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Teaching and Learning in Distance Mode during COVID-19 in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh


Abstract and Figures

Internet or broadcast TV were the only options available for distance education during school closures due to COVID-19, but Internet resources are limited in poor countries, and broadcast TV for distance education is largely untested. We surveyed a purposive sample of teachers who had made a good faith effort to engage students in the distance mode during lockdown in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, respectively, to uncover innovations, if any, in Internet-based or Broadcast TV based education during COVID-19. We find that Internet-based distance education reached only 45% of students in public schools in Sri Lanka. We also note that broadcast TV was not successful due to technical and pedagogical reasons. Yet, the country is rich in other resources. For example, the availability of (1) Free textbooks for all subjects in grades 6-11 (2) Sufficient digital content developed by state and non-state providers (3) TVs with USB ports for viewing digital content offline (2) A low student to teacher ratio of 8.6 in the bottom 50% of schools (4) Mobiles phone ownership in 96% in households, and (5) Tested technologies for using regular phones for conference calls, opens many low-tech possibilities. Observations of teachers from a better-endowed set of schools in Bangladesh show that high-tech distance education can offer blended learning experiences which are even superior to face-to-face experiences in some respects. Observations by teachers in Sri Lanka and desk research show that a low-tech distance education using offline resources too can offer blended learning for students with no access to the Internet.
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Teaching and Learning in Distance Mode during COVID-19 in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh
S. N. Gamage1 and M. Zaber2
1LIRNEAsia and Education Forum, Sri Lanka, and 2University of Dhaka, Bangladesh
Internet or broadcast TV were the only options available for distance education during school closures
due to COVID-19, but Internet resources were limited in poor countries, and both modes of distance
education were largely untested. For example, in 2018, 48% of households with school-age children in
Sri Lanka owned a smartphone or a computer, but only 34% accessed the Internet. In Bangladesh, the
respective figures were 21% and 11% (LIRNEAsia, 2020). When schools closed on March 13th, 2020,
officials and teachers had to adapt overnight to provide distance education to the 4.2 million
schoolchildren in Sri Lanka and 39.8 million in Bangladesh. COVID-19 put a distance-between the
teacher and students and gave students more time for self-directed learning. How did schools use this
opportunity? Are there any lessons that will inform the implementation of the proposed curricular
The study consisted of a teachers’ survey in the two countries. Since the purpose of the research was
to identify good practices, we used a purposive sampling method in both surveys where we picked
teachers who would have made a good-faith effort to reach out to their students during lockdown.
Therefore, we expect any statistics on distance education derived here to be a reasonable estimate of
the higher limit of the percent of students reached.
In Sri Lanka, we surveyed a stratified sample of teachers representing all 25 administrative districts in
the country. The sample included 86 teachers with at least two from each district, one representing a
better endowed or congenial school and the second representing less well-endowed school or ‘non-
congenial’ school in the district. Districts with more than 100,000 in the student population were
oversampled to ensure that there was at least one teacher per 50,000 students in each district. A
network of civil society organizations affiliated with the Education Forum Sri Lanka assisted in the
selection of teachers.
In Sri Lanka, the classification of schools by size is a good indicator of the congeniality or how well-
endowed is a school. Of the 10,165 schools reported in 2019, 77% had less than 500 students, 23% had
501 or more student. We oversampled the larger schools to get more or less equal number of schools
in each type (i.e. 49% and 51%, respectively) because we wanted to get good practices in distance
education and smaller schools were not expected to reach many students for online line education
during school closures. Our results indeed confirmed this hypothesis (See later). The survey was
conducted by telephone during November to December of 2020.
A survey of teachers in Bangladesh was carried out for comparison. Bangladesh is a large country with
a population of 163 million compared to Sri Lanka with a population of only 22 million. Since
representation from across the country or even a stratified purposive sample such as the one used for
Sri Lanka was not feasible, we used a convenience sample of 20 teachers representing six schools in
Dhaka and 10 teachers representing a school in Chittagong. The survey was carried out online during
the August 27 to September 10 period in 2020. A focus group discussion was held on September 18th
with 8 teachers from the school in Chittagong participating. Noting that these schools largely represent
better endowed private schools in Bangladesh, we used the survey data strictly for the purpose of
benchmarking good practices that can be achieved when schools have facilities more or less optimum
for a country.
For Sri Lanka we also use the results of a Parents’ survey where we asked one teacher each from the
five districts Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Matale and Trincomalee - for 5 contacts for parents of
children in Grade 6 with whom they were able to engage in some form of distance education during
the COVID-19 lockdown from March 13th- May 15th. We limited the parents’ survey to five districts
out of 25 due to cost concerns. A total of 44 parents responded to the survey. The purpose of the
survey was to understand from parents perspective the modes of communication that teachers used
during COVID-19.
