With the spread of the pandemic, schools in Sri Lanka have been closed and re-opened several times over the past year and teachers and students have had to shift online to teach and learn at home. It is a similar situation in countries the world over. It hasn’t been an easy process for teachers, students [...]


It’s no longer open your books, but tap your screens at home

How students, parents and teachers are trying to cope with the shift to online education in this time of COVID-19

Home school: The new reality that children face

With the spread of the pandemic, schools in Sri Lanka have been closed and re-opened several times over the past year and teachers and students have had to shift online to teach and learn at home. It is a similar situation in countries the world over.

It hasn’t been an easy process for teachers, students and parents with students of different age groups coping with the adjustment in different ways. Young children with shorter attention spans have struggled more with the change.

The pros and cons of this shift to online education and how it is impacting all concerned are endlessly debated.

For most, it is practical and  pressing problem such as hefty data charges and phone bills. Rashini Prasanthika, a teacher at Devi Balika Vidyalaya in Colombo, says schoolchildren in certain areas have asked their teachers to conduct online classes in the night or early in the morning, so they can make use of the “night time data” from their internet packages.

The connectivity issues many school children in rural areas face has been brought to the attention of the Education Ministry and there has been some discussion about introducing 5G to the country.

Lionel Abeywickrama, Principal of Hinguralakanda Maha Vidyalaya in Kegalle said his school has not had success with e-learning during the COVID situation, mainly due to weak signals in the area.

“Our teachers are conducting online classes through Zoom for children in the primary, secondary and O/L and A/L grades. But only the ones with technological facilities can participate. We also provide homework sheets and printed notes, which have to be collected from the school, so children who do not have access to online classes are not neglected,” Mr Abeywickrama said.

Krisho Batcho of Kilinochchi, father of two young children said they have issues with connectivity due to the weak signals.

Dr. Chandradasa

“Our phones are often occupied by the children because they need it for their school work. My daughter, who is in preschool, gets school work daily. Her teachers send writing and drawing exercises and other school work through WhatsApp and Viber. We also need to buy reload cards or data cards for our phones every day, so the children can do their schoolwork,” he said.

Krisho’s son, a Grade one student at Kilinochchi Central College, receives homework sheets daily from his teachers, which need to be printed. They get these sheets printed from a communication centre close to their house.

W.T. Premadasa, a primary school teacher at the Wewatta Maha Vidyalaya in Mahiyanganaya who teaches Grade three says his school has decided not to conduct online classes but instead  teachers provide homework sheets and printed notes, which the students have to pick up from their school.

“Many of our students don’t have an issue with facilities, aside from the issues with connectivity, because many parents have smartphones with internet access. However, parents don’t have much knowledge about using smartphones and they are unfamiliar with apps such as Zoom and YouTube. So this is a problem for the younger students, because they need help with the online classes,” Mr Premadasa said.

Giving out homework sheets and printed notes to children in primary grades, has not been successful as they need a lot of attention from teachers, he added.

A Science teacher from Thissapura, Mahiyangana W.M.S. Wanigasekara said his school conducts online classes on Zoom right now, and he has also created WhatsApp groups for the classes he teaches.

“A lot of my students have smartphones, and they have access to the internet. But many of them have an issue with connectivity due to weak signals in their areas. Then there are other students who have no smartphones, so we have to prepare notes and homework sheets for them, which we send to the school, so they can take printouts or photocopies. Unfortunately, we had not received word from these students so we have no idea if they are following their studies.”

Mr Wanigasekara says older students who are sitting for national exams are more focused on their studies, in spite of the difficulties they face but younger students, do not focus much on their studies.

“Once the COVID situation is over and we return to school, us teachers might have to teach the syllabus from the beginning again, as students who do not have access to the internet and those who had issues with connectivity, would have missed out,” he adds.

Mrs T. Hassan, a class teacher at a leading international school in Colombo, says that as a teacher one of the biggest challenges with online learning is the fact that they cannot connect with their students on a personal basis.

“It has been a heavier load for teachers as well, as there is a lot of work such as recording lectures and uploading them each morning onto Google Classrooms and also correcting homework. But our superiors at the school encourage us to try to maintain a work-life balance as much as we possibly can,” she said.

Mr Wanigasekara agrees that online classes are definitely not the same as teaching in a classroom. “We do not know if our students are paying attention to their lessons and we cannot attend to them individually if they have difficulties.”

Mrs Hassan’s school has decided to use Google Classrooms as its online learning platform, and lessons are pre-recorded, which is more convenient for the students and their parents. “But thrice a week we have live sessions through Zoom just so that we can talk to our students for a while, and see how they are doing.”

Her students are between the ages of four and five, in KG 1 and since theirs is a small school, they were able to arrange timetables for each grade so that families with more than one child will not have classes and schedules “clashing.”

“Most families have only one laptop, so it would be difficult if children have classes at the same time.”

There are some advantages to online learning as many parents are relieved to be spared the early morning rush to get to school especially in city traffic. Mother of two, Ramona Senn, told the Sunday Times that her children no longer have to wake up early and don’t have the fatigue that comes from commuting to school and back. Ramona’s daughter Amber is an O/L student at a leading school in Colombo 4 and son Ramon is preparing for the Grade 5 scholarship exam this year.

“My daughter has no problem with online classes that go on for several hours, but Ramon can only focus on classes for a little more than an hour. From what I’ve seen, young children are finding it difficult to focus on online classes,” she said.

Teachers scheduling extra classes is difficult for the children, because then they have no time for homework, or they have to stay up late to finish their homework, Ramona said, adding that teachers and heads of schools should understand that students are under a lot of pressure.

“The Education Ministry should think about this and help out the parents and students in some way. Sometimes the teachers send audio clips, Word files or PDF documents on WhatsApp with the children’s lessons,” Ramona said.

Ramona would like to see the Education Ministry using more TV channels for educating schoolchildren. Her children use mobile phones for their online classes and she worries that peering at small mobile phone screens for long periods of time will cause eye strain.

Dr Miyuru Chandradasa, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Ragama Teaching Hospital and a senior lecturer at the University of Kelaniya, believes that for young children, social and emotional learning is more important than academic learning. Online learning unfortunately does not provide many opportunities for social and emotional learning, as children need to interact and play with their peers for this to happen.

This is Salome Nanayakkara’s biggest worry – her daughter’s lack of social interaction.  Her eight-year-old daughter is in Grade three at a leading girls’ school in Colombo and has two short school sessions that are conducted via Microsoft Teams. Salome finds that each subject lesson of half an hour even is a lot to take in and so goes through the lessons with her daughter once more later. But she feels being an only child, her daughter is missing out on having her friends around.

Yet in a world struggling with pandemic woes adapting to the online system is a necessity. Says Dr Chandradasa, “The online learning process itself is an important one, and it is an essential learning method which young people need to grasp, especially for Sri Lankan students because we are still a developing country, and we are not very tech savvy.” Online learning has become the norm in many foreign universities for many years, and students get their qualifications through this learning method, Dr Chandradasa points out.

“Teachers need to be trained properly by the schools, because many of them are unfamiliar with the techniques of online learning,” he adds.

Tips for parents
With parents trying to find a happy balance for children with online learning, Dr Miyuru Chandradasa, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist suggests a few steps to follow:

  • Set out a daily routine for online classes
  • Have an organised space for online classes devoid of clutter
  • Prepare for lessons beforehand
  • Check on children’s work to make sure they are up to speed in their lessons and homework
  • Keep track of children’s online activities on a daily basis and make sure they do not engage with inappropriate content
  • Find time for leisure activities and interactions with parents and siblings, managed with a time table

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