There is always much to be discussed when it comes to the latest developments within the scientific community. Oftentimes, it is typically the final product that is revered and enjoys its time in the spotlight, before it is replaced by a new achievement or discovery. Behind the scenes, however, lies a vast amount of ancillary support systems and staff that helps push forth the great progress of the ages. Within Sri Lanka, one such entity that helps support students pursuing higher education, researchers as well as academia is the Lanka Education and Research Network, aka LEARN. Since its inception, it has helped drive steady progress and provide steadfast assistance for the betterment of the University ecosystem within the nation, all while keeping service costs to their absolute minimum.
Aruna Lorensuhewa is amongst the first cohorts to engage with the LEARN network during his time at the University of Ruhuna since 1993. He has witnessed first-hand its evolution into the massive communication and information exchange it is today. Describing those early days, Mr. Lorensuhewa recalled, “Initially, LEARN connectivity was offered via dial-up and provided email service only and managed by a small group of academics in the university system. During that era, I was an undergraduate student at the University of Colombo and had just heard about the Internet and its services but was not aware of LEARN and its initiatives.”
Today, LEARN is a company limited by guarantee and owned by the University Grant Commission (UGC) and 17 State Universities. The network has also evolved considerably over the years. In that time, Mr. Lorensuhewa also grew in his capacity to become the University of Ruhuna’s representative as a Director of LEARN and has worked tirelessly to provide the education and research community with the best services available.
The strengths and evolution of LEARN
“Many countries have a National Research and Education Network (NREN) to connect all the academic and higher education bodies and are considered a prestigious network. The NREN’s duties will be to provide cost-effective, high-bandwidth, low-latency connectivity, support the academic programmes by providing Internet-related services, provide relevant training and required cloud and high-performance computing power for the member institutions. It also provides global visibility and collaboration with other similar entities,” said Mr. Lorensuhewa describing the role of an NREN.
LEARN is the NREN for Sri Lanka, serving its local academic and research communities. As of 2022, the primary service that LEARN currently provides its users is access to high-speed internet (20 Gbps international bandwidth and 20 Gbps bandwidth to the local ISPs). It also offers additional resources such as EduRoam & EduGain for education, video conferencing systems (aka LEARN Zoom) to its about 60 member institutions.
The main function of LEARN is to aid the UGC, all of the UGC funded state universities, the Ministry of Higher Education as well as a multitude of national research institutions that includes the NSF. For years, LEARN has been a huge support to these institutions by providing high-speed internet connectivity. Such connectivity is offered at below-market rates (using the economies of scale) that amount to a 50% savings for member institutions for connectivity, while also bearing the arrear up to 3-6 months without penalty or disruptions, a figure that can reach Rs. 200 million at times.
After 2009, LEARN became consolidated as a company to develop the infrastructure of the network. Mr. Lorensuhewa recalls an insistent stance to retain all existing technical staff within LEARN to continue providing a high standard of service to its affiliated institutions. Looking back, it proved to be a move that ensured seamless services in the years to come. The true test of LEARN, much like for the rest of the world, came with the onset of the global pandemic.
How LEARN offered a lifeline to overcome the pandemic
In early 2019, LEARN had already integrated Zoom video conferencing & Zoom Room units into its service suite. This was facilitated with the assistance of an international collaboration between LEARN, BdREN & NORDUnet to acquire 1000 Zoom Premium licenses/accounts. Yet, the service was initially unknown to the general public and was considered to be an underutilised system by LEARN.
However, as the pandemic hit Sri Lanka in March 2020, LEARN successfully obtained an enhanced package of 5000 Zoom accounts for the university systems. Despite the increased demand, LEARN was committed to ensuring it was a free service. Given the lockdowns at the time, it was the only way for higher education to continue. However, it quickly became evident that some students from rural areas may not be able to successfully utilize many of the learning materials available due to large internet costs.
In order to ensure that the concerns of the students were addressed, LEARN decided to build local on-premise Zoom infrastructure. To do so, it invested LKR 25 million towards obtaining the necessary hardware. All of this happened while the nation was in a state of total lockdown, forcing LEARN to set up much of this now critical server infrastructure remotely.
Once the local on-site Zoom infrastructure was in place, discussions were initiated between internet providers and LEARN with the assistance of the UGC. All Sri Lankan ISPs agreed to whitelist the IP addresses of the servers. Thereby, ensuring the Zoom sessions and Learning Management Systems used by local universities could be accessed at no cost by students and faculty alike.
As demand rose, another increment of accounts brought the total number of Zoom accounts available to 12,000. With each Zoom account priced at $90 / year, factor in the current exchange rate at LKR 210, and the service is worth approximately LKR 225 million! Yet, even now, these accounts are provided by LEARN at no cost to academic and administrative staff to run the academic programs.. To say that LEARN is offering an invaluable service to Sri Lankan higher education would be an understatement.
The impact of these preemptive and proactive measures have been immense. LEARN was, in essence, able to ensure that the entire educational system in Sri Lanka be able to rapidly implement online education through video conferencing facilities by making it into a norm that ensures the costs are, once again, kept to a minimum, this time with the help of donor agencies.
What should be noted is that ultimately LEARN, the groundwork and its philosophy of service provision became a template that many other private universities and well as secondary schools were able to follow that led to the education system within Sri Lanka continuing without any major delays. Thus, highlighting the importance of a strong robust NREN to support local academia.
As LEARN has navigated through its biggest challenge to date, Mr. Lorensuhewa looks forward to the future with optimism as a stalwart of the LEARN community with the hopes of bringing to Sri Lanka on par with the international community by implementing services such as cloud computing services and supercomputer capabilities to ensure that researchers, staff and students can continue to thrive.