Be an all-round individual

Vice President, Technology Shared Services, Sri Lanka

-Nalina Wijesundara

The concept of e-learning has not yet touched the depth of the learner-communities in Sri Lanka. In this context, explain to us what e-learning is?

E-learning is a term used to explain the use of technology in learning, in order to make learning accessible to more people by bridging the distance between the learner and the teacher and the content, cut across time boundaries, simulate scenarios that are difficult to demonstrate in a classroom or even in a lab environment. It is often thought of as using web technology in learning. But it really extends further than just that, today people use mobile technology, tablet computers, virtual reality, gaming and even 3D printing to make learning a more engaging experience.

The growing trend of e-learning mostly benefits the developed countries due to the facilities they have. But still Sri Lanka is a developing country. So how do you think e-learning impacts Sri Lankan learner communities?

I agree with you that as a developing country, we are behind in this area. But it doesn’t mean that we have to be behind all the time. We have an opportunity to leapfrog and embrace new technology. We don’t have to go back to what other countries have been using ten years ago. The number of people who are using smart phones is growing, Internet penetration is also improving, in fact, the mobile phone penetration in Sri Lanka is high for a developing country. While we recognize that everyone doesn’t have the same level of access to technology, by using appropriate e-learning technologies we can help bridge the gap in availability of high quality teachers in the country. There are children in our country who don’t have the opportunity to go to schools that have good facilities and sufficient teachers. Access to universities is also limited. That’s where, I feel, technology can make a difference. It is, however, important to use the combination of technology, learning design and content to realize the full benefits of e-learning.

Do you think that our IT knowledge and the capabilities are enough to embrace e-learning technology compared to other countries?

Well, you are not meant to be an expert in technology to use e-learning Technology. Give your phone to a kid who has not used a phone before. He will figure out how to use it. So it’s not about being an expert in technology. The level of understanding you need is no more than what you need for you to use excel spreadsheet or word processing software, sometimes even less.

But in the rural areas of the country, where facilities are limited, there is a contrast. This is where the government will have to step in, to improve internet connectivity and access to computers for children and communities. It is also very important to pay attention to having the right kind of content and improving the knowledge of the right ways of using technology. I have seen many companies creating IT labs as their corporate social responsibility projects. But most of these labs end up not being properly utilized and the companies that created them also don’t have ways to sustain them. If an IT lab is used appropriately, even if everybody is not going to have a computer, everybody gets at least an hour to use it. I think we will see progress.

When you look at the education sector, it is mainly about universities and schools. There we learn individually and collaboratively. Do you think that this concept of online learning enhances the individual learning and also the collaborative learning?

To answer the question directly, it definitely does. We are already learning collaboratively. The very idea of the internet is collaboration. Before we had computers, we were limited to the knowledge we could gather laboriously from printed matter and people we knew and the school that we went to. But, by having been connected to the Internet has changed all that. There’s so much content available out there. Technology in general enables collaboration and well-designed e-learning technology makes it even better. But, the problem might be that there is information overload. That is why I said well-designed technology with the right content definitely makes learning better. Because when we think about learning, we generally think about what we get in the classroom or a tuition class, where a lot of time is spent writing down what the teacher says. With technology, you can flip that. The concept of ‘flipped classroom’ is emerging in education, where the face-to-face interaction is not used to provide study material. Instead, information is available online. You’re expected to read and learn that information and use the time you have for face-to-face interactions, to ask questions from the teacher, to bring up your own ideas and for the discussions. Here, it is important that the teachers’ attitude towards teaching is changed as well. No longer will they be the authority on a subject as there will be so much knowledge accessible to the learner out there. The teacher instead should be the facilitator and the person who provides guidance and structure for that learning.

When it comes to universities and schools, do you think that there are any disadvantages or negative points related to online learning and teaching?

There’s always debate around it. I believe, if you have a really good teacher and a relatively small class where you can get enough attention that creates a great learning environment. Still, you can use technology to enhance that experience. For example, when teaching difficult to understand concepts, using technology can help a great deal. Even 3D printing and virtual reality are now being used in some areas. It’s not to say that you can replace all the teachers in the schools with the technology. Human beings learn more effectively when there is face to face interaction with each other, because we respond to more than just auditory and visual stimuli, we need to know that we are on the right track-hence a nod or a look of approval from the teacher goes a long way. Similarly, a teacher who can read the emotions of the learner, such as frustration, fatigue or distraction is hard to be replaced by other means, at the same time, everywhere in the world, there aren’t enough good teachers, schools and facilities.

At the same time technology can provide information about how students learn online and technology can help analyze large amounts of data and help adapt the content to suit individual learning styles and speed. This is where I think technology can go a long way, enhancing the teacher-student experience. So, I personally think that there are less negative points to online learning and teaching.

