Niranjan Meegammana is educating underserved communities by closing the rural and urban education gap. Niranjan’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT)-based educational system is improving rural students’ access to quality education in local languages, enabling them to become more competitive in national examinations in order to gain admissions to higher education institutions. His initiative comprises an interactive means of self and group learning which makes curricula efficient and exciting. Niranjan’s teaching methodology and materials are a vital resource to youth and their teachers in remote communities who do not otherwise have access to quality educational facilities.
The New Idea
Niranjan is closing a huge disparity in the Sri Lankan educational system by having created a model for the creative use of ICT to enhance learning and improve access to quality education for rural students. Niranjan, a pioneer of Sinhala Unicode in Sri Lanka, has combined his aptitude in developing content in local languages with the growing ICT use among Sri Lankans through Nanasala (government funded e-learning centers) to ensure that the quality of education for all Sri Lankan students comes to parity. His electronic educational materials and teaching methodology have created a multiplier effect at the local and regional levels. By significantly improving marginalized communities’ access to high-quality knowledge that has been contextualized to their local settings, he has also helped children and adults meet socioeconomic and environmental challenges by pioneering local language technologies, and standardizing and mainstreaming local content development on a large-scale, while using technology to make learning fun and easy.
Niranjan is also using Skype to conduct tutorials that would be otherwise too expensive for poor students. By enhancing the learning content with visual and audio prerecorded materials that can be simply uploaded onto a SIM phone card, he is the first to provide local language learning materials that can be used offline. Niranjan’s most popular tutorials are mock exams and past question paper answering sessions that can be accessed using mobile phones. His wide distribution of digital learning materials with lots of animation, tutorials via Skype, and prerecorded DVDs have already contributed to national objectives of reducing school dropouts and have improved the examination performance of rural students.
Niranjan’s organization, Shilpa Sayura (Sea of Knowledge) covers multiple disciplines in primary and secondary education. He has formed collaborative partnerships with the Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Education using the existing school system to reach out to marginalized groups with an alternative education model. Niranjan has reduced the digital, poverty, and gender divide while promoting equal access to education through Telecenters, which have been transformed into a digital education network.
Sri Lanka boasts a basic literacy rate of 91.2 percent and a 1:20 teacher-pupil ratio that claims an excellent educational standard compared to most developing countries. The main reason for these positive statistics is the country’s free education system. However, these statistics conceal the reality of rural schools, where an unequal distribution of learning resources leads to a poor quality of education. Urban schools, on the other hand, are usually capable of drawing enough financial resources and skilled teachers, and are better equipped with modern learning resources to attract more students. This trend perpetuates and expands the gap in the quality of education between rural and urban schools and has resulted in the closing of many such rural schools, thereby limiting educational opportunities for poor rural children. Educational spending based on the number of potential students in schools focuses on providing funding for recurrent expenditures and physical infrastructure, ignoring the quality of education as a strategy toward human resource development and thereby reducing poverty. Sri Lanka’s free education system works at a disadvantage for rural schools.
Sri Lanka’s “free education” policy has caused a major setback in promoting equitable access irrespective of the fact that it has undoubtedly enabled high literacy rates and gender parity in education. Children of more affluent families seem to derive larger benefits from the system than those from less well-to-do backgrounds. Poor students face problems in meeting the “hidden costs” like after-school tuition, sports, uniforms, stationery, and commuting. The only alternative they see is to drop out. A recent survey shows 20 percent among the poor drop out of school by Grade 5. The free education policy has also resulted in bureaucratization, politicization, and stagnation of the education system. There is neither accountability nor academic freedom in this model, as education is centralized, owned, and controlled by the State.
