Fact-finding mission from Ministry of Education of Sri Lanka

Mr. Anura Dissanayake, the Project Director of SEMP with the Ministry officials.
Mr. Anura Dissanayake, the Project Director of SEMP with the Ministry officials.

Ranjith Gunarathne

Horizon Lanka Foundation has been doing a great service to the education of the children and the youth in Mahawilachchiya area for the past eight odd years. Many individuals and organizations from other countries have noticed this service and have come forward to assist Horizon Lanka Foundation in numerous ways.

Notwithstanding all this assistance from private organizations Horizon Lanka Foundation has been having a very hard time coping up with the problems of not having enough teachers and enough funding to cover the salaries of the teachers and other expenses. In spite of these obstacles, Horizon children have been obtaining very high grades for English at school tests and public exams. Unfortunately, for some reason, the fame of these remarkable achievements shown by our students has not reached the authorities that matter. However, the advent of the mesh internet technology has changed this scenario dramatically. Mesh has become a real head turner. These last two or three months we have had a lot of visitors who are interested in mesh internet technology; the installation and implementation of the mesh network and its potential in the role of e-learning, e-commerce and e-governance.

Today we had the pleasure of welcoming a very important visitor to Mahawilachchiya and Horizon Lanka Foundation. This distinguished visitor is none other than the Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Mr. Ariyaratne Hewage. In fact, there were two VIPs from the Ministry. The other one is Mr. Anura Dissanayake, the Project Director of the Secondary Education Modernization Project, who is doing a lot to uplift ICT education in the public schools in the country.

Mr W M Samarasinghe, the newly appointed Provincial Educational Director of Anuradhapura and the Zonal Director of Anuradhapura also joined the team to visit Horizon Lanka. Mr M. B. Illangasinghe, one of the teachers who taught English to Mr Wanni also joined the tour. He is to take up a teaching assignment at the HL Academy soon.
They came with a team of Provincial Project Managers and School Computer Learning Center Managers of SchoolNet program to see how Horizon Lanka Academy works and how it improves the education of children and youth of Mahawilachchiya. Mr. Dissanayake, who is a genuine admirer of Horizon Lanka, said that his team wanted to learn from the experiences of Horizon Lanka Foundation about introducing ICT culture at the village level. He said “My team is ready to run an extra mile to help the surrounding community to improve their life standards. Those five are representing remote village settings in Uva, Southern, Central, Northwestern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces.”
Students of the Horizon Lanka Academy, clad in yellow T-shirts with Horizon logo, welcomed the visitors with a traditional sheaf of betel at the main gate. They watched enthusiastically while the Headmaster of Horizon Lanka Academy Mr. Ranjith Pushpakumara conducted the morning assembly. Then an officer from Sri Lanka Army took over and led the students to the nearby playground for PT.

Mr. Nandasiri Wanninayaka, the Founder of Horizon Lanka Foundation introduced the staff of Horizon Lanka Foundation and other guests to the visitors and an informal meeting with the parents followed. The parents talked with the Secretary about their burning problems – mainly the shortage of teachers in public schools in the area. The principals of the schools in Mahawilachchiya area also talked about these issues. This is the first time a Secretary to the Ministry of Education visited Mahawilachchiya and Mr Hewage goes down in the annals of the history of Mahavilachchiya.
Here, Mr Wanni introduced Mr R Dharmadasa, a former Principal of Thakshila School to Mr Hewage. Mr Dharmadasa, a retired Principal is the man who should get the credit of making Wanni a productive man since the latter’s childhood at Thakshila Public School till today as Wanni still seeks advice from his beloved head master when it matters most. Mr Dharmadasa is the Chief Advisor of the HL Academy’s Parents’ Association as well.

