By Kesara Ratnatunga (10th September 2000)
The computer screen was their window to the rest of the world and they were having a field day. Exploring with wide-eyed wonder what lay beyond their horizons, were the grade seven and eight students of Nivaththaka Chethiya Maha Vidyalaya, Anuradhapura, the first beneficiaries of the Lanka Academic Network’s (LAcNet) ‘Computers for Sri Lankan Schools’ project.
LAcNet, a virtual network of Sri Lankan academic professionals living here and abroad, implemented and funded this pilot project by which a computer lab with five computers as well as Internet facilities was set up at the school. The objective is “to provide an opportunity for rural children to gain competency in computer and Internet, proficiency that will enhance and broaden their academic and entrepreneur skills.”
“Nivaththaka Chethiya was selected because its principal and teachers were very keen and also because a tremendous amount of support was given by Sena Gonapinuwala, a businessman of the area,” says LAcNet’s vice-president Chulie de Silva who is also the coordinator for this project.
Since the lab became functional in January this year, the students of all classes have had the opportunity to become familiar with the computers and the Internet.
“We were scared at first that we might break the computers,” said one eighth grade student who was busily typing out an essay with a group of his friends, “but now we are quite comfortable with them,” said all of them grinning from ear to ear.
There are no periods specially dedicated to computer education due to administrative problems. However, the computers are used to supplement the other subjects such as science and environmental studies. Many of the teaching sessions are conducted with the kids seated on the floor around the teacher who uses electronic encyclopedias such as Encarta to teach them.
The students themselves get hands-on time on the PCs and are already capable of using word processors and graphics software with ease – very encouraging progress considering many of them had never seen or touched a computer before. The idea seems to be to expose the children to the technology and make it part and parcel of their thinking rather than teaching computers as a science. “I like to give the smaller children a chance because they are very keen and learn fast,” says Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayaka, an English teacher cum computer instructor at the school, who has worked tirelessly to make this project a success.
“Using the computers has helped the students improve their English as well,” says the Principal, Mr. Piyasena Ratnamalala.
The students have also been exposed to the Internet and email, which they have been using under the guidance of Mr. Wanninayaka. They have even made friends via email, with their contemporaries in Australia. Nuwan Prasad Wanninayaka, a year 13 student having taught himself by reading books on web programming, has designed the school webpage as his Advanced level project. He says that the school having received these computers was indeed a great help and incentive for him to learn. It has inspired him to go into an Information Technology related career.
Having access to computers seems to have sparked an interest in many of the younger students as well, who are very keen to pursue computer studies outside school. Many of them troop to school an hour early as well as during the holidays, to spend some extra time playing around with the computers. The students’ enthusiasm is further highlighted by the fact that they have pooled and bought several CD-ROMs for the school.
“Parents are also very keen that their children should learn how to use computers,” says Mr. Ratnamalala.”They even accompany their children when they come during the holidays.” An enthusiasm no doubt fueled by the knowledge that in this day and age, computer literacy is as vital as being able to read.
This venture owes much of its success to the commitment of Mr. Wanninayaka who spares no effort in facilitating the children’s learning. He has big plans for the computer lab and the students, including a magazine to be published by the students. “We need more computers, even old ones,” says Mr. Wanninayaka citing the primary problem they face. Niwaththaka Chethiya MV has around 4000 students on its roll, and many of the classes which use the lab comprise around 70 students making both teaching and learning on just five computers very difficult.
The paintings of two of the school’s students, Nadeeka Wijesingha and Anusha Nilminimala Ariyarathna which were taken abroad by Mr. Wanninayaka have been offered to be sold in the U.S. Any earnings from their sale would be used to buy PCs for the school. Everybody at Nivaththaka Chethiya anxiously awaits a favourable response from those in the United States who have volunteered to sell the paintings for them.
“We would be more than happy to do more paintings,” say Nadeeka and Anusha, anxious to do their part for the school.
In Sri Lanka, Information Technology is restricted to a select urban community. Considering that much of the population reside in rural areas it seems grossly unfair that this should be the case. LAcNet’s project and any others to be initiated in the future by government or non-government organizations would be a key in linking these areas to the modern world. They will also have a major positive impact on the way future Sri Lankan generations think, the standard of their education and their global awareness. However, it is important that all attempts are made to ensure every child – regardless of economic standing or geographic location – gets this opportunity.
The enthusiasm of the staff and most of all of the students has been remarkable. LAcNet’s pilot project aimed at “creating a computer savvy student population in a rural school” seems to be in good hands and well on its way to achieving its goal. Hopefully it will lead to more people recognising the importance of educating children in Information Technology and coming forward to help and initiate forward-looking projects such as this. If the progress of the bright-eyed students of Nivaththaka Chethiya Maha Vidyalaya is anything to go by, the potential for the future is heartening indeed
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