Today, the importance of LEARN within the higher education and academic landscape of Sri Lanka is unparalleled. It’s an essential service for all stakeholders, from students to educators and institutional management. Most notably, it proved itself during the pandemic-era lockdowns, where it enabled the seamless transition of Sri Lankan higher education from physical lectures to the digital realm. Yet, the foundations for this transformation were laid many decades ago. Director at LEARN representing the University of Colombo, Prof. K. P. Hewagamage, is an early pioneer in digital learning. His early experiments made the transition seamless for educators and students alike.
The Journey of Professor K. P. Hewagamage
Every changemaker begins as a young enthusiast, and for Professor Hewagamage, it all started during his time in university. LEARN was already used in the University of Colombo, Moratuwa University, and the Open University in 1989. At the time, the project was well underway and being executed by a team of pioneering researchers in Sri Lankan computing, including Prof. V. K. Samaranayake. Initially, the network’s primary purpose was to allow academics to collaborate by facilitating email between universities in a convenient manner.
While operating at internet speeds, we’d consider a crawl email a revolutionary service at the time. Yet, the network had yet to unlock its true potential. As Professor Hewagamage continued his academic pursuits, he saw the network speeds increase, and the World Wide Web became accessible in 1995. Finally, in 1996, he returned to Sri Lanka after completing his Ph.D., focusing on Software Engineering and Human-Computer Interaction.
Upon his return, it was clear the network had become a crucial part of academic life in Sri Lanka and was heavily relied upon for day-to-day tasks. ‘At that time, I was happy to find that it had grown to become a critical entity connecting not only Sri Lankan Universities with each other but them to the world as well,’ reminisced Professor Hewagamage.
Shortly after, Prof. Hewagamage’s immediate interests took him to participate in e-Learning research. Eventually, he became the primary coordinator to promote e-Learning within the university, having garnered a grant from an international body called SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency). This research will be pivotal in online higher education in Sri Lanka in the coming years. Later in 2016, Prof. Hewagamage was appointed as the Director of the University of Colombo School of Computing and was nominated to represent the University as a Director at LEARN. In this role, he’d go on to implement his research to bring online learning to mainstream academic lecturing.
The results of early experiments in online learning
As the world entered the new millennium in 2000, web-based learning was explored as a new frontier for educational institutions within Sri Lanka. In 2002, with the assistance of JAIC (Japan Asia Investment Company), LEARN set up a Digital Media Centre that focused on developing lightweight and low bandwidth digital content compatible with the dialup connections of that era. With 256-515kbps connections only becoming available in 2003, the content explored for e-Learning had to remain low bandwidth as higher quality content would not be accessible.
The SIDA also enabled a foray into developing various content types, ranging from audio, video, and graphic content that students can use. Notably, Prof. Hewagamage made efforts to ensure students could download this content and share them across existing computer networks, given the internet speeds at the time made streaming impractical. Over time, the process of developing academic content and delivering it to students improved.
Yet, despite the progress of these early e-Learning experiments, a consistent issue remained. While students in urban areas had smooth and steady access, this was far from the case for those hailing from rural areas. A keen understanding of this would be helpful later during the pandemic as it allowed Sri Lankan higher education to move toward online learning. Ultimately, these experiments by Prof. Hewagamage set the foundation for today’s e-Learning systems used by Sri Lankan universities, which are critically relied upon by students and faculty alike.
The importance of NRENs for academia
Since its inception, LEARN has been the bedrock upon which Sri Lankan higher educational institutes relied for collaboration with their peers locally and internationally. With the guidance of individuals such as Professor Hewagamage, the organization has made considerable strides toward its vision. The robust infrastructure it built over the years has proven its worth.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it swiftly adapted to offer free Zoom accounts. Thus, allowing higher education institutes to shift their activities online and continue unchecked. It was a feat made possible through the many learnings of the experiments in e-Learning carried out by Prof. Hewagamage. These efforts culminated in all urban and rural students enjoying a smooth, uninterrupted learning experience during unprecedented times. Even today, in the context of the current economic crisis in Sri Lanka, where undergraduate students and lecturers struggle to travel to universities, the Zoom facility ensures uninterrupted learning.
Looking toward the future, Prof. Hewagamage notes that for online learning to unlock its true potential requires a paradigm shift. Such a change would be from a teaching mindset to one of independent learning, where students are given the tools and encouraged to learn on their own. This shift would ensure ample attention is given to students while improving engagement.
Beyond its landmark effort to take higher education online, LEARN remains a valuable asset for all universities. Its international partnerships make accessible vital information that may otherwise have been behind paywalls. Further, the organization has made considerable strides in making other resources, such as software, more affordably accessible to local academia. Thus, ensuring a level playing field across the sector.
Reflecting on these achievements, Professor Hewagamage stresses that LEARN is a facilitator, not a traditional business. Its primary purpose is to serve the students, teachers, and researchers. “Any society needs to support such institutions from a governmental and financial policy standpoint by shifting from a traditional perspective into a more modern understanding of the benefits that it brings to the educational institutions,” remarked Professor Hewagamage as a way to step into a more progressive future.
For many years, step by step, Prof. Hewagamage has been a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of e-Learning. However, the vast potential remains to be unlocked within Sri Lankan higher educational institutes. Nevertheless, the progress made thus far has been considerable. Building upon these efforts, LEARN remains a critical backbone for Sri Lankan academia. It serves as a bridge between local academics and the world while unlocking latent innovation to drive progress forward. Thus, playing a crucial role in keeping the wheels of progress moving for society to move forward.