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Empirical Research

Published online June 13, 2022 https://doi.org/10.55396/ined.22.0002

Copyright © Innovation and Education.

Inclusive and Quality Online Learning for Sri Lankan Higher Education Institutions beyond Disruption

Danlin Lynn Yang1, Ryotaro Hayashi2, Sungsup Ra2, Cher Ping Lim1*

1Faculty of Education and Human Development, The Education University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, SAR, China
2Asian Development Bank, Metro Manila, Philippines

Correspondence to:Cher Ping Lim
E-mail: clim@eduhk.hk

Received: February 13, 2022; Revised: May 13, 2022; Accepted: May 16, 2022

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Based on the views from HEIs administrators, teachers, and students about online learning during the pandemic in Sri Lanka, this study examines the existing gaps in HEIs that might hinder the inclusivity and quality of online learning, and the role of HEIs to drive and support online learning. This study adopts the institutional framework for online and blended learning by Lim et al. (2019) to analyse the enabling factors and challenges faced by HEIs in Sri Lanka to drive and support inclusive and quality online learning, and suggests how their capacity could be built to engage all students in quality online learning. The study highlights that most HEIs in Sri Lanka are in the initial stages towards inclusive and quality online learning. The HEIs in Sri Lanka need to pay more attention to formulating online learning-related policies at the university level, investing in infrastructure and hardware to enhance the access to quality online teaching and learning, sustaining partnerships to support the quality enhancement of online teaching and learning, offering pedagogically-oriented professional development opportunities for teachers, and providing student learning support. Besides these dimensions, two other dimensions, namely curriculum development and reforms and research and evaluation of online learning, have to be taken into consideration. The study suggests a more systematic and holistic approach would be crucial to guide HEIs as they strive toward inclusive and quality online learning in the medium and long run.

Keywords: Online learning, Inclusivity and quality, Strategic planning, Higher education

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 emphasises a target which is “by 2030 ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO], 2016, p. 40). However, reaching the target by 2030 in developing countries becomes increasingly challenging given the university closure and the insufficient access to online learning during the pandemic (UNESCO, 2020b). In order to ensure learning can continue, governments and organisations have worked closely to provide a variety of support to HEIs. The governments have made efforts to establish online and offline learning opportunities to support teachers and students to continue learning as far as possible. UNESCO (2020a) has provided distance learning programmes and recommended open educational applications and platforms for online learning. However, according to the survey administered by International Labour Organization (2020) in 112 countries in April and May 2020, there was a digital divide between developed and developing countries. In terms of higher education, most HEI students in developed countries were more likely to be offered online learning solutions to keep learning. In developing countries, HEI students were less likely to be provided with online learning and may fail to continue their learning (International Labour Organization, 2020). Apparently, the digital divide hindered the inclusivity and quality of higher education in developing countries.

In terms of the inclusivity and quality of higher education, as online learning has gradually played a pivotal role in higher education, HEIs need to pay more attention to the inclusivity and quality of online learning (Adedoyin & Soykan, 2020; Belluigi et al., 2020). In other words, it is crucial to examine the challenges faced by HEIs towards ensuring inclusive and quality online learning in developing countries.

HEIs in Sri Lanka have been offered online learning with support from non-government organisations, the private sector, and international/regional organisations (Asian Development Bank, 2017). With the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), HEIs in Sri Lanka have been pushed to adopt online learning for supporting students to continue their learning. However, online learning implementation in Sri Lankan HEIs remains slow and challenging to engage all students in quality online learning, as many HEIs lack the capacity to address the gaps.

According to Lim et al. (2018, p. 370), the inclusivity of education refers to “the goal of ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all”, while quality education refers to “one that satisfies basic learning needs and enriches the lives of learners and their overall living experience” (Lim et al., 2018, p. 371). In the context of online learning, the inclusivity of online learning refers to all students provided with access to online learning. Quality online learning refers to students’ learning needs being met and students achieving the intended learning outcomes.

Recent research has suggested that online learning has the potential to enhance the inclusivity and quality of higher education (Lim et al., 2018). In terms of inclusivity, online learning can allow students from different socio-economic backgrounds to have access to a variety of quality learning resources or learning programmes. In terms of quality, online learning not only facilitates students’ communication and collaboration with one another, but also provides students with opportunities to engage in reflective learning experiences. In addition, online learning providing a space for students to learn at their own pace can support students to monitor and manage their online learning to achieve the intended learning outcomes.

