Featured image courtesy UNICEF

At the dawn of the new normal resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka moved towards an online based education system, which has completely transformed the existing public educational discourse bringing in a new set of challenges. This transformation was initiated by a presidential directive on primary, secondary and tertiary education, which introduced a “distance education concept” and directed institutions to continue work without any interruptions or delay during the unprecedented lock down period. In fact, the gazette notification 2169/02 appointed a 26 member Presidential task force in March 2020, vested with the duty of informing the president of “any delay or default” in executing the directive. In practice, due to the gap between the directive and the grassroot reality, this distance education system has now relegated into an attempt to distribute content and cover syllabi. In the past three months, stories of students from around the island evinced that most students are sporadically connected, while the rest remain completely left out due to larger systemic inequalities. Although proponents have justified the attempts to continue delivering course material as the only choice available at a time of a global crisis; if the system fails to accommodate the realities of the majority – it has failed. This makes boasting the success of “distance education” only a feel-good factor for policy makers who likes to pat each other on the back.

In theory, the presidential directive on “distance education” is neo-liberal. Put simply, neo-liberal systems advocate market competition and overlook public welfare. Similarly, the directive overlooks the unequal distribution of resources and assumes that everyone is ready to compete in a perfect playing field. It seeks to push through a global pandemic with little concern on inclusion and equity. What it fails to realize or fails to account for is the resulting marginalization of those who lack the privilege to secure a seat at the table. This privilege of accessibility amplifies the existing inequities of the education system into a whole new dimension, where those who cannot compete or keep up are involuntarily excluded as collaterals. In a country where the majority of the student population relies on public education, the move towards distance education should have explored “what can be done” specially to respond to the plight of those already marginalized by systemic inequalities. However, the whole narrative surrounding education in the Covid-19 era is seen to be dictating “what to do” with very little comprehension of the grassroot realities.

Privilege of Accessibility

Since March 2020, public education institutions have resumed to work through online based learning management systems with the aid of apps such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom. Amidst the zoom calls, learning support systems and statements claiming success of the distance education concept, the stories of those who struggle to access and grapple the concept of distance education is often sidelined. The voices of these stories may not be loud enough or important enough within the neo-liberal system. However, given that it is a generation’s education that is at stake, these stories cannot go unheard.

“I can only access the internet when I get some signal. Sometimes I have no signal for weeks. I haven’t had signal for the past 10 days. Then it is very difficult for me to work” said a student from Neluwa in the Galle District.

The essence of this statement paints a vivid picture of the shared reality of many students dispersed around the island nation, where 46% of the population between the age group of 15-65 years only own basic phones without internet. The quality of service is dependent on the urban-rural dispersion and it is vital to understand that the download speed does not always determine the quality of service. It is also seen that 60% of the population cannot even afford 1 GB.  Thus, at its outset, the privilege of accessibility is not just about successfully connecting to the internet with a reliable device (in the current set-up, a smart phone is considered the minimum requirement of access).  Accessibility is a much more complex socio-economic issue going beyond internet and devices. For example, if the student is differently-abled, there is a clear question as to how zoom classes can stimulate a practical learning environment for them. Further, in primary and secondary classes, where multiple siblings have to share one device to access their respective online zoom calls or materials, accessibility and education turns into a parents’ nightmare and a compromise at best. In one of the conversations with a parent, who is a daily wage earner and a mother of three, a smart phone was purchased to access content shared by class teachers over messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Viber. Whilst, accessibility has multiple facets and more nuances than what you see at the outset, the commonality in all of these instances is the shared predicament of individuals who lack the privilege of accessibility. Education in the Covid-19 era, thus becomes a struggle to access content by any and all means.

