For Denuka Weerakkody, a mother of three, online tuition classes and online school sessions due to pandemic closures have become a costly affair, despite sending her three children to government schools. From Rawatawatte, Moratuwa, her children, in grade 6, grade 9 and the eldest, an Ordinary Level exam candidate this year, all are at home [...]


70% of Lanka’s students have no access to online study

Pandemic exposes digital learning gap between students who can afford online learning and students who cannot

In some villages, students have to locate a place, often atop a rock or hillock, where there is enough signal strength to follow online classes. These girls from Vijayapura at Wanathavilluwa in the Puttalam District have found such a place atop a lake bund.

For Denuka Weerakkody, a mother of three, online tuition classes and online school sessions due to pandemic closures have become a costly affair, despite sending her three children to government schools.

From Rawatawatte, Moratuwa, her children, in grade 6, grade 9 and the eldest, an Ordinary Level exam candidate this year, all are at home studying online because Western Province schools are closed and tuition classes not allowed.

“We spend Rs. 5,000 for online tuition classes monthly for our daughter who attends group classes for five subjects. Our second child attends classes for three subjects paying Rs. 2,400 a month and spend another Rs. 1,200 for the youngest attending classes for maths and science,” she said.

Online learning is a costly affair for many families Pix by Jude Samantha and K S Sudath Prasanna

Their home broadband facility lasts for about 15 days as all three students learn via Zoom.

“Apart from the Rs. 1,500 for wi-fi, we use another two data cards each costing Rs. 495 and another two Rs. 199 cards for a month. Fortunately, some of their school sessions are between 7am and 8am and we can use the extra night time data. Both the mobile and laptop at home are used for studies. The youngest misses his studies when all three study sessions fall at the same time,” she said.

Advanced Level students pay more for classes with monthly fees of between Rs 6,000 and Rs 9,000, while online individual classes go up to Rs. 2,000-Rs 3,000 for two hours a week.

Housewife Kumudini Fonseka from Hendala, Wattala is a mother of an Advanced Level student. She says: “It has not been easy for us. When they started online studies, we purchased a mobile phone for Rs. 23,000 as she was studying for A/Ls. Apart from that, we are paying Rs 6,000 for online tuition classes. We have to pay on time, otherwise, the child will not be given the tutorials and the link.”

She said they had to get a home broadband facility and pay about Rs. 2,500 for internet for their Advanced Level daughter and school leaver son who is following a course in English online.

Communications shops have recorded an increase in sales of data cards especially for online learning.

“Students come asking for Zoom data reloads. Most purchase the Rs. 165 data reload for 25 GB, also called the Zoom package. Some come looking for the cheapest data offers to attend online classes,” said one owner.

Among offers that are in demand is a special data add-on of 20 GB anytime data at Rs.100 for Office 365 and MS Teams and unlimited data for Zoom and Microsoft Teams for Rs.540 per month.

“Some students had to access online education through smartphones, using mobile data packages that many could scarcely afford. Students from low-income households suffered disproportionately, and gaps grew in access to tertiary education,” says a report, “Online learning in Sri Lanka’s higher education institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic” released by the Asian Development Bank. This was similar to secondary and primary education in the country as well.

Sujeewa Kumara, principal of Hewavitharana Maha Vidyalaya in Rajagiriya, said despite being in the Colombo District, only a handful of students come online for lessons.

“Out of 74 students in Ordinary Level classes, only about 20 can afford to come online. Parents can’t afford to provide online school lessons or online tuition classes. Many provincial schools in the Western Province are going through this situation,” he said.

A teacher from a rural education zone in Kalpitiya, said: “We wish there won’t be a pandemic situation where our children will only have the online option. They will be lost. I created a WhatsApp group, sadly a majority of students could not afford a phone with internet connection.’’

Stories of such deprivation are common in many rural areas.

M.G. Dewmi Vimoksha, a student from a school in Walasmulla education zone in Hambantota, said throughout the pandemic she was limited to reading books and activities in textbooks.

“We do not have a phone, laptop or even internet. Our parents are not financially able to provide us with such facilities. I was good at studies, I’m sure I will be able to learn a lot by using a computer too,” she said.

D.K. Nethindu also from the same area, learnt using Zoom with much effort.

“Though I’m interested and using my parent’s phone, most children in our schools have no such facility,” he complained.

Students from Wijeyapura village in Wanathavilluwa area in Puttalam district have been seen climbing on to trees and lake bunds to get a connection for Zoom sessions. There have been scenes of several students gathered around a student holding a phone to help them take notes posted on WhatsApp.

Dr. Sakuntala Yatigammana Ekanayake, a senior lecturer at the Peradeniya University’s Department of Education said, the coronavirus created a digital learning gap between students who can afford several online tuition classes from the best lecturers and those who cannot afford nor have access to online learning.

“The state should consider it a priority to provide teachers and parents’ the opportunity to purchase mobiles/laptops via bank loans or easy payment schemes. Improving digital literacy of teachers by developing pedagogy on online teaching is a must. Mobile learning should be promoted with safe internet use and monitoring,” she said.

Dr. Yatigammana who has researched online education, said poor connectivity is a concern.

“Online learning is one of the best methods to reach out to areas where there are teacher shortages, pandemic situations, and attend classes from the best lecturers from anywhere in the country. But it should be accessible and affordable,” she said.

The Education Ministry’s ICT branch director, Udara Dikkumbura, said at present only 30 percent of the student population have access, or can afford online learning.

“Plans are being made with the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to improve network facilities in rural areas. We are preparing guidelines for parents on the safe use of the internet and include online teaching to teacher training modules,” she said.

(Additional reporting by W.A. Nelka, Hambantota correspondent and Jude Samantha, Puttalam correspondent)


Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.