As stated in the Sri Lanka government policy document “National Policy Framework Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour (2020–2025)” (Ministry of Finance Sri Lanka, n.d.), HEIs in Sri Lanka are expected to provide quality higher education and equip students with competencies to meet the challenges of a fast-changing and knowledge-driven economy; online learning provides students with opportunities to develop these competencies (Asian Development Bank, 2016). To support online learning, the Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology has been working on the “National Digital Policy for Sri Lanka 2020–2025 (Draft 2.0)” (Hasangani, 2020). Apart from the national vision, the Strategic Plan 2019–2023 developed by the UGC highlights how online learning technologies could enable quality learning and teaching in HEIs. To ensure inclusive and quality online learning, it is necessary to examine the role of Sri Lankan HEIs to drive and support online learning and their limitations to ensure inclusive and quality online learning.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries had to temporarily close HEIs nationwide in order to reduce viral transmission. The governments in 70 countries have taken measures to ensure students can continue learning, including providing guidelines for online teaching and learning, online teaching and learning resources, and financial support (World Bank, 2020). For instance, in February 2020, the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China (2020) issued instructions to guide HEIs to implement online teaching. The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology of Japan (2020) has provided additional financial support for building an online learning environment for HEIs. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Higher Education of Malaysia urged HEIs to switch from face-to-face to online learning (Mohamad Nasri et al., 2020). The HEIs in Malaysia developed online teaching and learning protocols, including revising curriculum content and assessment approaches with the support of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency. The countries have provided a variety of guidance to support online learning.

In Sri Lanka, all HEIs had to be closed physically for four months1 since 12 March 20202 in order to reduce viral transmission. The mode of teaching and learning has thus shifted from face-to-face to online abruptly. While teachers were expected to develop and implement online lessons, students were expected to gain access to these lessons and manage their own learning. Leaders in HEIs had to drive and support their teachers and students in order to ensure the inclusivity and quality of online learning.

The Ministry of Education and UGC in Sri Lanka has implemented various initiatives to support HEIs to continue learning and teaching in online environments. First, a Presidential Task Force on Sri Lanka’s Education Affairs was established on 31 March 2020 to ensure the continuity of educational activities in Sri Lanka at all levels, including government officials, vice-chancellors of state HEIs, and school principals (Rajapaksa, 2020). The Presidential Task Force has been working closely to formulate mechanisms and implement strategies to ensure the quality of online learning in HEIs. Additionally, the National Research and Education Network of Sri Lanka (i.e., LEARN) offers free internet services for LMSs for all HEIs in Sri Lanka (Lanka Education and Research Network, n.d.). HEIs themselves have also provided their teachers and students with a variety of support for online learning and teaching, such as real-time online learning with Zoom (Arachchi, 2020), and self-paced online lessons with lecture capture technology and Cisco WebEx (Daily News, 2020).

Online learning has become the new normal of HEIs in Sri Lanka, especially during the coping phase of the pandemic, and may become the dominant mode (as compared to face-to-face) of learning and teaching post-pandemic. A number of researchers from different countries attempted to evaluate online learning and teaching experiences from students’ perspectives (Chung et al., 2020; Coman et al., 2020) and teachers’ perspectives (Müller et al., 2021), while the studies concerning institutional planning and implementation for online learning remained limited. In order to improve the inclusivity and quality of online learning in post-pandemic higher education, this paper aims to examine the role of HEIs to drive and support online learning in Sri Lanka and suggests how their capacity could be built to engage all higher education students in quality online learning. The guiding research question and sub research questions are formulated as follows:

How do HEIs in Sri Lanka drive and support online learning to engage all students in quality online learning?

  • (1) What are the roles of HEIs in driving and supporting online learning?

  • (2) What are the perceived issues and challenges faced by HEI administrators, teachers, and students for online teaching and learning?

  • (3) How can the capacity of HEIs be built to address these issues and challenges to better engage all students in quality online learning?

To realise these research objectives, we collected and analysed the national survey data from HEI administrators, teachers, and students in Sri Lanka.

As planning and implementing online learning is an iterative process, the barriers of supporting such a process in HEIs could serve as drivers for change and may contribute to the capacity building of the HEIs for inclusive and quality online learning (Garrison & Vaughan, 2013; Fullan, 2015; Garrison, 2016). In this section, we discuss the two theoretical frameworks developed in the context of online and blended learning.

The framework for institutional implementation of blended learning in higher education

Based on a collective case study of six universities in the United States, Graham et al. (2013) identified three stages of institutional blended learning implementation - awareness/exploration, adoption/early implementation, and mature implementation/ growth, and three categories with regard to institutional strategy, structure, and support for blended and online learning in HEIs (see Table 1). The framework was further adopted to analyse eleven public HEIs in the United States, which were described as transitioning from the awareness/exploration to adoption/early implementation (Porter et al., 2014). The framework facilitated these HEIs to reflect on their capacity to adopt blended learning and guided them to address their capacity gaps and issues to better support blended learning in their institutions. In short, the framework provides a guide for HEI leaders to plan for the strategic adoption and implementation of blended learning.

Table 1 . Matrix representing the categories and stages in the blended learning adoption framework.

