“At LEARN, we’re more than just a network provider; we’re a catalyst for change,” said its Consulting CEO, Prof. Roshan Ragel, describing the organization’s impact. At its recently held Annual General Meeting, the Lanka Education and Research Network (LEARN) showcased its unwavering commitment to bridging the digital divide and revolutionizing higher education in Sri Lanka and beyond. Today, the LEARN network connects higher educational and research institutions while offering various services that have transformed online learning in Sri Lanka. In addition, the AGM explored the organization’s impactful role in driving innovation and progress in the higher education sector in Sri Lanka and across South Asia.
Unparalleled connectivity enabling uninterrupted learning
LEARN took decisive action when the pandemic brought higher education to a standstill. The organization stepped up to provide online Zoom learning facilities worth several million. Alongside the organization’s committed efforts, the Government of Sri Lanka also showed strong support for ensuring the continuity of higher education in the nation. This support was exemplified by the strong collaboration between the TRCSL, UGC, and local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to provide connectivity to state universities to ensure lectures could continue via Zoom and e-learning systems. The collective impact of these initiatives was that the organization enabled students to access Learning Management Systems (LMS), lecturers to host virtual lectures on Zoom, and even exams, at no data cost to students and faculty alike.
Speaking at the event, the Chairman of UGC, Senior Prof. Sampath Amaratunge, reminisced on the long journey and challenges conquered to make this service possible. “There were several discussions we had with the internet providers through the TRCSL, and we’re grateful the leadership of these companies stepped forward to assist, as it’d have been impossible to move higher education online without free data,” he recalled. Having crossed the many hurdles, Senior Prof. Amaratunge said, “There were no complaints from students. They and their parents only requested we continue the service to ensure they completed their higher education on time as they’d planned their life. Likewise, we strengthened the trust between faculty and students. We changed the higher education landscape.”
Further illustrating the impact of this initiative, Prof. Ragel shared some statistics on the usage of LEARN’s fee Zoom service. From its inception in March 2020 till December 2022, it has hosted 2,303,316 meetings with 111,611,430 participants and collectively added up to 5,124,076,129 meeting minutes. Pre-COVID saw approximately 200 participants per week, but it multiplied following the lockdowns. The figure rose to 20,000 (100x) in the first week into the lockdown and peaked at 1.81 million (9050x) weekly participants in September 2021. LEARN has made a powerfully transformative impact on Sri Lankan higher education.
Appreciating the silent pillars of success
Alongside its Annual General Meeting, LEARN also hosted another event to offer its thanks to partners and supporters of its initiatives. Recognizing the unwavering support extended by the TRCSL and local ISPs, Senior Prof. Amaratunge joined Prof. Ragel to award tokens of appreciation to representatives of these organizations. The representatives included the Acting Director General of the TRCSL, R.G.H.K. Ranatunge, and Former Director General of the TRCSL., Oshada Senanayake, alongside those from SLTMobitel Pvt Ltd, Dialog Axiata P.L.C., Bharti Airtel Lanka Pvt Ltd, Hutchison Telecommunications Pvt Ltd, and Lanka Bell Pvt Ltd.
Alongside the many representatives from the telecom operators, the Directors of LEARN were also recognized for their leadership, which helped the organization serve the higher education and research communities during uncertain times. A commemorative plaque was also presented to the Chairman of the U.G.C., Senior Prof. Sampath Amaratunge, by the Chairman of LEARN and Vice Chairman of the U.G.C., Senior Prof. Chandana P. Udawatta.
Additionally, at the onset of the pandemic, the organization received support from four state universities with servers to offer its Zoom services. Tokens of appreciation were presented to the engineers from the University of Colombo School of Computing, the University of Moratuwa, the University of Kelaniya, and the University of Sri Jayewardenepura who helped set up these critical servers.
Finally, tokens of appreciation were presented to the LEARN staff that played a key role in these efforts to ensure uninterrupted learning during the pandemic while recognising those who had resigned and migrated to pursue their higher studies.
Project BeLISAC: Transforming online learning in South Asia
Over the years, the organization has formed several international partnerships, allowing it to expand its range of services to better serve local academia’s needs. In turn, it has supported international efforts to empower academics across the South Asian region. Working alongside its international partners, Project BeLISAC is a multinational effort to transform online learning in South Asia. This international effort involves the Asi@Connect project and NORDUnet, working with LEARN alongside five other national research and education networks – BdREN (Bangladesh), CamREN (Cambodia), LERNET (Laos), NREN (Nepal), and DrukREN (Bhutan).
While the BeLISAC project aims to transform online learning in the region, it’s also a living embodiment of the commitment of its participating organizations toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals. To that end, the project is spearheaded by a team of female engineers from each nation. At the AGM, Prof. Ragel highlighted the latest success was completing Phase II of Project BeLISAC. He said, “We’re committed to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and empowering women and diversity in the IT industry. By training a team of female engineers from each host country to manage the network infrastructure, we’re not just building a better network but a better world.”
The LEARN Roadmap: Enabling Digital Transformation
Following a recap of the organization’s past and present projects, the CTO of LEARN, Dr. Asitha Bandaranayake, took the stage. He gave the audience a quick look at their vision and the progress they’ve made in achieving their goals in terms of digital transformation in the Sri Lankan higher education sector. For higher educational institutions, digital transformation promises to improve education by adopting innovative strategies to reach a more diverse student population, advancing research with improved methodologies, access to more extensive datasets, and streamlining administrative processes for greater operational flexibility.
Thus, digital transformation enables such institutions to serve academics and students better. “At LEARN, we’ve always been at the forefront of driving digital transformation in the higher education sector of Sri Lanka. Our comprehensive proposal for the digital transformation of higher education, totaling US$72.7 million, is a testament to our commitment to developing cutting-edge IT infrastructure and services for the entire state’s higher education sector,” stated Dr. Bandaranayake. The organization’s perception, preparedness, and needs assessment for digital transformation have provided them with valuable insights and a roadmap for the future.
“We are proud to collaborate with the National Education Commission for a comprehensive study across all state universities in 2022 and to work closely with the Ministry of Higher Education on policy development for digital transformation,” he added. LEARN has always been dedicated to ensuring the success of our higher education system and is continuously pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of technology.
Navigating past challenges to build the future of online learning
Looking back, the Annual General Meeting held by LEARN highlighted the organization’s efforts and progress toward revolutionizing higher education in Sri Lanka and beyond. Its efforts during the COVID-19 lockdowns to ensure uninterrupted higher education learning was invaluable. Building upon that foundation, Project BeLISAC is transforming online learning regionally and helping build a more equitable Higher Education sector of the country. Towards all this progress, the contributions of government bodies, local telecoms, and state universities cannot be overlooked. Ultimately, LEARN has positively impacted academia within Sri Lanka and beyond, as its drive for digital transformation is a powerful catalyst for change in the higher education sector.