Do you think that online learning can make a great impact on graduate employability?

There are lots of ways to gain professional qualifications on top of your academic qualifications. There is a large amount of content you can find online. Employers today value these professional qualifications and they are often delivered using technology platforms which make them available across the world. English language, and broadly, communication skills are huge factors that determine the quality of job you get, no matter what sort of academic qualification you have. Again, you can find a vast amount of knowledge available online to learn English.

What are the improvements you suggest to Sri Lankan IT education?

I don’t work very closely with schools, so my understanding of the actual syllabi or methodologies schools use is limited. In other countries, schools start teaching programming to children of about 8 or 9 years of age, using friendly languages such as Scratch, which is developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and available for anyone to use online. For our country, though it is important to start with using the facilities available objectively. For an example, use IT in teaching other subjects to make learning a more interesting experience. I think that schools should have a system to give all children access to the IT labs even for a single subject for a week. Even if it doesn’t have an e-learning or technology platform specifically designed to do that, there are plenty of things out there you can use by having the access to the Internet. Also, it is a folly to try to build all content ground up, it takes time and more resources than already accessing available content, that come from reputable education institutions and organizations.

Government also interacts with the IT industry. What do you think about the government interaction and their support for the IT industry?

Over the last few years the Governments have recognized the value the IT industry can add to the economy. The industry has also become better organized and is represented by SLASSCOM – Sri Lanka Association of Software Services Companies. As a result, the industry as a whole has a better voice, a better way to deal with the government and the government in turn has been quite positive in working with the industry. There are plans, drafted by the industry and supported by the government, to make the IT industry one of the biggest foreign currency earners for the Sri Lankan economy. So I think the government is working closely with the industry today and there are plans to develop the IT industry to be a five-billion-dollar industry in 2020.

You are an expert in e-learning concept. So what do you think- is e-learning the future? Will the online teaching, learning and all those things eventually replace the traditional learning and teaching experiences?

I won’t call myself an expert, but I have worked in this industry for over a decade now so I have a view. I think that technology is going to be ubiquitous in education. Apart from just having an online platform, there is increasing use of mobile technology, virtual reality, gamification and more.

Technology in general has taken the teacher-learner relationship outside the physical boundaries of a classroom or a school. Today many people have access to smart phones and they are connected. It allows you to learn in a different way, from anywhere. Now you can study in groups with people even from different countries, because people are connected. So, it brings a different dimension to your learning.

But, will it completely take the traditional methods away? I don’t know. Like it has done in many industries, technology will continue to disrupt some models in learning and bring about new ways of learning.

Tell us about the journey which made you become the person who is standing here today?

people. I started more as a technologist first and today I am working in educational technology which is even more fulfilling. I wanted to be a technical person and I knew what I wanted to do in that area. Then I gradually moved into leadership roles, working more with people, trying to understand, motivating and showing the way forward to my teams at different levels. Education has certainly shaped my life and being able to work on something that will help change other people’s lives, is really empowering. I think, what has got me here is, being focused on technology as well as people. Understanding that there are a lot of things which you don’t know and being open to learning from others around you helps you to be a more grounded person.

In the early years my parents were a huge inspiration. My mother made sure that I spent enough time in learning and my father was always gently there making sure that I had everything. As I grew older, I paid enough attention to my education and made sure that I went through higher education. I had an opportunity to work outside of Sri Lanka which was helpful to get a broader perspective. I have had the opportunity to work with some very talented leaders and they have inspired me along the way. I have also had the good fortune to work with a team of very intelligent people.

So far you have achieved many things. Among them, what is your biggest satisfaction?

I’ve never focused so much on what I have achieved, rather than having the opportunity to learn and to do meaningful work. When I joined Pearson, the team was about 25 people. Today we have a larger team of 650 people who are doing some high-end engineering work. So, being able to be part of that journey is definitely an exhilarating experience. But, in the beginning, being with certain organizations, there have been times when things didn’t quite go to plan. But those times were equally important learning opportunities. It’s about the state in a journey of an organization that you enter into and making sure it is in a better place when you exit. So, wherever I have had the opportunity to play a role, I always looked to do the best, tried to lead with a positive attitude and take the team forward. As a leader in an organization, what’s really exciting is to create an environment where other people grow along with you. In leadership, you have to think more about the organization, then about yourself and that is what I have tried hard to do.

Give out your piece of advice to the young generation.

Work hard, make best use of your time at the University, gain knowledge and take opportunities that come your way. Always maintain a love and passion for learning. Organizations look for skills in a potential employee, but value character. Positive attitude, willingness to take on challenges and integrity are key aspects that I look for. In addition good communication skills differentiate you from others. It is important to understand and effectively communicate what you as an individual brings to an organization.

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