CategoryStage 1-awareness/explorationStage 2-adoption/early implementationStage 3-mature implementation/growth
Strategy
PurposeIndividual faculty/administrators informally identify specific blended learning benefitsAdministrators identify purposes to motivate institutional adoption of blended learningAdministrative refinement of purposes for continued promotion and funding of blended learning
AdvocacyIndividual faculty and administrators informally advocateBlended learning formally approved and advocated by university administratorsFormal blended learning advocacy by university administrators and departments/colleges
ImplementationIndividual faculty members implementing blended learningAdministrators target implementation in high impact areas and among willing facultyDepartments/colleges strategically facilitate wide-spread faculty implementation
DefinitionNo uniform definition of blended learning proposedInitial definition of blended learning formally proposedRefined definition of blended learning formally adopted
PolicyNo uniform blended learning policy in placeTentative policies adopted and communicated to stakeholders, policies revised as neededRobust policies in place with little need for revision, high level of community awareness
Structure
GovernanceNo official approval or implementation systemEmerging structures primarily to regulate and approve blended learning coursesRobust structures involving academic unit leaders for strategic decision making
ModelsNo institutional models establishedIdentifying and exploring blended learning ModelsGeneral blended learning models encouraged not enforced
SchedulingNo designation of blended learning courses as such in course registration/catalog systemEfforts to designate blended learning courses in registration/catalog systemBlended learning designations or modality metadata available in registration/catalog system
EvaluationNo formal evaluations in place addressing blended learning outcomesLimited institutional evaluations addressing blended learning outcomesEvaluation data addressing blended learning outcomes systematically reviewed
Support
TechnicalPrimary focus on traditional classroom technological supportIncreased focus on blended learning/online technological support for faculty and studentsWell established technological support to address blended learning/online needs of all stakeholders
PedagogicalNo course development process in placeExperimentation and building of a formal course development processRobust course development process established and systematically promoted
IncentivesNo identified faculty incentive structure for implementationExploration of faculty incentive structure for faculty training and course developmentWell-established faculty incentive structure for systematic training and implementation

Reproduced from the article of Graham et al. (2013, p. 7)..



However, this framework may not be applicable to developing and emerging countries due to the differences in their respective stages of socio-economic development. Developing countries have made efforts in addressing the external barriers that hinder online learning, including the increased access to devices, increased professional development programmes, and enhanced support for teachers (Ertmer & Ottenbreit-Leftwich, 2013). In contrast, with the established infrastructure and support mechanism, the HEIs in developed countries tend to put more emphasis on the internal barriers, such as the attitudes and beliefs on pedagogical changes and competencies for online learning. As HEIs in developing Asia need to tackle both the external and internal barriers of online learning simultaneously, these HEIs require a more holistic framework that could address both the external and internal barriers to quality online and blended learning.

The framework that guides the institutional strategic planning to drive and support online and blended learning in the Asia-Pacific region

Lim et al. (2019) proposed a holistic framework that guides the institutional strategic planning to drive and support blended learning by examining the strategies and lessons learned from blended learning practices in leading HEIs in the Asia-Pacific region. The framework comprises of seven strategic dimensions: (a) curriculum; (b) vision and policy alignment; (c) infrastructure, facilities, hardware and resources; (d) professional development; (e) student learning support; (f) partnership; and (g) research and evaluation (see Fig. 1 and Table 2). The seven strategic dimensions are closely intertwined to facilitate HEIs to identify their challenges encountered and develop customised and systematic strategies for inclusive and quality blended learning.

Table 2 . Seven dimensions of the proposed framework for strategic planning of HEIs for blended learning.

DimensionDescription
a. CurriculumSystematic competencies that students need to acquire through organised blended learning experiences, including relevant knowledge that students need to apply in a real-life context, and the twenty-first-century competencies.
b. Vision and policy alignmentA vision is to describe an HEI’s future of learning and teaching environments and to inform the relevant policy formulation.
An HEI needs to articulate their institutional strategic plan, corresponding policies, guidelines, and mechanisms aligned with the vision to encourage students and teachers actively involved in blended learning.
c. Infrastructure, facilities, resources, hardware and supportAn appropriate plan for technological infrastructure, facilities and ongoing maintenances is required to support the changing learning needs.
Self-developed online resources and OERs need to be available for students and teachers.
The technical support in an HEI is necessary to ensure the implementation of blended learning.
d. Professional developmentOngoing professional development in an HEI is necessary to support HEI teachers to reflect and develop their capacities on adopting blended learning in their courses. The ongoing professional development approaches and the lifelong learning culture in an HEI are necessary.
e. Student learning supportStudent learning support comprises of laptop/tablet loan scheme, just-in-time and customised support to guide students to learn in a blended learning environment, and develop students’ digital wisdom (Prensky, 2009).
f. PartnershipsInternal and external partnerships are necessary for an HEI to promote blended learning practices; Internal partnerships need to have the collaboration among faculties, ICT-support unit, and teaching and learning support unit, as well as the inter-institutional collaboration.
External partnerships refer to the collaboration with government agencies, NGOs, as well as private-sector companies for financial and professional support.
g. Research and evaluationResearch and evaluation may support an HEI in identifying and addressing the challenges and issues of blended learning adoption, and provide evidence-based feedback (e.g., learning analytics) for enhancing further blended learning implementation.

Data from Lim et al. (2019)..