We also interviewed a sub-group of parents whose contacts we obtained from the teachers in the
survey and some teachers outside the survey, and closely observed two student-teacher WhatsApp
groups to understand how exactly WhatsApp was used by teachers. A total of 44 parents from five
districts i.e. Colombo, Gampaha, Kandy, Matale and Trincomalee - responded to the request for
interviews. The two WhatsApp groups consisted of teachers and students in Grade 6 and 8, with 130
and 200 students in each group, respectively, from several schools in the Galewela education zone, a
rural zone which is one of the 98 education zones in Sri Lanka, from May 02nd to December 31 of
This section is organized under three sub sections (1) Access to the Internet or TV in Bangladesh
and Sri Lanka in 2018, and (2) Distance Education in Sri Lanka - With Internet or TV as a medium for
distance learning, and (3) Good Practices in Distance Education in Bangladesh during COVID-19 in
Access to the Internet and TV in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in 2018
A 6-Country study of access and use of ICTs was carried out by LIRNEasia in 2018. For Sri Lanka, they
used a random sample of 2000+ households representative of the geographical and economic
diversity of the population in Sri Lanka. Looking at the subset of households with children under 18,
they deduced that 48% of households with school-age children owned a smartphone or other device
for accessing the Internet but only 34% accessed the Internet; These data are compatible with data
from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) or the Census Department of Sri Lanka. For
example, in 2017, ITU reported that 34% of individuals in the population used the Internet while
Census reported in 2019 that 29% of the individuals in Sri Lanka used the Internet. LIRNEasia data
are more useful for the present study because their data are collected and reported with the
household as the unit of analysis.
A similar study for Bangladesh was carried out but the data are reported for all households. For
comparison sake, we present data for ownership of TV, Smartphones, and Internet for all
households, not just households with school age children, in the two countries.
Table 1. Percent of households owning TVs, Smartphones, or Internet Connection, by country
Sri Lanka
The situation in four other countries Cambodia, India, Nepal, and Pakistan as reported in the
LIRNEasia study show that Internet access in Asia can be as low as 8% as was the case for Pakistan
(LIRNEasia, 2020). Has the situation in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka changed between 2018 and now?
How did the ICT infrastructure situation affect distance learning in education in these two countries?
Distance education in Sri Lanka in 2020
There were two modes of distance education in Sri Lanka in 2020 Online education via the Internet
used in an ad hoc manner by teachers and local education administrators, and the TV broadcasts for
learning initiated by the Ministry of Education (MoE) in partnership with the National Institute of
Education (NIE).
Internet as the medium
In our teacher survey we asked each teacher how many students were in his/her class and how many
they were able to reach using Internet-based applications such as Whatsapp, Viber, Zoom and Team
etc. Together 86 teachers reported that they were responsible for 2582 students, but they were able
to contact only 1153 students for an average of 45% students reached online, with 4% using Zoom,
Teams etc. for a virtual classroom experience for students and 41% using WhatsApp/Viber to send
notes and assignment as pictures or PDF files. Since 90% of school-age children attend government
schools we can take these percentages as reflective of the percent of households with school children.
Therefore, Internet use households increased from 34% reported in 2018 to about 45%, but not
enough to reach out to all the students. In fact, 55% of the students are left out.
Transmission mode of teaching continued over the Internet
Education literature identifies three styles of teaching Transmission, Transaction and
Transformation. The fact that education in Sri Lanka is largely about preparing students for
examinations in the transmission mode is widely accepted (NEC, 2017).
Interviews with a convenience sample of 46 parents in 5 districts confirmed that teachers continued
to send notes and assignments largely as PDF files or pictures on WhatsApp which parents received on
their Smartphones. Only about ten percent of of parents reported using a laptop. More than half the
parent parents with children in Grade 6-9 reported that they received assignments for 8 or more out
of the 13 subjects in the Grade 6-9 curriculum. Contrary to our expectations, most of the parents had
no issues with the transmission mode or the large number of facts so transmitted. Perhaps that is what
they understand to be an education. The main concern of the parent was the lack of follow-up to
assignments submitted by students, the inability of a student to clear any doubts about a lesson,
difficulties in getting good signals on their smartphones and the cost of connectivity.
Observation of two WhatsApp groups of teachers and students in Grade 6 and 8 in one education zone
from May 02nd 2020 to December 31, 2020, showed that initially teachers shared PDF files of notes
that they would have shared on their blackboards in a regular classroom. As school closures continued,
teachers were increasingly sharing links to online resources, or videos of master teachers. The
assignments and assessment still concerned the describing of concepts and procedures, missing were
higher order skills such as applying concepts to problem solving and reasoning (TIMMS, 2017).
