Open and Distance Learning Initiatives in Sri Lanka - I


Sri Lanka has made considerable progress in the field of distance education over the past three decades. Opportunities for Sri Lankan students to access both national and international educational organizations through technology are increasing. This will make a remarkable contribution to efforts directed at promoting equality of opportunity for all citizens across the chronic urban-rural divide. The emergent distance learning projects of both the public and private sectors will naturally give a boost to the study of English and IT, which in fact are the key to such an education. (This brief survey cum discussion of mine will generally focus on English language teaching programmes.)

The term ‘distance learning’, as used in Sri Lanka, until very recently has referred to two modes of education where the teacher and the students are separated by time and space at least for part of the duration of a course: at the very beginning, it meant a course of study totally delivered through correspondence; in more recent times, we have begun to see that distance learning implies a mix of paper-based face-to-face instruction supplemented by self-access work by the students as in the case of the current Open University of Sri Lanka distance education courses. However, today, with more and more modern technology being integrated into education, distance learning is assuming a very different identity.

It is not easy to distinguish between distance language learning and open language learning. Candlin and Byrne (1995), discussing the difference between the two, identify the range of issues facing a change from a more traditional distance language learning programme to one emphasizing an open learning approach. They argue that distance language learning is based on a more conventional dissemination model: according to them one of the main challenges that a distance language course must face concerns how to turn the language learning activity into a personally meaningful experience in the distance learning context. Candlin and Byrne propose an approach based on an open curriculum for language learners in which the learners identify their learning experiences and use the target language according to their situations and needs within the learner community that develops.

The key to the distinction between distance learning and open learning lies in the greater scope for learner initiative and choice that the latter has: open learning optimizes and widens learner choice through its focus on the needs of individual learners, and the gradual transference of decision-making to learners. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that open learning, however desirable it may be, is hard to realize in practice; it is more a philosophy than a technique. Bruce King (2001) based on his Australian experience writes emphasizing this point:

What is key to our understanding of open learning, however, is the acknowledgement that it is not a distinctive form of educational delivery but the assertion of certain value positions in relation to education that are primarily student-centred in their orientation.

Open learning is often adopted in contexts where concerns about social equity are foremost in state educational policy. This is especially relevant to Sri Lanka where a concerted effort is being made by the present government to ‘bring English to the rural masses’ that have been deprived of an opportunity to learn English due mainly to many socio-economic constraints hitherto unaddressed by the powers that be.

Distance learning nowadays invariably includes abundant use of technology such as the Internet, CD-ROMS and mobile devices (cell phones, flash drives, MP3 players etc). The term e-learning has been coined to refer to such technology-integrated learning. In a context where the system of delivery of distance learning is almost totally dominated by technology, the newer term e-learning is more suitable, in my opinion.

There are three major aspects to e-learning: open learning, online learning, and blended learning. The more control the learners have over what course content to cover, how to do so and when, the more open a distance/e-learning course is stated to be; learning that takes place through the Internet is online learning; blended learning is a mix of face-to-face and online delivery systems.

Something that strikes us when we turn our attention to what passes for distance learning in Sri Lanka is that it is still in its formative stage compared to the situation in Europe.

Distance learning – in the sense(s) it has been locally understood at different times – was introduced to Sri Lanka just over three decades ago: the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) is the pioneer provider of distance learning programmes at the tertiary level of education. It was established under the Universities Act 16 of 1978 for the purpose of providing higher education to working adults. The university admission policy allows persons to register at the lowest level with basic literacy and proceed up to the postgraduate level.

Sri Lanka is thus among the first Asian countries to follow the British idea of an open university. Britain began its Open University only in 1969. Sri Lanka set up its Open University in less than ten years after this, in 1978 as stated above.

Four clearly discernible waves of innovation can be identified in the emergence of the distance education/learning mode in Sri Lanka as in the case of Europe where the concept originated and in other parts of the world to which it spread. First it was distance learning through correspondence. People obtained London University degrees while still being in Sri Lanka; there were well known private institutions in Colombo (e.g. Atlas Hall) that provided courses of study, and exam assistance, especially for school leavers, through correspondence. Next came distance learning via radio and television (educational broadcasting). The third was the increasing use of the computer and other electronic devices (multimedia approaches). Finally, the adoption of e-education/e-learning approaches is now becoming the norm.

However, the rate of progress in Sri Lanka has not been as rapid as would be desired. A broad overview of the local situation would suggest that while a general movement from the correspondence mode of delivery through broadcasting through multimedia approaches to an online system of dissemination may be identified, the current distance learning programmes embody elements from all four phases of development mentioned above that occurred in response to improvements in information and communications technologies; it could even be asserted that features from the earlier stages are more characteristic of the existing distance learning programmes than those from the later ones.