One of the largest roadblocks to achieving effective education in the rural areas has been the inadequate preparation and supply of teachers. Schools in rural areas remain understaffed as qualified teachers prefer to work in urban areas. As a result, the qualification level of the teaching staff in rural areas is appreciably lower than the national average. In general, both urban and rural schools use teacher-centered, textbook-based outdated British educational models. These techniques have their own limitations in adapting to local and global realities. Thus the knowledge that rural children gain from rural schools is not practical or helpful in preparing them for jobs in the local economy. As a result they lose trust and interest in education. The worse case result is the closing down of rural schools for a lack of students. According to the Department of Statistics, in Sri Lanka, there were 1,298 schools with fewer than six students in 2000, and this number increased to 1,368 in 2002. During the same period, 147 schools were closed for lack of students. At the same time, there are limited adult education programs or trade-related skill training opportunities for youth to acquire livelihood support skills in rural areas. Thus, these youth eventually add to the agriculture labor force as unskilled workers—a phenomenon which has resulted in a high rate of underemployment or unemployment and thus, less economic productivity.
Intrigued and inspired by the dawn of computer technology in Sri Lanka from 1984 to 1989, Niranjan, a land surveyor in rural Sri Lanka, began seeing the potential applications of ICT to alleviate many of the problems that plagued rural communities. Initially, one of his main focuses was developing content in local rural languages. During the early 1990s he developed Sinhala language software which he then used to produce the first local language navigation charts for fishermen. Soon after, he developed the first local language fonts for Microsoft Windows (www.locallanguages.lk) and in 2005 Niranjan formed the first Sinhala Unicode Group—an online knowledge-sharing, local language technology and content development community, with around 900 members, who contribute to developing the community and industry standards and solving issues in Sinhala Unicode. These issues involved standardizing Sinhala letters and developing technical, related new computer language in Sinhala. As some of the new computer-related words were not a part of local languages the group created those words and began standardizing them for formal usage.
During this period Niranjan, using the Sinhala font he had developed, created a learning package for his elder daughter whose grades in high school had dropped precipitously. He believed his daughter could not grasp what was being taught due to the controlled and non-interactive nature of the lessons. Niranjan gathered her reading materials and the national curriculum and designed an electronic learning system for her that he thought made the lessons more interesting. The result was remarkable. Not only did his daughter top the list of students who passed that year’s O-levels exam from her district, but other girls who studied with her as a team also achieved distinctions in science and mathematics (subjects considered generally difficult).
With his approach backed by successful results, Niranjan and a few teachers sat together to look at the available learning materials and to devise a way to combine ICT to enhance students’ self-learning ability and their access to quality and improved educational materials. The birth of Shilpa Sayura came through this initiative in 2006. Niranjan designed Shilpa Sayura as a bottom-up educational model; a dynamic system that could change and improve based on community needs, feedback, and new opportunities. The core research and development group consists of ICT, education, community and development experts who work as a bridge between beneficiary communities and the content system. At the initial stage a content map was prepared based on National Institute of Education (NIE) curriculum by a group of teachers who have been trained to develop curricula by the NIE. This was Niranjan’s first experience with the government education system. The content map based on NIE curriculum included over 8,000 units, and suggested how each lesson was to be organized in text, images, and animations. Niranjan designed the content map in a way that it could be reviewed and updated with NIE curriculum changes and community needs. The content base was then generated and reviewed by a panel of school teachers from around the country and piloted with school children and teachers with help from the Ministry of Education. For example, in Lahugalla, a war-affected and poor village, Niranjan used his learning model to help ten students pass their Ordinary Level exams. Of these ten students, two obtained “excellent pass” in mathematics using Niranjan’s materials. The feedback received was used to further upgrade the subject matter and improve its delivery. The content includes text, supported by movie clips, photographs, animation, interactive exercises, and java applets, going far beyond a textbook’s ability to impart knowledge.
In November 2006 Shilpa Sayura piloted its self-learning e-curriculum in twenty Telecenters in the south that have been setup by the government to offer ICT services, skills, and e-learning opportunities to people living in remote and rural areas. Shilpa Sayura’s self-learning program quickly encountered success through the impact it had among rural youth. By 2009, Shilpa Sayura’s content base was increased from 6,000 units to 8,000 units and its program was implemented in 150 Telecenters in a three-stage replication process. By 2010 Shilpa Sayura served 9,000 students in 150 Telecenters located in seven provinces of Sri Lanka. Niranjan, with a few teachers and youth working with him on the development of the e-curriculum formed the Shilpa Sayura Foundation in 2009 and have been working on an “e-school” project to scale-up their efforts which increased the content base to 14,000 units. They are also working on developing content to include primary and senior secondary education while developing Tamil language e-curricula. Shilpa Sayura has also developed self-learning content on the topics of sustainable agriculture and community health to begin expanding upon the success of this method to various populations.
