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LESSONS:

Distance Education Modernization Project

sector: Education | country: Sri Lanka

The project involved the establishment of an entirely new platform of learning, with investments in hardware and software and including creation of partnerships with institutions that were to develop their course content into online distance learning format. This constituted a major step toward a new concept of learning. There is a risk that the system will eventually collapse unless it is put on a sound business and strategic footing in the near future. In addition to the risk of dilapidation of equipment (which for now is still relevant and state-of-the- art), staff capacity that was sourced, developed, and placed to keep National Online Distance Education Service (NODES) and network access centers (NACs) operational risks being eroded as the highly skilled people begin to find alternative work in the market. One major lesson is that longer-term support could have been built into project design to enable more time for preparing a sustainability plan with concrete milestones, including adequate transition arrangements followed by approval of an institutional framework for the successor organization.

Another lesson arises from the novelty and innovation of the project – a higher priority should have been placed on social marketing and awareness raising among potential partner institutions and students, to ensure broad-based demand and a strong supply of market- oriented courses. There is great potential for self-sustainability in this model if its management is outsourced or it is transformed into a corporate entity, but inclusion of social marketing will be key to its success. Also, mobilization of the private sector requires effective communication and a credible monitoring mechanism to ensure that matching grants are used effectively.

An important lesson regards the nature of the courses that were offered and if they were the most appropriate ones for an online distance-learning platform. While the project was designed to create access to postsecondary (degree-level) programs for those A-level achievers who would not have an opportunity to enroll in traditional university programs, it may not have been suitable for students newly transitioning from secondary to tertiary education for whom distance learning was less desirable or appropriate, given the strong preference for more traditional modes of post-secondary education. Such a system may be of more relevance and therefore better used if it focuses on non-degree courses to supplement formal education, especially courses that help the employed broaden their skills or the unemployed making themselves more employable. This has deep implications for the future of NODES, as the ?new management? or policymakers consider how they want to develop and use it.

Finally, an important institutional lesson arises from the need for better planning and coordination between all ministries and agencies that have a potential stake in a project’s outputs. In the case of this project, NODES can be of relevance and use to the training and education programs offered and governed by various ministries and agencies – e.g., Ministry of Education, Vocational Training Authority. Already, several of these courses relate to vocational areas (hotel management; computer studies and/or software development; food and beverages; etc.) and their thrust is aligned with the government’s priority goal of developing information technology (IT) and tourism as focus areas for investment in technical education and vocational training, supported by public-private partnership and an information and communications technology (ICT) platform – all of which NODES offers.

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