Education through correspondence which has existed in the world for centuries could be regarded as the precursor of the modern open and distance learning systems. The incorporation of technology into these teaching/learning systems as a conduit for the dissemination of education has profound implications for human development.

High unemployment rates among educated youth of both sexes mainly due to slow economic growth, but partly due to the lack of English language proficiency and computer skills among them, the rural-urban dichotomy in access to such knowledge, and the consequent disparity between Colombo and the rural districts have been long identified as persistent problems facing successive governments.

The Distance Education Modernization Project (DEMP) funded by the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Sri Lanka aims to expand post secondary education through distance learning. It will do this by providing "… a full range of quality courses for secondary school graduates who lack access to conventional universities by setting up a national network of telecenters and affiliated facilities in existing schools" (ADB Media Center News Release No. 084/03, 13 June 2003). The DEMP has three components including the Distance Education Partnership Programme (DEPP), which focuses on the broad DEMP goal of promoting socio-economic growth by creating a modern, skilled, high quality human resource base through distance education.

As the pioneer open and distance learning provider in the country the OUSL aims at becoming "a leader of open and distance learning renowned for excellence in human resources development and empowerment of people to achieve their potential".

In the general context of education in this country this is not an unrealistic goal in view of the high literacy rate and the rapidly rising computer literacy in the country. Sri Lanka has a literacy rate of 92%; over 83% of its student population reach the secondary level of education; average computer literacy has been estimated to be rising at an annual rate of 15%.

Consequently, open and distance learning programmes find a conducive environment . Such programmes are especially relevant in the higher education sphere. In this connection, it is appropriate that we consider the premier role that the OUSL plays in the overall university system of the country.

The distance learning programmes that the OUSL provides range from non-technology-based to technology-based. The non-technology-based courses may be described as akin to the traditional correspondence mode of education. The serious use of information and communications technology as a mode of delivery seems to be confined at present to the postgraduate level.

Since our bias here is towards English language education we may look at the general English language teaching programmes that the OUSL conducts. The university supplies printed instructional materials in the form of textbooks for different levels of certification such as basic, professional, advanced certificate, diploma, and degree. Students register for the basic and professional levels on the basis of scores obtained at a placement test. When they are successful at the final examination held on completion of a particular course of English they qualify to follow the next stage.

Learners who follow these general English language courses are offered the chance to acquire a certificate at any particular level, and quit the university. These certificates are usually sought for enhancing career development through further training, promotion, etc. Those who want to start or continue with teaching as a profession will opt to do the degree course. The general English language courses culminate in a BA in English language teaching.

In the other fields of specialization such as law, science, or engineering, the students are provided English language instruction with a special focus on subject-specific English. For example, those who study law are given a grounding in legal English; science students are taught English with a scientific content and relevant grammatical features, and so on.

The mode of delivery in respect of these programmes is paper-based face-to-face classroom teaching supplemented by self access work. Since most of the students are employed, they cannot attend any classes during the week except at the weekend. The university therefore conducts day schools on the weekends in its twenty-six regional centres; the lecturers provide face-to-face instruction, and set assignments, and self-access activities for the students to complete during the rest of the week.

As far as English language education is concerned, it is at the postgraduate level that online delivery is provided. Students of the OUSL access their online courses at the National Online Distance Education Service (NODES) access centres set up in ten OUSL regional and study centres. These NODES access centres have been established under the ADB funded Distance Education Modernization Project (DEMP) of the Ministry of Education.

Like other state and private providers of online distance learning programmes in Sri Lanka, the OUSL uses MOODLE as its e-learning platform or Virtual learning environment (VLE) or virtual classroom which is used to store course content. A virtual learning environment is also called a Learning Management System (LMS).

The National Institute of Education (NIE) too plays an important role in developing online distance education in the country. Of the four faculties that constitute the NIE the Faculty of Education for All has its Department of Electronic Dissemination which is responsible for producing audio and video materials for school use. The Department of Library and Publications of the Faculty of Education for All is a national educational information centre; it is being developed as a virtual library with online facilities. The faculty also aims at enhancing and using radio and television technologies to support a wide variety of learning processes.

The NIE produces textbooks for all subjects including English for the country’s school system. Though the English textbooks are not provided with companion web pages, the NIE web page ( has downloadable materials for the teacher such as syllabuses and instruction manuals, lists and details of the Sinhala and Tamil versions of audio and video cassettes, the Teacher’s Guide for Work Book – 1, Grade 3 Let’s Learn English.

(Part II next Friday)

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