Broadcast TV as the medium
With 91% of households in Sri Lanka and 51% households in Bangladesh owning a TV, broadcasting of
lessons on TV would be a natural choice for distance education. As UNICEF noted, despite disparities
in ownership, television “is the main channel used by governments to deliver remote learning, with 3
in 4 governments out of 127 reporting countries using television as a source of education for children
[ UNICEF, 2020].
To their credit, the National Institute of Education (NIE) together with the Ministry of Education (MoE)
started broadcasting lessons on TV through the government owned channels soon after school
closures, first targeting students sitting for the three-national examination. The government has also
made a special allocation of Rs 30 million for producing TV programs and the government’s budget for
2021 included an allocation of Rs: 3,000 million for distributing TVs to schools.
We asked the teachers in our survey about the TV lessons broadcasted by the Government. Of the 86
teachers only 70% were able to say how many of their students watched TV programs. According to
their estimates of those who reported, only 28% of their students watched the TV broadcasts at least
Observations of teachers about TV broadcasts
Asked about what they would do to improve the lessons on TV, 75 out of 86 teachers gave their
suggestions. Of those, three said that the programs were good without any further comments, but the
other 72 gave thoughtful feedback. We organized their suggestions into four categories of issues
Connectivity (68%), Pedagogy (51%), Logistics (36%) and Parents (28%), with the percentages showing
the percent of teachers who commented. We will discuss them in the order-connectivity, parents,
logistics and pedagogy, elaborating on the last two issues, because we believe that problems of
connectivity to the Internet and parent attitudes are not solvable in the short-term.
Connectivity issues
These were mentioned by 68% of the respondents. Note that this number is not the percent of
students who watched TV lessons, but is the percent of teachers who felt that some or all children in
a classroom had problems watching TV lessons due to poor TV signal where they live. Three teachers
mentioned that even they could not watch the program due to poor TV signal in his/her home.
Parent issues
Parents disinterest was noted by 28% of the teachers. They further elaborated these as being due to
poverty, lack of technical know-how or cultural practices such as engaging children in labor or
prioritizing entertainment over education. Whatever the reasons for the disinterest of parents, these
teacher observations underscore the importance of the schools and teachers playing a stronger role
in the lives of these marginalized children.
In Sri Lanka we have a teacher to student ratio of 16.5 , but smaller schools have a much lower student
to teacher ratios. Although there is reported to be much mismatching in allocation due to shortage of
teachers in some subjects and oversupply in other, it is of no small consequence that there are
sufficient trained teachers or teachers holding degrees in the system, at 49% and 48%, respectively
(MoE, 2019) to follow up with students.
Provincial, zonal, or divisional authorities should take heed of these statistics and instruct schools to
ensure that marginalized children are contacted by a teacher at least once a day during pandemics or
other emergency induced distance education situations.
Logistical issues
Of the 72 parents commenting on TV broadcasts, 36% had something to say about logistical issues such
as TV Channels, Timing & duration, Timetables, or Receiving information. Despite teacher suggestions
for a dedicated channel, more user surveys should be done before investing further. Is TV the best
medium for communicating material in curricula to school children? Or is the medium better for co-
curricular material which are entertaining as well as educational for school children?
NIE has taken steps to resolve the issue of timetables by assigning easily identifiable time of the day
for each grade in school - for example, 9Am for Grade 9. Although teachers had concerns about the
presentation style in the TV lessons, once the rush to produce sufficient programs is over, presentation
issues can be resolved in a second round.
One of the other important logistics issues was communicating the information about programs to
schools and parents. Teachers correctly argue for the need to know the timetable and the details of
each broadcast well in advance, but is it realistic to have teachers across the country synchronizing
their teaching plans to a central timetable and tuning in at a prescribed time for a specific lesson?
Overall, the logistical issues concerning TV broadcasts prompts the question whether TV broadcasts
are the best way to make lessons available to children in distance mode. Though teachers are asking
for more information about TV broadcasts have they really thought of the alternative of being able to
access a lesson when and where students or teachers want to use such? In fact, the broadcasted
lessosn are available for downloading and a computer is not essential for viewing digital content. TVs
now come with USB ports to which a data storage device like a flash drive could be attached and allow
for viewing digital content using one device per class. A digital TV is much cheaper than smart boards
and other devices.
