Business

Educational innovation: Where does Sri Lanka stand?

By Kanishka Weeramunda

Education is the foundation of our economy. What (and how) we learn in school determines who we become as individuals and our success throughout our lives. It informs how we solve problems, how we work with others, and how we look at the world around us. In today’s innovation economy, education becomes even more important for developing the next generation of innovators and creative thinkers.

However, there is a significant gap between the potential of modern education and what many students are actually learning. The adoption and exploration of innovative ideas in education is often slow. Instead, many educators still cling to old and increasingly ineffective methods of teaching.

But, as the great poet William Butler Yeats once said: “Education should not be the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

Using innovative teaching methods to better serve students and teach them about the benefits of innovative thinking does so much more than just “filling the pail”. It ignites a passion for learning and provides students with the tools they need to succeed in the innovation economy.

In other words, we’ll need the best of human ingenuity to figure out how to educate the next generation. And the good news is, there are plenty of fresh innovations already underway. Let’s look at some of the Sri Lankan businesses and start-ups that have taken initiatives to improve education.

IgniterSpace
IgniterSpace is a “makerspace” for kids which guides them to unleash their creativity through technology. A makerspace is simply a place where students can gather to create, invent, and tinker using tools, material, and some guidance. IgniterSpace was created with the intention of encouraging the current generation of youth to move away from merely using today’s software and motivate them instead to become the creators of their own technology – the technology of the future.

At IgniterSpace, children are exposed to different aspects of technology such as mechanical, electrical, electronic computer programming, and robotics. With this foundation, they are then encouraged to further experiment to gain deeper insights.

Their educational model is tried, tested, and loved by kids. Students begin with prototyping known machines to develop basic knowledge as well as fine motor skills, and then move onto production-grade explorative creations. Through these exercises, kids gain design thinking and entrepreneurship skills alongside the ability to create production-grade prototypes of their own concepts.

The classes are conducted at five levels: the first three levels are for age-based entry (ages five-seven years, 8-10 years, and 11-15 years) and prerequisite for level four, which is focused on problem solving. Once level four is completed, students can enter the IgniterSpace Start-up School where they learn to become real-world innovators and entrepreneurs. IgniterSpace has now grown into a thriving operation with makerspaces in Colombo, Galle, Moratuwa, Gampaha, Negombo, and Kandy. The courses are usually conducted in English, although native languages are accommodated on request.

ThingerBits
Thingerbits is a DIY (Do It Yourself) electronics, robotics, IOT, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)-education-based start-up bringing Maker-Movement in Sri Lanka by inculcating the DIY culture in common individuals. It’s important for educators to prepare students for the future by empowering them with the foundational skills they need to succeed later in life.

This includes focusing on STEM. Targeting STEM education in schools, ThingerBits has developed multiple kits such as Arduino Starter Kits, Arduino Basic, Pro, and Ultimate Kits, BBC micro:bit – Beginner Starter Kit, IOT Starter Kit for Arduino, and IOT Starter Kit for NodeMCU and Robotics. These Arduino, micro:bit, and robotic kits are used to encourage kids to think creatively, analyse situations, and apply critical thinking and problem solving skills to real-world problems. They have also developed a unique “Makerspace for School” kit which can turn a conventional computer lab into a makerschool with a capacity of 25 students learning robotics, coding, and hands-on electronics at the same time.

Most importantly, ThingerBits supports the vision of the national education curriculum in Sri Lanka by providing Arduino learning kits to students in order to follow the national curriculum.
ThingerBits is making programmable electronics easy for an average person so that individuals can solve real-life problems on their own. They also provide easy DIY kits coupled with simple tutorials to help people get started as makers while also conduct free community sessions to help learn in community coupled with a makerspace where people can come in and learn dedicatedly.

Pi Robotics
Pi Robotics is another such start-up that ventured into creating advance robotics, teaching students to innovate and go up to creating robotic arms and leading to mechatronics.

Students and youth have been showing positive feedback and enthusiasm in this field with the aim to pursue professional careers in the mechatronics field and industrial automation or to be creative as a hobby.

Similarly, there are several other initiatives taken by volunteering groups led by Microsoft, Orel Corporation, and Micro:bit SLUG to introduce computing to Sri Lankan students using Micro:bit.

Micro:bit is a single-board microcontroller, half the size of a credit card, and is powered by an ARM processor. Think of it as a computer similar to the likes of the Raspberry Pi or an Arduino. Such computers are cheap and allow developers to create devices with ease. As a result of these two reasons, such computers have become popular in education circles.

Micro:bit Sri Lanka User Group (Micro:bit SLUG)
Micro:bit SLUG is a volunteering army that travels across the island with a mission to show every child in Sri Lanka that they can write code to create anything as long as they’re curious and passionate. SLUG is closely tied with the UK-based Micro:bit Education Foundation (an organisation with a mission to increase the use of the BBC Micro:bit in education throughout the world) and was recognised as the first official Micro:bit Community Group in the world due to its initiatives to introduce children to programming with the use of the Micro:bit.

The volunteers instruct children aged 11 to 18 in using the Micro:bit website to write simple commands for the device, enabling it to act as a motion detector, sound sensor, or as a message flasher among other things.

The Future of education
Technology and other changes in society demand innovation in education. While many schools face challenges such as underfunding, unengaged students, and outdated curriculums, innovation offers a path forward.

Innovation isn’t just important for businesses. In many ways, education stands to benefit the most from both utilising and teaching innovation in the classroom. Needless to say, Sri Lanka has had a late start, but it is definitely on a fast progressive journey. By exploring new and better ways to educate students and also teaching the skills students need to become innovators themselves, today’s educators can have a tremendous impact on the future of our country.

(The writer is the Founder/CEO of PayMedia and entrepreneur in Residence at SquareHub. He was recognised as the ICT Leader of the Year 2018 at the ICT Awards, and was awarded Best CEO of the Year and Best Future Leader of the Year in the Small and Medium Service Sector category at the CMI Excellence Awards 2017)