Figure 1. Proposed framework for strategic planning of HEIs for blended learning. Data from Lim et al. (2019)

This framework, applicable to developing Asia, is one of the outcomes of the two-year project regarding the capacity building of HEIs for blended learning in the Asia–Pacific region, led by the UNESCO and The Education University of Hong Kong (EdUHK). The UNESCO-EdUHK project brought together the blended learning scholars, policymakers and practitioners in the leading HEIs in the Asia-Pacific region to identify and analyse the challenges encountered in HEIs. The framework is developed based on the extensive literature review on blended learning implementation, and the seven dimensions of the framework are validated based on focus expert group meetings, consultations with policymakers and practitioners, and the case studies of the leading HEIs in the Asia-Pacific region (Lim & Wang, 2016). This holistic framework guides HEIs to examine the opportunities and challenges of implementing blended learning and could serve as institutional strategic plans for driving and supporting blended learning practices in HEIs.

Although this framework is developed in the context of blended learning, it is also applicable for online learning. According to Graham et al. (2013), blended learning refers to the integration of face-to-face learning and online learning, with a reduction of seat time being replaced with online learning activities. As online learning is an integral part of blended learning, the framework for blended learning will guide online learning adoption and contribute to blended learning adoption for HEIs in post-pandemic Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is in the early stage of implementing online learning (Asian Development Bank, 2017). According to Lim et al. (2020a), Sri Lankan HEIs emphasised increasing the access to ICT infrastructure and resources and providing professional development for online learning at HEIs. However, it is reported that the efforts for implementing online learning seem to be uncoordinated, fragmented with redundancies, and lacking inclusivity and quality (Lim et al., 2020a). Therefore, the institutional framework for online and blended learning by Lim et al. (2019) could be adopted to assess the existing state of online learning in Sri Lanka during the COVID-19 pandemic and identify gaps in the institutional dimensions that have to be addressed to ensure inclusive and quality online learning. The seven strategic dimensions are used to frame the examination of online learning in the HEIs from the perspectives of administrators, teachers, and students.

Instruments: questionnaires for HEI administrators, teachers, and students

Drawing upon the theoretical framework of Lim et al. (2019), the researchers analysed documents of reputable sources in the public domain–official websites of Sri Lanka government departments3 and Sri Lankan HEIs4, policy papers from international organisations5 in order to develop the questionnaires to examine the implementation of online learning in Sri Lanka during the COVID-19 pandemic. The international, national, and HEI policy documents on supporting online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic were reviewed to understand the online teaching and learning context in Sri Lanka and identify the measures adopted to drive and support online learning at the national and university level. Effective institutional strategic planning of online learning requires the active participation of the administrators, teachers, and students (Asian Development Bank, 2016). Based on a review of the literature with respect to online learning implementation and higher education in Sri Lanka, the researchers worked closely with the Asian Development Bank, the Presidential Taskforce, UGC, and Ministry of Education to design questionnaire items that may indicate the existing situation and gaps among HEI administrators, teachers and students in Sri Lanka. With reference to the original version of the three surveys, the experts from Asian Development Bank, the local HEIs in Sri Lanka, and the government officials have provided comments on the survey items for clarity and completeness. After three rounds of review and revision, with the support of Asian Development Bank, the three surveys were piloted in an urban HEI with a small sample of administrators, teachers, and students. According to the feedback, the three questionnaires were revised prior to full implementation.

The three questionnaires aimed to provide HEIs with a holistic overview of the existing online learning situation from the perspectives of HEI administrators, teachers, and students. The perspectives from HEI administrators provided insights into the strategies and challenges faced by HEI leaders. As HEI teachers and students were involved in the online teaching and learning process, their perspectives would provide insights into how HEIs could address their teaching and learning needs in order to support inclusive and quality online learning. The three questionnaires were adopted to collect quantitative data relating to the perceptions of HEI administrators, teachers, and students about the roles of HEIs in Sri Lanka. To be more specific, the questionnaire for HEI administrators has 33 items that include the background information of administrators and the HEI, the infrastructure, the professional development, and the support of teachers and students for online learning. The questionnaire for teachers in HEIs has 57 items, including the background information of teachers, the access to hardware and software, the professional development, and the learning support of students and teachers for online learning. The survey for HEI teachers allowed HEIs to examine the capacity and experiences of their teachers for online learning and the factors that impacted online learning during the COVID-19 outbreak. Likewise, the questionnaire for students in HEIs has 62 items, including the background information of students, the access to hardware and software, the support from universities and teachers, and the online learning experiences. The survey for HEI students allowed HEIs to examine the capacity and challenges of students for online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data collection

The study adopted a quantitative research methodology using predominately closed response questionnaires. Due to the closure of Sri Lankan HEIs during the COVID-19 pandemic, convenience sampling method was adopted to select the participants for this study, with a focus on the HEI administrators, teachers, and students who have access to the Internet. The survey links were sent out via emails, where participants were informed about the research aims. All participants were provided with informed consent and were reminded of their rights to withdraw at any point without consequence on the cover page of the questionnaire. In the informed consent, the participants were informed that “By proceeding to the questionnaire, you are indicating that you are at least 18 years old, have read and understood this consent form and agree to participate in this research study”. Anonymity was ensured and all participants were informed that their data would be handled confidentially. Data were collected on 17–29 June 2020 from administrators, teachers, and students of all state and non-state HEIs under the Ministry of Education and the UGC in Sri Lanka.