Educational videos are also produced by private or non-profit entities. As some education authorities
in a remote education zone informed us, and as communicated to us by OPEnE, a civil society
organization in Mannar, both groups have already successfully distributed educational videos on pen
drives to families during COVID-19 for use on their TVs. Parents who did not have digital TVs sent their
children to families who had.
Pedagogical Issues
The uptake of technology in education has not been as rapid as it should be across the world and
teacher factors play a major role (Gamage ad Tanwar, 2019, and references therein) . Transmission of
digital content via TV, WhatsApp or Zoom is not education. Neither is a child watching a video is
education. Education happens when a child engages with the learning material critically, creatively,
collaboratively and learns to communicate what one has learned. In fact, teachers’ comments
regarding success of TV programs provide a treasure trove of ideas not just for improving TV lessons,
but for improving pedagogical issues in technology-mediated education in general.
The highest pedagogical concern of the teachers is that that there are children of different levels of
ability in any class and weaker students are left out in distance education using broadcast TV. The
lessons being practical or interactive are also concerns by teachers. There were nine comments where
teachers felt that not having a ‘live’ teacher or a teacher who interacts with the viewer as a problem.
But TV lessons by design do not have a ‘live teacher’ . Some of the newer programs developed by NIE
have the teacher interacting with a group of students as part of the program, but, overall, interactivity
has never been the strong suit of low-tech TV.
But additional comments on how teachers can be brought on to supplement the TV lessons point to
ways we might make digital learning materials work better.
LACK OF FOLLOW UP: “TV programs fail because they have no method to follow up
with the children. Programs should be developed with a methodology that can be
followed up with the child.; What if further clarification is required in the
presentation? It is difficult for the child to continue the lesson because he cannot [go
back] to the things he does not understand; Children are helpless because they have
no one to explain the difficult points and to listen to them.”
The teachers suggested linking pre-video activities and post-video activities to TV lessons by class
teacher or subject teacher. Essentially, these teachers are talking about blended learning where digital
learning materials are supplemented by interactions with a teacher.
Internet v. Broadcast TV as modes of distance education
The percentage reached by Internet or TV varied according to the type of school. In the case of
teachers trying to reach students over Internet-based applications, the reach increased with the
increasing size of the school. For example, the reach was 8% for schools with 1-100 students and 59%
for schools with 1001+ students. These percentages are consistent with the popular notion that larger
schools have better facilities.
Table 2. Percent of students reached for distance education via Internet or TV, by size of school
School Size
As for students reached through broadcast TV, he percent of students who watched one or more TV
programs was distributed across school sizes with no pattern for an verage of 28% of students in saying
they watched at least one TV program. Although, the overall percent reached by TV is low, the fact
that students in less well-endowed schools were better reached by TV than Internet shows that TV has
the potential to reach out to children without access to the Internet. However, the cost benefit of TV
broadcasts vis-à-vis alternatives must be evaluated before further investments.
Distance Education in Bangladesh - Good Practices
Schools in Bangladesh have been closed since March 12th, 2020. According to a presentation made by
Mr. Mamoun of the Bangladesh Ministry of education at a virtual UNESCO conference on Resilient
Education on October 15, 2020, there are 39.8 million school children in Bangladesh (Cf. 4.5 million in
Sri Lanka) and 171,779 schools (Cf. 10,165 schools in Sri Lanka). The education system in Bangladesh
is massive and the challenges are much larger in scale. The ICT infrastructure situation in Bangladesh
may be improving but as of 2018 it is at a lower stage than Sri Lanka (Table 1)
For Bangladesh we set out to identify good practices under the best of conditions and selected a better
endowed set of schools for our study. The idea was to identify good practices under optimal conditions
for benchmarking good practices. While 90% of the teachers in Sri Lanka used WhatsApp technology,
the teachers in the Bangladesh sample of teachers from schools with better facilities seem to use a
variety of more advanced products. As one teacher described, he used WhatsApp for communication,
Zoom for teaching, and Google Classroom for assessments. In fact, teachers are finding that online
classes are better than face-2-face classes in some respects. As the interviewer noted:
“It was claimed by the teachers that regular classes have some limitations, i.e.,
shortage of equipment, and the internet. On the other hand, online classes helped
them to overcome the problems that they faced in regular classes. They got the
opportunity to use online resources to make teaching-learning more effective and
easier. They can use audio/visual content like animation, pictures, video, or different
effective and students friendly learning content from the internet which helped them
to deliver the lecture with proper examples and explanation. Most of the teachers
used Zoom and WhatsApp to conduct online classes. Besides with Zoom and
WhatsApp, some teachers used Google Classroom, Facebook live, and messenger.
Although we did not carry out a systematic study of elite schools in Sri Lanka, there is anecdotal
evidence to suggest similar teacher sentiments.