The Empirical Shift from Distance Education to Remote Content Delivery

The Presidential directive and the Covid-19 education narrative have underpinned, what is termed “a distance education concept”. The careful determination of this choice of words ensures that distance education is distinct to “online education”.  Thus, any and all questions on Sri Lanka’s readiness to “move online” is strategically ousted. However, the real concern is Sri Lanka’s readiness to carry-out distance education itself. The policy makers oblivious to a range of crucial factors, such as pedagogical consultation as well as preparation time, resort to purely fulfilling a political goal of showcasing persistence. Thus, remote education is purported as the only available option. The issue is whether content delivery, by means of scanned documents, videos, PowerPoint slides or recordings of the lectures can ever amount to anything even remotely close to what education entails. Whether such a system can stimulate a classroom environment to accommodate the needs of the grassroots is questionable. Further, the assessment systems in place to gauge the level of “engagement” and “effectivity” of remote education is equally contentious. For example, in a conversation with an engineering student from Helakanda, Massenna in the Ratnapura district, the student noted that he has to walk about 6 km to connect to the internet. “Most of my assignments were done by my friends because I cannot access the material uploaded to our learning system. During the lockdown I could not go anywhere as well. My friends wrote my papers and submitted them. I had no other option” he said.

Thus, the unrealistically high expectations of the student and the teacher in this neo-liberal set up assumes that the teacher is ever ready to deliver content and the student is expected to be similarly ready to receive and process content. This concept of distance education purports education to perform the task of a product, which is to compete in the market and secure the highest profit margin. The broader role of education and any kind of research to explore what systems fit the real needs of the grassroot is simply out of the question.

Systemic Inequality vs. The Individual 

Unfortunately, the plight of students in the handful of stories mentioned above are understood as micro problems within the neo-liberal response. It singles out the individual, practically overlooking the macro or systemic inequities that persist within the society. Systemic inequities include issues ranging from poverty, inequality and discrimination based on race, language, ethnicity, gender, region etc. When these systemic inequities are overlooked, particularly during a global pandemic, where individuals are more vulnerable than ever before, the struggles of a group subjected to systemic injustice is perceived as an individual’s problem. For example, if a student from a low-income family has no device to connect to a zoom class or complete an assignment, it is likely that the system would expect the student to resolve the issue on his or her own. Although ad hoc measures such as charitable donations may make a difference, the scale of its impact is quantitatively minimal in comparison to the size of the problem, which in this case is income inequality.

An undergraduate student living in a village called Pilina in the Galle District said, “I have to go to the town to connect to the internet. My phone often switches off because the lecture is 2-3 hours long. I also lost online participation marks because when the lecturer asks questions, I was not able to answer any”, revealing her struggle to save a seat at the virtual table during quarantine. It is crucial to understand that this is not simply an issue of one student. There are possibly thousands of students subjected to inequalities of wealth distribution and poverty and solutions are required at a systemic level. Equally, it is imperative to resist a system allowing people to be viewed as products in market competition, where those who cannot compete are left behind. When the competition is historically inequitable, uninformed decisions on education policy can amplify discrimination and marginalize already vulnerable groups of youth.

Amplified Disparity and Denying Educational Opportunity

In this regard, the directives aiming at an uninterrupted “remote education” is clearly amplifying the existing unequal playing field. Institutions are pushing to subsist by succumbing to the competition with each other, overlooking the very mandate of an education institution. The reality is that, short-sighted education policy decisions with little comprehension of the new world order yet to rise in the aftermath of Covid-19 era, can easily backfire primarily due to intensifying inequalities. Thus, as Sri Lanka shifts to its “new normal”, the question is whether the neo-liberal response to education policy is really scrutinized by the educators, students and other stakeholders who share the right and duty to advocate, resist and change inequitable systems. It boils down to whether there has been a discussion to understand the generational impact of this distance education policy purported by the presidential directive. In 1944, Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara introduced the Free Education Amendment Bill in the Senate council, aspiring to dismantle the notion of education as a privilege of the rich. After much deliberation the Bill was implemented on the 1st of October 1945. Ever since, the reality of free education is a constant struggle to create equitable opportunities for those who are battling systemic disparities. Even then inequality in terms of educational opportunity is the reality, where public education policy is ever so important.  However, the present response, best explained as amplifying the existing disparity, fails to account for such an equitable system. Thus, the future of the younger generations, dismayingly monopolized by self-interested political goals, continues to fall short of the Kannangara legacy. In fact, the doors of free education could now be completely shut for those who lack the privilege to compete for a seat at the table.

Piyumani Ranasinghe lectures at the Department of Law, University of Peradeniya. The views expressed are independent.