As state HEIs are dominant in the Sri Lanka higher education system (Asian Development Bank, 2016), the majority of the respondents were from state HEIs. The respondents were from 17 cities in nine provinces in Sri Lanka (see Table 3). The HEI administration survey had 344 responses from 44 HEIs that included vice-chancellors, deans, department heads, registrars, and other administrative staff. The majority of the respondents (316) were from state HEIs. With respect to the survey for HEI teachers, 2,087 responses (1,992 from state HEIs and 95 from non-state HEIs) from 50 HEIs were used for analysis. The respondents in state HEIs included 1,042 senior lecturers (52.4%), 584 lecturers (29.4%), and 231 professors (11.6%). In terms of non-state HEIs, 54 lecturers (57.4%), and 24 senior lecturers (25.5%) completed the survey. With respect to the survey for HEI students, 20,342 responses (19,092 from state HEIs and 1,250 from non-state HEIs) from 52 HEIs were used for the analysis.

Table 3 . Respondents in Sri Lanka by province.

ProvinceHEI administratorsHEI teachersHEI students
StateNon-stateStateNon-stateStateNon-state
Western (i.e., Colombo, Gampaha, Kalutara)135221,033778,399900
Central (i.e., Kandy)27019662,671128
Southern (i.e., Galle, Hambantota, Matara)25022231,26234
Northern (i.e., Jaffna, Vavuniya)19243545529
Eastern (i.e., Ampara, Batticaloa, Trincolmalee)38021241,68969
North Western (i.e., Kurunegala)23010401,48029
North Central (i.e., Anuradhapura)25214201,82035
Uva (i.e., Badulla)21501310
Sabaragamuwa (i.e., Kegalle, Ratnapura)2213501,18526
Total316281,9929519,0921,250


Data analysis

The different perceptions of administrators, teachers, and students could contribute to a better understanding of the gaps and issues for inclusive and quality online learning in Sri Lankan HEIs. Analysis of the data sets of three questionnaires was carried out using SPSS (version 26; IBM Corp., Armonk, NY, USA). The researchers analysed the three data sets individually to identify overall themes and patterns. The three data sources (i.e., administrators, teachers, and students) were compared in order to identify the themes and patterns informed by the seven strategic dimensions of the framework developed by Lim et al. (2019). The analysis focused on the two areas addressed in the research question, namely the perceived roles of HEIs in driving and supporting online learning by HEI administrators, teachers, and students, the perceived issues and challenges faced by teachers and students when teaching and learning online. Results from the analysis are discussed in the following sections.

This section identifies and discusses the key dimensions emerging from the online learning adoption in Sri Lankan HEIs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on the framework developed by Lim et al. (2019), the data suggested that HEIs have started to make efforts in setting out visions and formulating policies, investing in infrastructure and software, establishing partnerships, providing professional development for teachers, and offering student learning support to enable inclusive and quality online learning in Sri Lanka. The following sub-sections reveal the key enabling factors and barriers that HEIs faced in Sri Lanka, namely how the facilitating factors could be sustained and scaled up, and how the barriers addressed to drive and support inclusive and quality online learning in post-pandemic HEIs.

Vision and policy alignment: HEIs need to align their institutional policies to their vision to drive and support online learning in order to improve student’s access to quality online teaching and learning

HEIs need a clear vision that informs the development of policies and practices to drive and support inclusive and quality online learning (Han et al., 2016; Lim et al., 2020a). Based on the responses of HEI administrators (see Fig. 2), most HEI administrators emphasised the necessity of online learning as part of the institutional strategies. To be more specific, 66% of the state HEIs and 82% of the non-sate HEIs in Sri Lanka implemented policies to support online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The administrators in state and non-state HEIs highlighted that online learning platforms were provided for teachers to conduct real-time online classes and online course management. More than 90% of the administrators in state and non-state HEIs indicated the support of real-time online video conferencing tools. Likewise, more than 80% of the administrators in state and non-state HEIs indicated the support of a LMS for online course management was deemed essential. However, HEI administrators highlighted the lack of support on the quality online learning resources. Less than 30% of the administrators in state and non-state HEIs indicated the HEIs facilitated access to different online learning resources for the HEI teachers or students. On the other hand, less than half of state HEIs offered professional development on pedagogy for online learning for the teachers. By contrast, more than 70% of the non-state HEIs have supported the teachers with professional development on pedagogy for online learning. The results showed that the policies formulated for online learning in the HEIs in Sri Lanka tend to focus on the software for online learning. The HEIs need to develop policies to provide online learning resources for teachers and students. On the other hand, there was a gap among the state and non-state HEIs in terms of the policies to support teachers’ professional development regarding pedagogy for online learning.

Figure 2. Action taken from Sri Lankan HEIs to support online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic (responses from HEI administrators)

The institutional policies and mechanisms for enhancing online learning formulated by HEI leaders during the COVID-19 pandemic have facilitated the initial implementation of online learning at the institutional level. In order to support inclusive and quality learning in state and non-state HEIs in a post-pandemic future, it is crucial for HEIs in Sri Lanka to formulate policies that facilitate the development of an online learning environment for engaging students and support the capacity building of teachers for online learning.

