When it was born 30 years ago, hardly anyone could’ve imagined the massive impact it would have. Since its inception as the first Wide Area Network (WAN) in Sri Lanka, LEARN has allowed academics to maximize the benefits of the university system and collaborate with their international peers. At a ceremony celebrating 3 decades of this network, Prof. P.S.M Gunaratne – Chairman of LEARN, described its impact with the words, “It has created a unique academic identity for the local university community. Those who are in academia understand the great value of this identity when communicating with our peers across the world.”
The evolution of LEARN through the ages
In attendance among the dignitaries of this ceremony were Prof. Abhaya Induruwa and Prof. Gihan Dias. There were among the academic pioneers that introduced computer networking itself to Sri Lanka. Among their greatest achievements was LEARN, which was born in 1989 when Prof. Induruwa first submitted a proposal for the first Wide Area Network (WAN) in Sri Lanka.
Remembering the struggle they faced, Prof. Induruwa recalled, “We had support at the highest political levels. But we didn’t have much financial support. So implementing LEARN had its fair share of challenges.” Nevertheless, after 5 exhausting years, LEARN became operational in 1995 connecting 3 universities by utilizing 64kbps radio links.
For a better perspective, Prof. Gihan shared, “Today if you have a 4G connection and you run out of data, your connection slows down to 64kbps. However, at the time, it was blazing fast and we used it to connect the entire university system.” The rest is of course history. Today, the network has a total bandwidth of 20Gbps offering connectivity for 45 educational and research institutes.
Going beyond simply offering connectivity
As the network grew, the LEARN Association was established to manage the network. In 2009, having recognized the immense contribution of LEARN to local academia, it was reorganized into a Company Limited by Guarantee. Appropriately, 15 state universities, which are connected by a network are a part of this company. This gives them a say in the governance of the network.
Prof. Gunaratne shared that this was in recognition of its immense contribution to local academia. Over the years, the company has conducted numerous initiatives. This includes both regional and international partnerships. A significant milestone among these being the launch of the Asi@Connect project in Sri Lanka in 2017. Through these partnerships, LEARN has been able to offer more services to its members and international training programs to the staff of local universities.
Due to this success, Prof. Gunaratne announced that the University Grants Commission has now received permission to set up more companies limited by guarantee modelled after LEARN. These companies would focus on supporting the efforts of universities to commercialize their research.
Gazing into the future, Prof Roshan Ragel – CEO of LEARN, described its mission, “As the National Research and Education Network, we need to do more than simply providing connectivity. Our goal is to empower our researchers and academics to do more through this network. Beyond internet access, we aim to offer services and access to academic networks that would allow them to take their research further.”
He then announced that LEARN would soon be launching cloud computing facilities for member universities as part of its new services. To paint a vivid image of LEARN’s vision, Prof. Roshan took inspiration from Japan and South Korea. In these nations, such networks are being used to remotely train surgeons and for telemedicine. By launching services, like its cloud LEARN aims to empower local academia to do the same and more.
The challenges LEARN must tackle 30 years later
As it celebrates 30 years of service, LEARN now lives in a very different world from what it was born into. The internet has transformed the world, offering never before seen opportunities. One such opportunity Prof. Induruwa highlighted during his keynote was the market for the Internet of Things (IoT) devices. This is a market expected to be worth $5 trillion globally by 2021. Sri Lanka he emphasized must capture these opportunities without letting them slip away.
Nevertheless, he also warned, “On the other side of the coin, the cost of cybercrime will reach $6 trillion by 2021. So you see productivity increasing with the internet, but on the other hand, you’ll also see criminals using it for nefarious purposes. To tackle this, some argue we should simply cut the cable. Don’t let computers communicate with any networks. But we have come a long way. I don’t think anyone wants to live a life without internet access. Cutting the cable is not a solution. We cannot live in isolation.”
Instead, we have to face the problem. The majority of cyber-attacks are indiscriminate as hackers are just merely looking to exploit vulnerabilities. But today, we are increasingly witnessing targeted attacks on critical infrastructure. A few examples Prof. Induruwa shared were: Stuxnet, a cyber attack on the Ukrainian power grid, and the hacking of the UK’s National Health service. Malware has come a long way since the days of simply making your CD tray randomly pop out.
In this deadly evolving digital landscape, governments have a responsibility to provide safe and easy access to information for their citizens. It must also defend the right of every citizen to enjoy the freedom of speech. However, with the anonymity of the internet, we’ve seen this right abused to spread misinformation. This phenomenon is a menace plaguing the entire world including Sri Lanka.
With such evolving dangers, Prof. Induruwa warned that cyber security professionals need to be vigilant. He elaborated on this saying, “Sri Lanka hasn’t been a deadly victim of cyber crime because of security. It’s simply because we’re not even on their radar. But this will change as data becomes more valuable. The value of oil is second to data. Companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Facebook, all collect your data. Collectively they store billions of data records because there’s value in it. With this trend, the country will be a tempting target one day.”
Deepening connections between the industry and academia
During his speech, Prof. Gunaratne stated, “Local universities must work with the private sector to commercialize their innovations. To date, we’ve done much research but it hasn’t progressed beyond university journals.” It was for this reason that the UGC sought permission to set up companies limited by guarantee similar to LEARN.
This sentiment was echoed by Rauf Hakeem – Minister of City Planning, Water Supply, and Higher Education. He shared that the local university system has grown exponentially with the establishment of the Colombo Medical College in 1870. Today, it is a vast network of institutes spreading the length and breadth of the country. It has exponentially increased the quality of education in the nation.
Having stated this, the Minister went onto say that the future of the university system lies in backward integration between academia and the industry. Reflecting on the current state of cooperation between academia and businesses, the Minister said, “The R&D component of our university system is being encouraged to work with commercial entities. It’s been going on for years. But there is more our universities can gain by having elaborative programs with the corporate sector.”
He added that the corporate sector is keen to work with academia as they seek talented graduates in the job market. However, he went onto admit that much more needs to be done towards this goal. To that end, Sri Lanka is now running programmes with the support of the World Bank geared to facilitate deeper integration between the two parties.
Alongside these programmes, the Minister shared that there’s a deeper investment towards the humanities and social sciences to improve the marketability of local graduates. Looking forward, the Minister highlighted the importance of local universities working towards improving their international ranking.
On this topic, he encouraged the representatives of local universities in attendance to utilize the networking opportunities presented by LEARN and other avenues to collaborate with their international peers. Through such networking opportunities, he encouraged local universities to make the greatest use of their 4.5% intake quota for international students. Here too the Minister admitted, “It’s not easy but it would certainly help you improve your ranking.”
The next decade and beyond
As it celebrates 30 years of service, LEARN offers connectivity and a host of other services to 45 educational and research institutions across Sri Lanka. But in a world of ubiquitous internet access, there are opportunities and threats at every corner. To tackle these challenges and seize the opportunities before us, we must maximize the impact of the local university system. Achieving this requires collaboration. Not just between local academia and the industry but with other nations as well. To that end, LEARN has its sights set on the future by offering more services and forming partnerships, to empower local researchers to do more. Thereby allowing their innovations to have a greater impact not just on the nation, but the world itself.