The new normal for education would necessarily involve a heightened awareness of and a focus on sanitation and social distancing. Will the new normal include transformative use of ICTs for learning? Our research shows that it depends on how well policymakers learn from the experience of organically formed teacher-parent-student networks in using ICTs for teaching at a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Use of ICT for teaching is different from the use of ICTs for learning. Teachers have been increasingly using multi-media, e-blackboards, learning management systems and student management systems for efficiencies in teaching, but the effectiveness of teaching is in the learning experienced by students. Learning happens when a student engages with the material, the teacher, or other learners, to know, to apply and to reason. The tools for learning are also different from tools for teaching. Learning involves tools such as interactive textbooks, tutoring tools or games that supplement textbooks, personalized educational programs, and access to the Internet for additional materials, in the hands of each learner .
If the goal of 21st century education is to enable self-directed learners who have learned to learn, ICTs are essential for learning to learn on a mass scale. However, the use of ICTS for learning is not as well-established as the use of ICTs for teaching, even in developed countries (OECD, 2015). Besides the cost of putting the right device and the right content in the hands of each student, the issue of acceptance and integration of technology by teachers (Gamage, 2018) and the lack of strong evidence for links between ICT use and measurable learning outcomes (OECD, 2015) are some of the reasons for this lag.
During the height of the COVID-19 epidemic when countries were locked down, ICT mediated distance education was the only option available to educators in countries rich or poor. In Sri Lanka, 48% of household with school-age children owned a smartphone or a computer but only 34% accessed the Internet in 2018 (LIRNEAsia, 2020). When schools closed on March 15th, officials and teachers had to adapt overnight to provide distance education. Given the state of Internet access, it is likely that half of the student body in Sri Lanka may not have had a distance education experience, but the universal availability of textbooks for children in Grade 6-11, and the rapid response by the government to provide broadcast TV lessons for students sitting for the three national examinations, addressed the issue of equity to some extent.
With the appearance of COVID-19, ICT use in education became the norm rather than a choice. Parents had to scramble to put a device with connectivity to the Internet or communication networks in the hands of children for at least a few hours of the day. Teachers had no choice but to accept and use whatever technology available. Did teachers use ICTs to deliver the same transmission mode of teaching, or did the limitations of the distance mode compelled at least some of the teachers to discover ways of guiding students to be self-directed learners?
LIRNEAsia, in partnership with Education Forum Sri Lanka, used a purposive sample of teachers and their students to observe the ICT use in education in Sri Lanka during COVID-19 in order to uncover good practices.
Our study shows that, during the COVID-19 induced closure of schools, ICTs were initially used by teachers to essentially transmit subject matter as static pictures of the notes they would share on their blackboards in a regular classroom. Since the exams were to be held as scheduled, this mode of education seems to be accepted without complaints by a majority of parents. Parents’ were only somewhat concerned about the large amounts of pictures or PDF files received on their smartphones but were highly concerned about difficulties in connecting and the cost of connectivity.
On the positive side, , teachers, parents and even officials organized themselves into WhatsApp group at school, divisional or zonal level to facilitate distance learning. Secondly, as school closures continued, teachers were increasingly sharing links to online resources, or videos of master teachers, leaving the valuable teacher-student interactions to give feedback. Thirdly, given the opportunity to practice an alternate mode of teaching subjects such as Health, Citizenship, Physical Education or Practical and Technical Skills by guiding the students to make observations and carry out simple home-based projects, both teachers and parents were quick to appreciate the value of this new mode of education. However, the long-held practice of teaching to the exams will be an obstacle to such activity-based and student-centered learning unless examinations are eliminated for these subjects.
Beside behaviors that prioritize sanitation and distancing, the new normal in education must include ways to transform the ‘ICTs for teaching’ experience during COVID in school systems in Sri Lanka, to an ICT facilitated ‘Learning to Learn’ experience for students . Specifically:
- Eliminate all formal examination for students in primary or lower secondary levels, except for Language and Math subjects in Grades 1-5 and the six core subjects in Grade 6-9 (From 2019, testing has been eliminated for the ICT subject in Grade 6-9)
- Allow each education zone to share innovative lesson plans and assessments for non-core subjects which aim to develop Citizenship, Health , Physical fitness and Practical and technical skills of each child, using local learning support networks that emerged during COVID-19. Further allow each education zone to develop methods for monitoring.
- Ministry of Education should engage in light touch regulation of the teaching and assessment of non-core subjects while creating a competitive environment that encourages further innovations by schools, or divisional or zonal offices.
The study consisted of three components -a survey of a purposive sample of parents of children in Grade 6-9 from the five districts -Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Matale and Trincomalee- who were engaged in some form of distance education during the COVID-19 lockdown from March 15th– May 15th (2) Observation and analysis of two WhatsApp groups from one of the districts, and (3) action research with a teacher each from Colombo, Gampaha and Kandy districts on student directed learning. See finalized post for details.
 These are the cognitive domains applicable to any content as identified by TIMMS.