Infrastructure, facilities, resources, hardware, and support: HEIs need to provide students and teachers with access to infrastructure, facilities, resources, hardware and technical support for inclusive and quality online learning

From the HEI administrators’ perspectives (see Fig. 2), more than one-quarter of the state HEIs (36.5%) provided network access for teachers. By contrast, more than half of the non-state HEIs (66.7%) supported access to the Internet. Web conferencing tools (e.g., ZOOM and Microsoft Teams) and LMSs (e.g., Moodle and Google Classroom) were widely utilised for online learning in the state and non-state HEIs. Specifically, 92.6% of the administrators in state HEIs and all in non-state HEIs reported that video conferencing tools were offered to the teachers and students to support online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 80% of the administrators in state HEIs and non-state HEIs reported that HEIs adopted LMS for online course management during the COVID-19 pandemic.

From the HEI teachers’ perspectives (See Fig. 3), 84.2% of the teachers in state HEIs and 83.0% of the teachers in non-state HEIs reported that video conferencing tools were offered by HEIs to support online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of the teachers in state HEIs (79.5%) and non-state HEIs (79.8%) reported that guidelines were provided to support their implementation of online learning. At the same time, almost 60% of the teachers in the state HEIs and 72.3% of the teachers in the non-state HEIs agreed that IT support was provided by HEIs. The results showed that HEIs have made efforts to ensure access to networks, software and resources for teachers to offer online learning, which allowed HEI teachers to have the opportunity to prepare for quality online learning.

Figure 3. Action taken from Sri Lankan HEIs to support online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic (responses from HEI teachers)

Concerns were expressed about Internet quality which affects the inclusivity and quality of online learning. More than two-thirds of teachers in the state (68.4%) and non-state HEIs (76.3%) highlighted the poor Internet quality (see Fig. 4). Likewise, a number of the students in the state (70.6%) and non-state HEIs (74.2%) highlighted the poor Internet connection as one of the major challenges encountered in online learning. Another reported problem was the lack of support with the access to the OERs or other openly licensed MOOCs. Less than one-third of the teachers in state and non-state HEIs indicated HEIs supported the access to OER and openly licensed MOOCs during COVID-19 pandemic (see Fig. 3). Interestingly, more than half of the teachers in state HEIs (54.9%) and non-state universities (61.3%) adopted OERs to help students to have access to such resources at their own pace.

Figure 4. Challenges encountered in online learning in Sri Lankan HEIs (responses by HEI teachers)

For inclusive and quality online learning, due to the rapidly changing technologies, HEIs will need to examine the infrastructure and support for network access to sustain online learning for all students (Rameez et al., 2020). Therefore, it is crucial for HEIs in Sri Lanka to develop a plan for infrastructure, hardware, resources, and support to cater to the iterative technological changes and help teachers to provide an inclusive and online learning experience for students. As shown in the results, how to enhance Internet access for HEI teachers and students is one of the major challenges facing HEIs. Free Internet access at home for HEI teachers and students is a temporary measure during the pandemic period (Hayashi et al., 2020). In 2019, approximately 25% of households in Sri Lanka had access to the Internet at home (International Telecommunication Union, 2021). Without affordable and stable Internet access, it is challenging for HEI teachers to provide a quality online learning experience for their students (Dhawan, 2020). Likewise, HEI students are less likely to learn online if they cannot have an affordable network plan or mobile data packages. It is necessary for HEIs to consider how to support Internet access for HEI teachers and students who are in need in a post-pandemic future. On the other hand, in order to cater to student learning needs, HEI teachers need to be provided with a variety of OERs to support the design and implementation of inclusive and quality online learning (Rapanta et al., 2020). Therefore, HEIs need to examine the needs of online learning resources and plan for providing resources for supporting online teaching and learning in a sustainable way.

Professional development: HEIs need to plan for the capacity building for HEI teachers to support inclusive and quality online learning

In order to support inclusive and quality online learning, professional development in an HEI is crucial to building up teachers’ capacities with regard to the implementation of inclusive and quality online learning (Leary et al., 2020). Less than half of the HEI administrators in the state HEIs and 70% of the HEI administrators in the non-state HEIs in Sri Lanka reported that the HEIs have provided professional development opportunities for teachers to build up their capacities for quality online learning (see Fig. 2).

Based on the HEI teachers’ responses (see Figs. 5 and 6), concerns were expressed in terms of the lack of professional development in terms of the pedagogical aspect of online teaching, which is crucial for inclusive and quality online learning. First, although more than 80% of teachers in state and non-state HEIs reported that HEIs required the participation of training sessions for online learning and teaching, just over 10% of the teachers in the state and non-state HEIs reported that the duration of the required professional development was more than 8 hours. Second, the teachers in state and non-state HEIs in Sri Lanka highlighted that the topics of professional development were less likely to be related to inclusive and quality online learning. For instance, less than half of the teachers reported that HEIs offered training for blended learning models. Less than one-third of the teachers in state and non-state HEI reported that HEIs provided the professional development for curriculum development for online learning. What can be clearly seen in Fig. 6 is the high demand for professional development regarding the pedagogical aspect of online teaching and learning, such as the adoption of different online tools to support students’ learning, the blended learning models, as well as the online course development. In particular, as shown in Fig. 4, more than three-quarters of the teachers in state HEIs (75.7%) and more than half of the teachers in non-state HEIs (67.7%) highlighted that they had difficulties in online assessment to understand students’ learning performance and progress. Almost two-thirds of the HEI teachers in state HEIs (63.8%) and non-state HEIs (69.9%) highlighted that engaging students online is one of the challenges. Overall, these results showed that the professional development regarding the pedagogical aspect of online teaching for quality online learning seems insufficient. HEI teachers in Sri Lanka need such professional development to understand how to design online learning activities from students’ perspectives, so that they are more likely to design a good online learning experience for their students, and achieve the goal of inclusive and quality online learning (Gregory & Salmon, 2013).