Teachers in Bangladesh also used what one might call blended learning methodologies where teachers
use a combination of face-to-face interactions and technology in the teaching and learning process. A
flipped classroom is a variation of blended learning where students watch a video on their own and
the teacher uses the interaction time with students to discuss the material. As the interviewer for
Bangladesh reported:
One of the participants informed us that they conducted a discussion-based class
instead of lecture-based classes. Teachers regularly uploaded their class
contents/lectures in the WhatsApp group and these students were instructed to
contact the concerned teacher to get help. “Like regular classroom teaching we are
trying our best to make them understand the lessons. If they get any problem, they
could contact the teacher to clarify it. Moreover, we upload all the classwork and
homework in a WhatsApp group which they could follow, and it also helps the
absentees”, a teacher said.
Although teachers did not quite put the blended learning label on these practices, they had said that
they are likely to carry over these good practices to regular classrooms.
These case studies from better-endowed schools in Bangladesh indeed show that innovations in
distance education are easier to observe in better endowed situations. The challenge is to adapt these
practices to low resource conditions. Inputs from Sri Lankan teachers helped us bridge that gap.
We estimate that in Sri Lanka only 45% of the students in the public-school system were reached in
distance mode using Internet-based applications in 2020. TV broadcasts of lessons by the Government
of Sri Lanka first introduced on March 22nd reached only 28% of students. Statistics are not available
for Bangladesh. To our knowledge such data are not reported for Bangladesh or other countries in Asia
or anywhere. There is an urgent need to monitor the reach of distance education in each country and
take steps immediately to bring those unconnected using appropriate combinations of pedagogical
and technological initiatives.
Blended learning, High-Tech or Low-Tech
Distance education for school children cannot be driven by technology alone. One-to-one or one-to-
many interactions between teacher and students are essential for learning in distance mode.
Therefore, blended learning which is essentially about combining student and teacher interactive
sessions (face-to-face or ICT mediated in distant mode) with self-learning by students using digital
content is essential in distance learning.
Observations of teachers from a better-endowed set of schools in Bangladesh show that offering
blended learning opportunities would come naturally to teachers teaching in distance mode, if the
they are able to freely use Internet technologies to reach their students. Observations by teachers and
secondary data sources from Sri Lanka show that it is indeed possible to provide a low-tech version of
a blended learning experience using offline resources when teachers are not able reach their students
over the Internet.
Implications for Other Countries in Asia
Access to and use of ICT in six countries in Asia has shown that that Internet use in countries in the
region can be as low as 8% (LIRNEasia, 2020) While the long-term solution for distance education in
pandemics or other emergencies will involve online solutions, in the short-term, these countries must
come up with offline solutions that involve offline digital content to deliver education. Each country
needs to take a glass half-full approach and use their offline resources to the maximum extent to
ensure that no student is left behind during school closures.
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... Furthermore, in the present context, there has been considerable research based on online and distance education within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka. Accordingly, Gamage & Zaber [17] survey the accessibility to Internet or TV and good practices of distance education at schools. Furthermore, Haththotuwa & Rupasingha [18] identify the devices students use to access online learning and discuss the popularity of the University Learning Management System (LMS) and Zoom at private and public universities in the country. ...
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Factors affecting the use of ICTs in the classroom by teachers: A systematic review of the literature
  • S N Gamage
  • T Tanwar
Gamage, S. N, & Tanwar, T. (2018). Factors affecting the use of ICTs in the classroom by teachers: A systematic review of the literature. Information Technologies & International Development, 14 (Special Section).
After Access: ICT access and use in Asia and the Global South (Version 3.0). Colombo: LIRNEasia
  • Lirneasia
LIRNEasia (2019). After Access: ICT access and use in Asia and the Global South (Version 3.0). Colombo: LIRNEasia.
School Census 2019: Education Statistics of Government Schools. Ministry of Education
  • Moe
MoE (2019). School Census 2019: Education Statistics of Government Schools. Ministry of Education, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Framework for the Reform of Education Systems and Planning for Quality, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper: No. 6701
  • H A Patrinos
  • E Velez
  • C Y Wang
Patrinos, H. A., Velez, E., and Wang, C. Y. (2012). Framework for the Reform of Education Systems and Planning for Quality, World Bank Policy Research Working Paper: No. 6701. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
Reimagining Education: Report of the Presidential Taskforce on Education Affairs
PTF (2020). Reimagining Education: Report of the Presidential Taskforce on Education Affairs. Office of the President, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
ICT enabled Resilient Education. Webinar
UNESCO (2020). ICT enabled Resilient Education. Webinar. October 15.