Over the past year, Sri Lanka’s university students have been confined to their homes, adapting to a new virtual learning environment. While much of the defining features of a student’s university life have been amiss during the past year, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ) Senior Prof. Sudantha Liyanage says there are merits in the new normal of virtual education.
Reopening university facilities at a full operational level will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. “This is one of the main challenges we are facing right now. Unlike schools, universities have to provide hostel facilities. At Jayewardenepura if we are to provide hostel facilities for all batches and faculties, that would mean we have to provide over 8,000 places for students. This would cause a big delay and it would be a further challenge to make students observe Covid-19 guidelines. Therefore starting universities under the previously normal conditions is not something we can do right now,” he explained.
Although the government says that the universities are closed, all universities have been functioning in a virtual environment, Prof. Sudantha Liyanage said. “At the Sri Jayewardenepura University, exams too are conducted virtually through platforms like Zoom and Google classroom. Almost all faculties have conducted distant examinations and it has been very successful.” “Initially we had a lot of resistance from a lot of our colleagues and students. But they too have realized that this is the only option at the moment. Now the students are very happy with this because they are at home. They are learning in their home environment, under the parents’ custody. So they are very happy. In fact, most students, especially the girls, have asked us to continue this way, even after things return to normal. But as Vice Chancellor I believe at least some part of their life has to be spent at the university,” he said.
For at least the next three months, students (even batch wise) will not be permitted to enter the university premises, the Vice Chancellor said. “It all depends on the Covid-19 situation. If we are to really resume university activities in a proper way, we have to vaccinate the entire academic staff, the non-academic staff as well as all the students. I think then it would be safe for everyone.
In addition to the personal immunity to Covid-19, time would also be needed until a social immunity is developed against the virus, Prof. Liyanage believes. “To develop that level of immunity, at least some percentage of the students or staff should contract Covid-19 or get vaccinated. So at the moment, since vaccination is also in high demand, it remains a challenge.”
Prof. Liyanage said requests have been made to the government to vaccinate the academic and non-academic community of the universities. “This would be about 25,000 people in the entire university sector. This would require about 50,000 doses. If the students are to be vaccinated, at least 200,000 doses would be required to vaccinate some 100,000 students in the system. This can easily be done if the government can set aside 250,000 doses for this sector. This population is important. These are the youth, they will graduate soon, while another set of people would retire from service. So it is important that these youth graduate on time.” The University of Sri Jayewardenepura would be releasing most exam results by the end of May/June, in order to achieve this target,” Prof. Liyanage added.
“We have already absorbed the new intake, except for the faculties of Applied Sciences and Technology, which will be done in the near future. All other faculties have already commenced their academic activities for the new intake. We conducted the orientation through Zoom, and it was very successful,” he said.
When asked if all students across the country have fair access to devices and technology, Prof. Liyanage said they have not come across issues when it comes to examinations.
“Normally we have heard of a number of complaints, saying that students don’t have devices. But once we scheduled examinations, we can’t see an issue. Somehow students have managed to get their hands on devices. Some have borrowed devices, or have travelled to different areas with better connectivity. Students have managed to sit for the exams. More than 5000 students have connected with the university for examinations and we cannot see any issue.” Prof. Liyanage said government intervention is needed to improve certain areas of accessibility for universities to improve their virtual facilities provided for students.
“Time is precious. You have to do something meaningful during the best time of your life. My appeal is for you to somehow find a good device, and try to obtain knowledge, pass the examinations and to finish your studies in good time,” Prof. Liyanage said in a final message to students of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura.
News Source : Sunday Times.lk