Figure 5. HEI teachers’ professional development for online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka

Figure 6. HEI teachers’ desired professional development for online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka

Therefore, HEIs should offer more pedagogical-oriented professional development measures in order to support teachers to build up their capacities on inclusive and quality online teaching and learning (Rapanta et al., 2020). HEIs need to reconsider how to design and provide professional development for HEI teachers to cater to the changing learning and teaching needs (Bates, 2019). On the other hand, due to the diverse professional development needs and changing technologies, it is crucial for HEIs to provide customised ongoing professional development for their teachers. In this way, it is more likely that HEI teachers can keep pace with the updated online learning tools on an ongoing basis, and understand how to engage students in meaningful learning design by integrating student-centred learning approaches with these online learning tools. In other words, by engaging in such pedagogical-oriented professional development, HEI teachers are more likely to design and implement quality online learning activities and resources and cater to diverse student learning needs, which can contribute to the inclusivity and quality of online learning. Therefore, it is crucial for HEIs to plan and implement pedagogical-oriented professional development to support teachers’ capacity building.

Student learning support: HEIs need to provide learning support for students to monitor and manage their learning online

Student learning support is another key dimension to facilitate inclusive and quality online learning. HEIs need to provide more support on laptop loan schemes, just-in-time and customised support for students (Lim et al., 2019).

As shown in Fig. 7, the majority of the administrators in state HEIs (92.0%) and non-state HEIs (88.9%) reported their concerns with students’ limited access to the Internet and devices. From the HEI students’ responses, although the majority of the HEI students in Sri Lanka reported they owned a smartphone, less than 70% of the HEI students living in the urban sector (66.6%) owned a laptop, and less than half of the HEI students living in the estate (46.6%) and rural sector (48.3%) had one. Only one-third of the student respondents reported that they have been benefited from the laptop loan programme offered by the HEIs. The majority of the administrators in the state HEIs (73.8%) and in the non-state HEIs (65.4%) highlighted that it is necessary to provide financial support for students with digital devices for learning online (See Fig. 8). In order to support students to have a good Internet connection and proper digital devices to learn online, it is crucial for HEIs to investigate the device needs among students, and collaborate with private-sector companies to offer affordable devices for students to have a quality online learning experience (Agormedah et al., 2020).

Figure 7. Challenges encountered in online learning in Sri Lankan HEIs (responses by HEI administrators)

Figure 8. Policy recommendations by HEI administrators to improve education quality and relevance in Sri-Lanka through online learning

Partnerships: HEIs need to sustain external and internal partnerships to support inclusive and quality online learning efforts

HEIs have established external partnerships with government agencies, such as UGC and TRCSL, to ensure all HEI teachers and students can get access to different online learning resources with the support of LEARN. According to the responses from HEI administrators, 59% of the administrators in state HEIs, and 35.7% of those in non-state HEIs reported the HEIs utilised web video conferencing services offered by LEARN. Moreover, more than half of the administrators in state HEIs (54.3%) and non-state HEIs (57.1%) reported that LEARN offered the training to support online learning and teaching. In addition, 42.3% of the administrators in state HEIs and 21.4% of the administrators in non-state universities reported that a digital library was provided by LEARN. At the same time, 32.9% of the administrators in state HEIs and 42.9% of the administrators in non-state universities reported a technical assistance centre was offered by LEARN to support teachers and students in HEIs regarding technical issues for online teaching and learning.

Taken together, these results suggest that the external partnerships with LEARN and TRCSL play a crucial role in supporting HEIs in Sri Lanka to ensure the inclusivity and quality of online learning during the pandemic. According to Wijenayake (2020), LEARN launched the LEARN eduID to support HEI teachers and students for online learning. Those with LEARN eduID could use Microsoft 365, Wi-Fi hotspots for data roaming, and other services for online learning. Recently, LEARN has offered professional support for online learning, including eduROAM and Public eduROAM for teachers and students to get access to the Internet without interruption (Pathirana & Wijenayaka, 2020). At the same time, with the support of Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the UGC of Sri Lanka collaborated with TRCSL to ensure all internet service providers in Sri Lanka provide free access for LMS in HEIs and remote learning facilities through LEARN, as well as different affordable data add-on packages for learning at home (Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka, n.d.).

