Building a Crisis-Resilient Education System in Sri Lanka

Distance education in the time of COVID-19 offers an opportunity to create new and more effective methods of teaching and learning. Photo credit: IPS.

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A comprehensive strategy that addresses learning loss and improves learning outcomes is the key to a robust education system in the new normal.


Around 1.6 billion students from over 180 countries were kept out of school for an extended period at the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. As the mode of learning shifts to online delivery, the risk of poor children falling further behind in their studies has increased. This disruption can cause long-term implications especially if proper interventions are not implemented.

Sri Lanka’s distance education delivery during the COVID-19 school closures has shown many shortcomings in terms of access and quality. Policymakers must prioritize the design of an evidence-based comprehensive strategy for a more robust and high-quality education system that leaves no one behind and has contingency capacities to better mitigate and manage future crises.


Governments around the world started to adopt various distance learning solutions as the pandemic forced schools and universities to suspend face-to-face learning. Despite commendable efforts to address multiple challenges including content delivery, teacher training, onboarding of parents, and accessibility and connectivity issues, substantial learning losses have been unavoidable.

In Sri Lanka, schools have been largely dysfunctional for over 16 months since the initial shutdown in March 2020. Classes are primarily conducted online and via television broadcasts initiated by the Ministry of Education in collaboration with the National Institute of Education.

However, according to a study, only 48% of Sri Lankan households with school-aged children owned a smartphone or computer and only 34% had an internet connection in 2019. As such, not even half of all households can benefit from e-learning or distance education opportunities. A survey conducted among teachers in 2020 also showed that while around 45% of students were reached online, only 4% used advanced platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, which offer a virtual classroom experience. The remaining 41% were given large volumes of lesson notes through social media platforms, such as WhatsApp and Viber. This practice reinforces a teacher-centered education where students merely absorb what is spoon-fed to them.

Despite the wider reach of TV lessons in remote locations, connectivity issues are still at play with only 28% of students reported to have watched at least one TV program in 2020. Other issues hindering effective participation are the following:

  • Pedagogy: Lack of links between TV programs and teachers’ lesson plans, the passive teaching style of broadcasted programs and absence of interaction with students, and risks of weaker students being left behind given the lack of follow-up mechanisms.
  • Logistics: Confusion about the timing and duration of different subjects and TV channels and poor communication of information about programs to schools, students, and parents.
  • Parental guidance: Disinterest due to poverty, lack of technical know-how, and cultural practices, such as engaging children in labor or prioritizing entertainment over education.

The government’s strategy for recovering learning losses in the longer term also remains unspecified. During periods of temporary operations, there were no systematic learning loss assessments, data collection processes to monitor students who are most at risk of dropping out from school or curricula adjustments implemented at an official level. Some better-endowed schools initiated their own measures at the school level, leveraging access to resources and school community networks. Apart from lack of access to resources, less-privileged schools faced constraints in making and implementing similar school-level decisions in the context of centralized decision-making.

Distance education in the time of COVID-19 also offers an opportunity to create new and more effective methods of teaching and learning. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for effective teachers that can facilitate and support learning instead of merely delivering content. In a remote learning environment, this would require effective “teaching presence”, involving delivering well-structured and engaging learning activities and frequent feedback, while at the same time engaging students in their own learning, and encouraging them to take responsibility for their work. This is an important opportunity for change in Sri Lanka to move away from the content-heavy and examination-centric education system to one that encourages more active student engagement with content.

Implementing blended learning could also create a richer learning experience. This could become a staple approach in the new normal given periodic interruptions to school operations. Based on studies from different country experiences, effective hybrid learning can be offered in any setting by identifying the best combination of education modalities, learning materials, and methods of communication in line with available resources, skills, and technology.


Policymakers must

  • take urgent action to mitigate the current COVID-19 education crisis and develop a robust system for education delivery in the new normal;
  • invest in technology to increase accessibility to online platforms in line with desired education outcomes and resource capacities;
  • improve program design and pedagogy for remote and hybrid teaching, equipping teachers with skills needed to facilitate and support learning instead of simply delivering content;
  • consider opening schools in remote areas with low risk of COVID-19 and where distance learning is ineffective, accompanied by regular cost-effective testing of students and teachers;
  • formulate a comprehensive strategy to recover lost learning when schools reopen, including remedial learning programs, adjustments to the school calendar and curriculum, and learning assessments;
  • develop a statistical framework to monitor school closure impacts to guide data collection; and
  • advocate strong and committed leadership from all education system actors when facing emerging constraints to learning, irrespective of the level of access to technology or finances.

AfterAccess and LIRNEAsia. 2019. ICT access and use in Asia and the Global South.

M. Barron et al. 2021. What is Hybrid Learning? How Can Countries Get it Right? World Bank Blogs.  27 April.

S. Gamage and M. Zaber. 2021. Teaching and Learning in Distance Mode during COVID-19 in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. National Conference on COVID 19: Impact, Mitigation, Opportunities and Building Resilience. Colombo: Education Forum Sri Lanka.

T. McAleavy and K. Gorgen. 2020. What Does the Research Suggest is Best Practice in Pedagogy for Remote Teaching? Reading: Education Development Trust.

UNESCO. 2021. Education: From Disruption to Recovery.

UNESCO Institute for Statistics. 2021. Pandemic-related Disruptions to Schooling and Impacts on Learning Proficiency Indicators: A Focus on the Early Grades.

Ashani Abayasekara
Research Economist, Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka

Ashani Abayasekara’s research interests include education, health, and labor economics. She holds a BA in Economics from the University of Peradeniya and a master’s degree in International and Development Economics from the Australian National University.

Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka

The Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka is an autonomous economic research organization, established by an Act of Parliament, in Colombo. Its mission is to conduct high-quality, independent, policy-relevant research to provide robust evidence for policymaking and improve the lives of all Sri Lankans.

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