Niranjan has developed content on all subjects for his primary beneficiaries; primary and secondary grade students, with the help of a group of school teachers from the education department. Exams for Grade 11 in Sri Lanka are conducted through a national examination and it is crucial for students to pass this exam to move further with their education. Extended beneficiaries of his work include unemployed youth, women, elders, and disabled citizens. By using Niranjan’s self-learning ICT programs many unemployed youth have taken up Telecenter jobs to earn an income. He strategically develops partnerships with related technology developers and community developers to increase benefits coming from Shilpa Sayura’s work. One such example is the University of Colombo Language Laboratory, which used Shilpa Sayura to help visually impaired people with a text-to-speech program. Another is introducing the Shilpa Sayura learning model in villages that have no electricity with a battery-operated computer system. It is of core importance that the model is not dependent on rural communities’ access to electricity. The curricula are loaded onto the computer as locally hosted content. The audio and video content in e-curriculum can also be loaded onto a SIM card and used on a mobile phone. His uniportal e-learner system has a student management system to provide digital IDs to students. Students who login can access content by curriculum or go deeper by content categorizations. They can also create personal profiles, create their own content and share it with the group. Group discussions, comments, rating and personal content map creation are possible through this uniportal system.
Over the next five years, Niranjan plans to expand his work so that it becomes an alternative educational platform to deliver access to learning for marginalized communities in Sri Lanka and beyond. He intends to deliver his education services through online, offline and live teaching at a cost to students from the middle-class and then subsidizing content delivery to poor rural youth, including vocational training, agriculture, social entrepreneurship, and health. Niranjan plans to develop a program that will encourage social entrepreneurs to set up e-schools in rural Telecenters and schools lacking access to education.
Niranjan was born in a small, ancient village of 200 families. The families were farmers and small traders and everyone was related. It was a major achievement for the village when Niranjan passed his fifth grade scholarship to attend a central school. The principal became his mentor and Niranjan emerged as a student leader.
During this time his family was evicted by the government for a large infrastructure project to build a dam, diverting river water for hydroelectricity. This incident, although trying and traumatic for someone his age, played a critical role in developing Niranjan’s ability to see opportunities for change in difficult situations.
Niranjan became a Survey Engineer at the age of 20 before switching to ICT in 1992 and becoming a webmaster at the dawn of the Internet phenomenon in Sri Lanka around 1996. Niranjan is qualified with a British Computer Science (BCS) degree, Land and Hydrographic Surveying and as Adobe Educator. He was inspired by Bill Gates’ example to found E-Fusion (pvt.) Ltd (www.sinharaja.com) in 2000, which aimed to change how people use computers and encourage small business growth. Niranjan worked to build and improve local language fonts, but fonts weren’t enough for him, so he began writing content for private businesses and government service departments in Sinhala. Niranjan describes his introduction to ICT for development as “love at first sight.”
In 2000 Niranjan introduced a popular local language website, www.kaputa.com, which offered free Sinhala and Tamil fonts, local language writing tools, and local language content. At one point, kaputa.com had more than 60,000 subscribers who communicated in Sinhala and Tamil. Niranjan’s objective in developing this site was to encourage rural communities who faced barriers communicating in English to be able to access local language email facilities.
Niranjan is passionate about his work, especially to fulfill his dream of bringing the benefits of ICT to the rural poor. He is known as a pioneer in the Sri Lankan ICT industry, leading in web technologies, Sinhala font technology, government portals, travel and tourism technologies, and content. Niranjan believes education is the foundation for innovation and social change in the face of emerging global challenges and works joyfully to reach out to underserved youth. Today, his work is considered one of the top and most timely interventions in using ICT for development. In the last five years his work has grown rapidly and has won him several international awards. Niranjan currently lives in Kandy with his wife, daughter and son.