Nonetheless, HEIs in Sri Lanka need to sustain the partnership to ensure the inclusivity and quality of online learning, especially financial support in a post-pandemic future. The majority of the administrators in the state HEIs (73.8%) and in the non-state HEIs (65.4%) suggested the need for government budget and policy support for quality online learning (See Fig. 8). On the other hand, more than 65% of the administrators in state HEIs and 73% of the administrators in non-state HEIs indicated that it is necessary to implement a telecommunication policy to ensure free access to the Internet for HEIs. These results would seem to suggest that the HEIs in Sri Lanka need to seek support from government agencies and other external partners to address the gaps towards inclusive and quality online learning.

Apart from the external partnership, it is crucial for HEIs to build up internal partnerships among faculties, ICT-support unit, and teaching and learning support unit, as well as the internal-institutional collaboration to ensure inclusive and quality online learning within and among HEIs. For instance, the University of Kelaniya has established the National E-Learning Resource Centre with the collaboration among faculties and units within the university and universities in Sri Lanka as well as other countries to enhance quality online teaching and learning (Namali et al., 2021). How HEIs can draw on the external partnership to support the development of internal partnership is crucial to facilitate inclusive and quality online learning.

Based on the theoretical framework developed by Lim et al. (2019), the analysis highlighted the five dimensions that HEIs have taken temporary actions in response to the sudden change of online learning, yet the efforts may not be sufficient to drive and support inclusive and quality online learning in the post-pandemic higher education. In order to realise the inclusivity and quality of online learning, HEIs need to have a holistic framework for strategic planning for addressing the gaps identified in this study. The framework developed by Lim et al. (2019) as a lens may help HEIs to plan towards inclusive and quality online learning. The following strategies are proposed for HEIs to address the issues in relation to the five dimensions. First, given the challenges faced by HEI administrators, teachers, and students, the institutional policies may need revisions to highlight the role of online learning in the institutional strategic plan so that HEIs can formulate guidelines and mechanisms to support inclusive and quality online learning. Second, the lack of infrastructure for online learning is a common issue in HEIs in Sri Lanka (Rameez et al., 2020). HEIs need to take the establishment and maintenance of affordable infrastructure, facilities, hardware, and resources into consideration in order to facilitate teachers in designing and implementing quality online learning, as well as enhancing students’ access to and engagement with quality online learning. Third, in order to enhance students’ access to quality online learning, HEIs need to develop and implement ongoing pedagogical-oriented professional development for teachers to accommodate diverse learning needs. Fourth, HEIs need to provide more financial support for the devices for online learning, as well as customised support to build up students’ capacities for online learning. Last but not least, HEIs should maintain the external partnership to seek professional and financial support for inclusive and quality online learning, as well as build up the internal partnership to facilitate the sharing and reflections towards inclusive and quality online learning among different faculties and support units within institutions, as well as inter-institutions.

Apart from the five dimensions, HEIs need to consider curriculum, as well as research and evaluation for inclusive and quality online learning. HEIs need to be aware of the need for curriculum revision. As online learning may not be aligned with the existing curriculum and assessment, it is necessary to revise the curriculum and assessment to enhance the quality of higher education in Sri Lanka. Likewise, the ongoing research and evaluation plan for online learning is necessary. HEIs need to engage in evaluation to identify and address the challenges and issues for inclusive and quality online learning (Lim et al., 2020b). Evidence-based feedback through learning analytics may allow HEIs to inform online learning policies and practices.

However, as the framework tends to focus on supporting the strategic planning by HEI administrators and teachers, there is a need to take into consideration of how HEIs can pay more attention to enhancing the capacities of all students to engage and succeed in quality online learning. Future research might examine the students’ voices on inclusive and quality online learning. In conclusion, the strategies proposed in this study provide guidelines for HEIs to drive and support inclusive and quality online learning, and contribute to quality higher education teaching and learning in Sri Lanka.

There were two limitations associated with the study. One limitation was that the questionnaires were distributed online to the participants who have access to the Internet and devices, especially the HEI students. Future research could be conducted to collect data from those students who may not have good access to the Internet to understand their needs for inclusive and quality online learning. Another limitation was the lack of qualitative data, which may gain a more in-depth understanding of the perspectives of HEI administrators, teachers, and students. Future research could be conducted to collect the qualitative data provide insights about how HEIs could systematically support inclusive and quality online teaching and learning in the long run.

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Asian Development Bank. (n.d.). COVID-19 (Coronavirus): ADB's Response. Retrieved September 20, 2020, from https://www.adb.org/what-we-do/covid19-coronavirus

HEI: Higher education institution

ICT: Information and communication technology

LEARN: Lanka Education and Research Network

LMS: Learning management system

OER: Open Educational Resource

TRCSL: The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka

UGC: University Grants Commission of Sri Lanka

The data that support the findings of this study are available from Asian Development Bank but restrictions apply to the availability of these data, which were used under license for the current study, and so are not publicly available. Data are however available from the authors upon reasonable request and with permission of Asian Development Bank.

D.L.Y., and C.P.L. analysed the data and drafted the manuscript. R.H. and S.R. designed, and collected data for this study, and provided input to the outline and drafts of the manuscript. All authors reviewed the final manuscript.

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