The Secretary listened very patiently, most of the time nodding in agreement, to the villagers and the school principals. He said that he is not unaware of these issues; not limited to Mahawilachchiya area, and he is doing whatever is possible in his capacity to solve all these problems. Mr. Hewage further stated that the government is taking steps to recruit teachers from the same area to teach in local schools and they have to select a school from a list. Then they have no reason to ask for transfers to other areas as they work in the schools of their own choice. This idea was first discussed when Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, Presidential Secretary, came to visit Mahawilachchiya and now it is being implemented. We are very fortunate to have officials who are true to their words and who take the responsibilities vested upon them seriously.
Mr. Hewage said he has a plan to build Teachers Quarters for the schools in a given area at a central location facilitating the teachers to live close to each other, which would help to overcome isolation and loneliness. This will place the teachers in a setting where they can work as a team, which will be very helpful in increasing the quality of their services. Mr. Wanni assured the parents and students who were present that he had full faith in officials like Mr. Hewage, who have a good vision, right attitudes and a genuine, keen interest in improving the level of education in Sri Lanka. He said it is due to the age-old laws, rules and regulations, which are not relevant in the present setup and the negative attitudes of certain officers in the middle management that the education is suffering. But Mr Hewage pointed out that creative officials and principals are shrewd enough to go between the lines when it comes to being practical in work to produce good results with the existing rules and regulations. It is not the circulars that slow down or disturb work but the people who are in those positions of making decisions.

Mr. Hewage promised the parents that Mahawilachchiya will be given priority over all other areas because of the Model eVillage Project and fill all the teacher vacancies without any delay. He instructed the North Central Provincial Director of Education to take every step necessary to fulfill these needs. Mahawilachchiya also will be considered in selecting one of its schools as a prestigious “Isuru School” in time to come and will be provided all the necessary resources to the selected school.
Then the team proceeded to the Computer Laboratory to watch some presentations. The first of these was the presentation on Horizon Lanka Foundation by the Founder/CEO Mr. Nanda Wanninayaka. He showed the visitors, through a very colorful multimedia presentation, the gigantic progress achieved by the Horizon Lanka Foundation starting from the events that led him to leave his job as an English Teacher at a government school. He impressed the audience with his diplomatic but forceful speech talking about the obstacles he had to overcome on his e-journey which took him to various parts of the world on a quest to learn the uses of ICT for rural community development, the result of which is the making of the first e-Village in Sri Lanka. He revealed his uncanny futuristic vision by telling the audience about his future plans, which include introducing Wi-Max technology to Mahawilachchiya and setting up of a satellite TV relay station to broadcast edutainment content through VHF/UHF channels to village households and public schools if he gets the official barriers cleared. (No one believed that mesh network would be possible when he first talked about it but it did become a reality and there is no reason why his other dreams should fail.)

Next came the presentation by the senior students of Horizon Lanka Academy. They described the audience Horizon Lanka’s ICT plan.

Mr. Ranjith Pushpakumara, the Headmaster of Horizon Lanka Academy, came forward to give a very informative presentation on how he managed to achieve these tremendous academic results, working in the Horizon Lanka Academy in Mahawilachchiya only on Saturdays and during school vacations as he is a teacher at a government school. He pointed out that he has allowed a lot of freedom for his young learners in the planning of his curriculum and his syllabi – especially the ICT syllabus – is more practical and activity oriented. He said he always strives to motivate the learners to self-learn using the hi-tech equipment available at the Horizon Lanka Academy. He went on to explain the importance of using this computer and multimedia equipment in a classroom environment where you teach a second language. He said that the assistance he got from foreign volunteers in teaching English at HL Academy was invaluable. He explained the importance of activity based teaching methods using sports, western music, and outdoor activities. These activities help to give the learners a sound English education and to motivate them towards active participation in the learning process. The group outdoor activities like Shramadana Campaigns help to inculcate positive attitudes in them. Then he talked about the present barriers that block his progress like the shortage of funds for the teachers’ salaries and the lack of trained teachers for ICT and coaches for sports.

While the presentations were going on the villagers brought fresh young coconuts, which the visitors enjoyed drinking straight out of the nut. This is symbolic of the way Horizon Lanka Foundation has been operating since its inception. Embracing new technologies and making use of them to develop the village but keeping the traditional cultural values intact.

