The pandemic dealt education a significant blow, especially in Sri Lanka. Overnight, educational institutions closed their door for what would become an extended lockdown lasting months. Therefore, it was paramount for these institutions to transition to online learning for continuity. However, this was fear easier than done. Aside from retraining educators on the practicalities of online learning, a bigger problem was needing robust infrastructure to bring students and faculty online.
Seeing the standstill local higher education had come to, Sri Lanka’s NREN (National Research and Education Network) LEARN, in partnership with BdREN and NORDUnet, stepped up with an online Zoom learning facility worth a few million. Now it’s entering its next phase with Project BeLISAC (Building eLearning Infrastructure in South Asian Countries). This initiative is an ambitious effort to bring online learning to six countries across South Asia and around, with the right infrastructure. Furthermore, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the BeLISAC project is committed to empowering women and diversity for a more equitable IT industry. To that end, it will train a team of female engineers from each host country to manage the network infrastructure.
Sri Lanka, online learning, and the pandemic
Before the pandemic, LEARN, and its leadership knew the power of online learning. In 2019, the organization acquired Premium Zoom licenses through a partnership with NORDunet and BdREN. Yet, they were underutilized by local academia. But the pandemic changed everything. When the first lockdown demanded reinvention of learning, LEARN, through its partnerships, obtained an enhanced package of 5000 and then 12000 Zoom accounts for local higher education institutions, providing Premium Zoom licenses to every teacher and administrator of all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).
Local higher education institutions utilized these accounts and embraced online learning. While this increased activity was a sudden hit to LEARN’s infrastructure, the organization was committed to keeping it a free service. Hence, it negotiated with telecom operators for free data, the first of its kind in the education sector. Further, it invested in expanding its infrastructure, thus, setting up a series of Zoom servers locally, which ensured free, uninterrupted access for students and academics. Therefore, Sri Lankan higher education seamlessly transitioned to online learning.
Of course, this feat wasn’t without its challenges. In the early days, classes were staggered to reduce stress on the computing resources LEARN had in place. These were supplemented by additional hardware from larger universities. They again reached full utilization in 2021, even after securing $150,000 in funding to bridge this infrastructure gap. Throughout this journey, LEARN didn’t compromise on its core values of providing accessibility to Sri Lanka’s higher education sector.
Growth is continuous: Project BeLISAC
If the last few years have taught us anything, global thinking is essential. Such is the next step for online learning in South Asia with the Building eLearning Infrastructure in South Asian Countries (BeLISAC) project. This initiative is a confederation of organizations and national research networks coming together. In doing so, it’ll create a platform for learning with additional computing resources and capacity building to enable greater development in South Asia.
Several organizations are involved with BeLISAC. Chief among them is [email protected] supporting the initiative as part of its Distance Learning Education Project, contributing funding, computer resources, and capacity building for female engineers. NORDUnet will also be involved in these capacity-building efforts. Alongside them are four national research networks – BdREN (Bangladesh), LEARN (Sri Lanka), NREN (Nepal), and DrukREN (Bhutan) – all of whom are contributing their computing resources to the project.
Building digital infrastructure for online learning
One of the critical challenges BeLISAC will work to minimize is educators and students needing to be able to use Zoom licenses in production mode. This issue was due to NORDUnet computing resources being unable to handle the load from hosting classes. Beneficiary countries and their NRENs, like LEARN in Sri Lanka, overcame this with an “On-prem” solution. While it successfully offered continuity, the approach still had room for improvement, particularly due to the infrastructure limitations, which is the aim of the BeLISAC project.
The initiative will see 4 data centers built across South Asia in Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. These centers, which will be connected via the TIEN network, will offer Zoom services not just for their host countries but also for Laos and Cambodia. The infrastructure in Sri Lanka as part of the BeLISAC project will be operated by LEARN and placed at its present data center. The additional servers and resources that will be added to LEARN’s data center as part of the BeLISAC will remain dedicated to ‘LEARN Zoom services as part of the project’s core purpose.
Training female engineers
Another aspect of the BeLISAC project is capacity building by training female engineers in each country to manage this new infrastructure. Under NORDUnet mentorship, these engineers in each country will actively participate in the ongoing infrastructure development of the project. These engineers were also invited to join the latest NORDUnet Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. In the future, the project also aims to offer opportunities for female interns to play an active role in the project. Ultimately, through these efforts, the participating organizations of the BeLISAC project aim to improve the rate of female participation in technology, contributing to achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, one of the seventeen SDGs.
The vision of Project BeLISAC
The BeLISAC project is an international undertaking by several organizations to expand online learning. In turn, it is laying the foundation for bridging the digital divide in its host countries, which the pandemic so powerfully highlighted. The investments in computing infrastructure and capacity development as part of the BeLISAC project will bridge this divide and reduce the gender gap. Aligning with global female STEM initiatives, it’s a crucial step towards improving access to online education and a more gender-inclusive ICT industry, not just in Sri Lanka but across South Asia.