaries to the rest of SouthEast Asia. Already SLIIT has students from Nepal and Maldives but this model of distance learning could be a way of getting more students from countries such as these to follow the course at home and only visit Sri Lanka for lab experience and for final examinations.
Time to experiment, analyse
Whilst all this opportunity to increase capacity seems like a silver lining for the future, for now, SLIIT is engaged in a much more important exercise. They are using this time to experiment, analyse and share best practices to perfect their online system. It is like a giant laboratory, with human and technology meshing together, to find means of perfecting systems so that obstacles in teaching and learning in disruptive environments could be mitigated.