The final presentation was done by Mr S. K. Nandana, the Principal of Thakshila Public School on how much the public schools in the area have achieved despite all odds. He convinced the audience that a lot can be achieved by utilizing what is available rather than waiting for manna from heaven. One can see this if one visits the school he has developed with the minimum resources he had. This was the same school where Mr Wanninayaka had his primary and secondary education. As a goodwill gesture, Horizon Lanka Foundation donated a totally free 24/7 internet connection to this school and another free mesh internet connection to Saliyamala Public School where Mr Wanninayaka did his first teaching job.

After the presentations the visitors were invited to a sumptuous lunch comprising of red and white rice, curries of fresh vegetables straight from the village gardens and fresh water fish from the Mahawilachchiya reservoir followed by a dessert of fresh fruit. They enjoyed and admired the hospitality for which our villagers are world famous.
The visitors were next taken to see the banana plantation using the new drip irrigation system. This banana plantation is a result of the hard labor of Mr. Shantha, a Home Guard attached to the Mahawilachchiya police post. He has worked in his spare time developing this piece of land owned by Mr. Harin de S Wijerathne, a long time donor of Horizon who has sacrificed a great deal of his time and money to assist Horizon Lanka Foundation to realize its dreams. Mr Harin’s idea is that to show the villagers the proper way of cultivating with the right technology and timely planning so that the other farmers in the village can learn from the pilot and become successful farmers. Mr. Hewage surprised all of us by showing his knowledge and interest in agricultural matters when he instructed as to how the weeding etc. should be done. He also promised to look into opportunities how Shantha, the farmer can be given further training with the Agricultural institutes in Bibile where a hybrid type of oranges and other fruits are grown.

After that, the team was taken to see the mesh technology at work. This was undoubtedly the most important item in the agenda of the visiting team. They were very enthusiastic to learn how mesh works and the way it is being used in Mahawilachchiya. They were more than surprised by the technical awareness and the familiarity with the computers and internet these village students showed. Mr. Wanni explained to them how mesh was installed, how it works and what benefits a network like this can offer a rural village in the development process. All the Provincial Directors and Computer Learning Center Managers were very excited about this comparatively low cost solution for the connectivity at the village level. They were very impressed with the Business Process Outsourcing work the students are being trained to do. This BPO work enables them to earn a considerable amount of money working for companies in Sri Lanka, USA and Europe in their spare time, working from home using internet through mesh network. Ranuka Udayanga, a Grade 12 student showed the educational content site called Horizon Lanka Virtual Academy he has been developing for OpenWorld Learning, USA and the visitors were flabbergasted. These lessons are accessed by students worldwide, especially those who have less access to teachers physically. This idea of virtual academies are best suited to postwar countries such as Afghanistan, etc. and may be Sri Lanka’s North and East too in near future. Having lessons in a central server and enabling students island wide through WiMax technology wouldn’t be a dream within next few years to come. Dialog Telekom has already done a survey in Mahavilachchiya on feasibility of using WiMax.

After seeing the marvelous achievements that Horizon Lanka Foundation had made possible in the village of Mahawilachchiya through ICT education and the introduction of mesh technology, the visitors returned to their vehicles visibly shaking their heads in disbelief. Then they returned to the Horizon Lanka premises and watched the boys playing a cricket match while girls were playing a soccer match. Mr. Ranjith Pushpakumara and some students were running a commentary in English over the PA system and it proved to be very interesting to the visiting team. Mr Ranjith was practicing what he preached in his presentation, using sports to improve English language skills. Mr. Hewage and Mr. Dissanayake spent some time talking with the students and they really enjoyed this experience. One student told the writer later that she felt scared at first when Mr. Hewage came and talked to her but that fear vanished soon. ‘How nice if all the big officials are so pleasant and approachable like Mr. Hewage’, she added.

As the day was coming to an end, the visitors bid farewell to the members of Mahawilachchiya eVillage and Horizon Lanka Foundation. They reluctantly got into their vehicles to begin the long journey back home. These pioneers in ICT education from all over Sri Lanka had seen a lot, learned a lot and they definitely took with them the memory of an unforgettable experience, an inspiration that would help them spread the ICT culture they came into contact in Mahawilachchiya – the e-Village in the jungle.