How a Village School Vaulted Into the Computer Age – IPS – October, 1999


ipsBy Gamini Akmeemana – COLOMBO, October 26, 1999 (IPS)

Ten-year-old Ruvini Seneviratne is adept at using an IBM compatible computer. It’s nothing short of incredible -considering that she does this in a remote village in the inhospitable dry zone of Sri Lanka, 240 km from here. That she and scores of other students from Saliyamala Vidyalaya have access to a computer in a place in which even a manual typewriter is a rarity is due to the tireless efforts of a young teacher called Nandasiri Wanninayaka. But the irony is that such rare enterprise has cost him his job. He resigned this month from his job in the Mahawilachchiya Village school due to irreconcilable differences with school authorities. Wanninayaka, 27, who was born and educated in this distant farming settlement in north western Sri Lanka, joined the staff of the school in January 1997. Till then, this small government school lacked an English-language teacher. As a result of his efforts, seven students passed English at the Ordinary Level examination in 1997, but results deteriorated again last year. Thinking of ways to improve the standard of English for the school’s 450 students, Nandasiri hit upon a bright idea: why not start a newsletter? A major part of the problem here is that students lack reading material. Though the total population of Mahawilachchiya contains some 888 families (around 10,000 people), reading levels are abysmally low. The sale of Sinhala-language dailies does not exceed 60 newspapers for a day. Few read anything in English.

”I saw that improving reading and writing skills was a priority,” Nandasiri said. ”That’s why I thought of starting a newsletter in English. It began as a pamphlet, a handwritten publication stuck on classroom walls.” Encouraged by the students’ enthusiasm, Nandasiri expanded the project, titled ‘The Horizon.’ It included essays, features and news items, all written by the students themselves. A student was elected as editor, and editorship was rotated. Then came the problem of finding enough paper to sustain the project. Nandasiri decided to produce the newspaper on photocopy paper. This may sound a simple matter. But in a place like Mahawilachchiya, where you may need to travel several miles simply to get a photocopy, the cost of the raw material was going to be prohibitive. The settlement lies at the edge of the sprawling Wilpattu National Park and is constantly under threat of attack from Tamil Tiger rebels, the separatist group which first staged an attack here in 1984. Since then, the entire settlement is guarded day and night by police and homeguards. It was then that he decided to write to several embassies, asking for a stock of photocopy paper. Only the U.S. embassy replied. Curious to know what this was all about, U.S. embassy staff called Nandasiri for an interview.

The result was a lot more than he had even dreamt of — he ended up getting from them a new Pentium computer and a dot matrix printer, as well as a large stock of printer ribbons. When the machine and the peripherals were delivered to the school six months ago, it was the first time any of the children had actually seen a computer. Only the Assistant Government Agent’s office has a computer — the local bank doesn’t. Thanks to Nandasiri’s vision, the students of this backward school which lacks proper lab equipment, sports goods or musical instruments were able to make a great leap forward, bypassing the typewriter right into the computer age. Never having worked with the QWERTY keyboard before, Nandasiri taught himself the basics and began teaching his students.

He tried to improve the students’ musical skills, too. Having taught himself the keyboard of his brother’s portable electronic organ, he improvised a school band, ‘The Butterflies’, with about 20 eager students. They staged a concert for the village in August. Singing and performing in — English, Sinhala, Tamil and Hindi. Opportunity and encouragement worked to open the dormant creativity of the students. One of Nandasiri’s student, 14-year- old Nirmala Sarojini, has two exercise books filled with essays written in the English-language. Asked to write one page on her activities on a given day, she ended up writing 16 pages.

But his non-traditional teaching style was not to the satisfaction of the school authorities. While his students and their parents approved of him, Nandasiri found himself under increasingly vehement criticism within the school for his unorthodox teaching methods. Earlier this month, he had no alternative but to resign. The computer belongs to the school, and he no longer has access to it. The students are unable to turn out ‘The Horizon’ by themselves, but Nandasiri is determined to continue with what he sees as an invaluable learning tool by going back to the old format — producing a hand-written news letter.

It remains to be seen if the school can continue to make good use of the computer — or if it will become just another piece of machinery gathering dust. (END/IPS/sg/an/99

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