October 17, 2019
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    Tabs, private schools and new engineering faculties

    February 18, 2019

    I have come across three noteworthy announcements made by the government.* The decision to give Tabs to students in schools.* Use a loan of $ 145 million acquired recently from ADB to establish Engineering Faculties of four existing universities.* The decision to allow leading private schools to establish branches in areas outside Colombo.
    How many Tabs the government can afford to give at this time when our country is having a forex problem and is struggling to pay back massive loans? Each tab may cost several hundred dollars. Unless the government gets another massive loan at exorbitant interest rates or sign up to a deal of a credit line, perhaps with India as usual to purchase some useless stuff, it will not be possible to give tabs to a substantial number of students. Even if we get the tabs, what use will they be? At present except for students from poor families, the students from urban areas have smartphones and are quite good at using them. My granddaughter and her friends studying in O-Level classes in the UK do not use them for any educational programme; they use them for social media which I believe is a curse for students. Until last month I used to live in a wealthy Asian country. Many A and O-Level students used to come to our house for tuition. They too do the same thing whenever they have a moment of free time. The only useful thing they do with their tabs is the downloading of UK exam question papers instead of my wife having to download and print the papers for them.
    This project will only make way for some officials in the ministry to engage in some scam. We have read how top officials in the ministry established companies while in service, got the contract for the services awarded to themselves, then retired and made money by getting some useless stuff from India. This government should not embark on a similar project.In the 80s and 90s, there was a programme called BBC Micro in the UK and in the group of countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This had been established with the hope of making computer studies popular in their school. I read how some A-Level students in the UK did a few lines of coding, developed apps and sold them for millions. That’s when I wrote in these columns that if our guys are given the opportunity there would be millionaires. I know there was a lot of interest even in remote places in the country then.
    I read in the newspapers the late minister Richard Pathirana (who, I believe, is a visionary) talk about the development of software and firmware in the country and the establishment of SLIIT. That BBC Micro programme ended after they made it into the Advanced RISC Machines Company or ARM as is known today. This is an entirely new concept of computing known as Reduced Instruction Set Computing with much less number of instructions in the set as against the Complex Instruction Set Computing with about 1,500 instructions which are being used by Intel and AMD in their computer CPUs. This RISC architecture is being used in all our smartphones and many other devices. This industry brings in billions of Pounds to the UK and they have realized how important that industry is to their economy. Just last week, the UK named the Englishman Allen Turing who originally gave the blueprint for the computer overlooking people like Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

    The UK has commenced the second phase of that educational programme by starting another project called Raspberry Pi, by launching a charity called Raspberry Foundation with the aim of making the subject of computer Hardware and software development popular among their students. This organisation has established a business arm of the organisation to produce and distribute single board computers of the size of a credit card among students.

    The cheapest is $ 25 and the latest version is about $60 in cost. These would be much more useful to our students than tabs as they can be connected to computer monitors or even a TV at home and with a standard keyboard and a mouse to surf the internet or even play youtube videos. It comes with a Linux-based operating system complete with several Integrated Development Environments for developing programmes with programming languages like Python and Cetc. They can be used for IoT (Internet of Things) for remotely controlling household devices and many others. If the students can be trained on typing, that alone can help the jobless graduates to do some useful work at offices. I have given typing training to all my children in the 90s by taking them to classes and they can enter data much faster than their counterparts in their workplace.

    These devices can be used for robotics as well. I have seen in a recent completion among student shown on TV how a seventh-grade student control a robot using another similar device called Arduino. It appears our students can easily grasp this knowledge and who knows the next operating system (OS) like Linux can come from this country. I hope the Education Minister and authorities like UGC seize this opportunity and distribute them to as many schoolchildren as possible instead of embarking on projects to distribute Tabs which can end up as another wasteful exercise.

    ADB loan for Engineering Faculties

    At the moment we have Peradeniya, Moratuwa and Malabe Engineering Faculties. At the time we graduated from Peradeniya, it was considered to be on the same level as that of Cambridge of the UK. However looking at the current status I think we are far behind those from other developed countries such as the UK, US and Australia in terms of engineering and technology. Our position in the world ranking is even below 1,000. Maybe this is the reason why our guys migrating to these western countries cannot mostly get into any meaningful employment. We often hear that they are being employed as meter readers or for other menial jobs however qualified they may be at home. Certainly, there may be a discrimination factor as well. So, I believe we should start being far superior to them by getting into the cutting edge technology just like what South Koreans and Singaporeans have done.

    These new engineering faculties that are to be established will be a good start. We must have a set of professors or lecturers from top US universities paid from these funds to do the same type of research and development work at Berkeley, Stanford etc. Some of our academics should be sent to those universities on sabbatical leave to spend some time there. Learning computer programming in one or two languages and gaining some knowledge in Hardware should be made compulsory. Our professors and lecturers never looked at what those universities were engaged especially in the field of computer technology. Our engineers who had the opportunity of working in top tech companies as local representatives were mere salesmen while their counterpart in those companies in the US with similar qualifications got into the development of technologies and went to becoming billionaires in companies like Apple.

    The Government can ask for their help to establish contacts with our new engineering faculties that will be established. I haven’t read or heard any of our professors or senior lecturers of the existing universities talking about these developments. However, I have seen videos of guys in Chennai holding conferences on these RISC-V projects and how they use them in industries. I hope the authorities take note of these developments and ask our academics to get in touch with these organisations with a view to generating interest on these technologies in the country among academics and technocrats.

    Establishing branches of popular schools outside Colombo

    This government is working with the objective of making the closest school the best school for a student. In that respect this initiative is commendable. This would also reduce the morning traffic congestion that exists today in Colombo area. While other countries like Singapore have advanced their time to enable people to work more time and increase their productivity, we in Sri Lanka spend a lot of time in traffic jams and arrive at our workplaces late (usually not earlier than 9.30 am). This move will help alleviate the problem.

    Another reason why I think that this is a good move is that these schools keep a very high standard in all their school activities. Therefore the product that comes out after years of education is a well-polished one that can shine anywhere in the world. That may be the reason why the parents spend a lot of money for admitting their children to these schools.

    I live close to one popular private school in Colombo. A couple of weeks ago one of the workers doing some work in my house came and gave me a purse saying that he found it on the road. I found a few credit cards, an ID card and the driving license of a teacher. There was no telephone number or any other contact details except the address in the ID which could be an old address. However looking further, I found an appreciation note written by one of her students leaving the school perhaps to go abroad.

    I have seen such wonderful letters written by departing students to my wife also when we were overseas. However, this was the best I have ever seen in very good English. So, I had no problem in finding out where she might have been teaching and informed the guards at the gate of the school to inform the particular teacher.A few days later she came with her husband and collected it. This move by the GOSL will enable these private schools to give the same level of education to students from a wider section of society.

     

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