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‘Shadow’ education during Covid-19

‘Shadow’ education during Covid-19

26 May 2023 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • Local report urges policy focus on private, supplementary and online tutoring to harness potential in the ‘shadowy’ part of the education sector 

The Covid-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption to education systems in recent history, leading to unavoidable and substantial learning losses among students worldwide. While a growing literature has examined the impacts of extended school closures on multiple aspects of education, the focus has almost exclusively been on formal mainstream education, as opposed to "shadow education", more commonly known as private supplementary tutoring. Although private tutoring has been on the rise in many countries globally over the last few decades, including in Sri Lanka, it has received minimal attention in terms of policy related focus to date.

Noting this, a newly released study report, titled “Shadow Education in Sri Lanka During Covid-19: Trends, Impacts and the Role in Relation to Mainstream Education” authored by researchers Ashani Abayasekara, Usha Perera and Thisali de Silva, stated that Sri Lanka should utilise the potential it has in this sector.

The study examined the role of and impacts of online shadow education in Sri Lanka during Covid-19-induced school closures against school based online education provided during the same period. Data had been obtained from several sources, including an online survey of General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level (O/L) and Advanced Level (A/L) students, telephone interviews conducted with a sample of students in rural locations, key informant interviews (KIIs) conducted with a sample of teachers and tutors, and online tuition advertisements extracted from four websites.

Education deficiencies

In its conclusion, the report stated that overall, the pandemic had exposed several longstanding deficiencies in Sri Lanka's mainstream education system and had led to an increased reliance on private tutoring to bridge these gaps. The possible impacts of the teacher strike in Government schools in increasing the demand for online shadow education during the pandemic are worth noting, according to the report.

Adding that most students attend tuition classes, at least one class per subject, at the A/Ls and selected subjects at the O/Ls and in lower grades, the report claimed that inadequate school lessons and poor teaching methods in schools are key reasons for relying on tuition during pre-pandemic and Covid-19 school closures, and that the pandemic saw a shift from smaller to larger online classes, given the constraints in meeting physically and the ability to accommodate larger student numbers via online methods.

The report further explained that a strong association was observed between the household income and the quality of online shadow education, in terms of the type of tuition classes attended, tuition related expenditure, and the devices, platforms, and methods used for online education. Individual tuition classes and higher fee charging classes, arguably of better quality, are used mainly by students from high income households, while similarly, the share of students using laptops or iPads for online classes, which typically provide a better online learning experience, increases with the household income level. “The pandemic had varying impacts on online shadow education in terms of the quality, accessibility, and affordability in relation to mainstream education. Overall, online learning experiences were considered superior in tuition classes, particularly regarding the teaching methods used and individual attention received via better student-teacher interaction in smaller classes. Accessing online tuition classes was a notable issue for students from low income households and in rural locations, due to the lack of devices and signal related issues, resulting in cancelling tuition classes in some instances due to poor student participation,” the report read, adding that despite such constraints, accessibility to shadow education also increased vis-à-vis mainstream education, and that it is due to greater flexibility in tuition classes, enabling adaptability to connectivity problems and organising smaller classes in line with health and safety measures. The ability to join online classes held in different locations had also improved access during the pandemic. While affordability of online shadow education was negatively affected by data and device related costs, this was offset to a certain extent by the reduction in tuition fees or the offering of free classes by certain tutors, as per the report.

In its conclusions, the report claimed that teacher interviews had confirmed a notable decline in student participation in both school and tuition online based classes during the pandemic, with the extent of the decline being greater in school based classes. “From the teacher’s perspective, there were difficulties in effectively communicating with students and maintaining their interest, conducting practical components of subjects such as science and mathematics online, monitoring the students during class, and catering to those of different abilities and competency levels. Poor digital literacy among teachers, overburdened class schedules for students, and difficulties in effectively measuring learning progress are other contributory factors.”

To fill the blanks

In addition, the majority of the surveyed students, school teachers, and tutors had believed that the importance of shadow education relative to mainstream education had increased following Covid-19 related school closures, and that the sector's role in the country's education sector will further increase in the future. This was due to the benefits of in-person tuition, in general, being prevalent in pre-pandemic times (knowledge acquired, service provision, efficiency, syllabus coverage, and the dedication of tutors), as well as due to an increase in its importance relative to school classes during the pandemic (greater flexibility to adjust to online teaching and to resume in-person teaching, better teaching methods adopted, and greater accessibility).

“Notwithstanding the many benefits of tuition, several disadvantages were highlighted too, with some respondents noting that tuition can never replace school education,” it was explained, adding that the shortcomings of shadow education that were identified included overloaded schedules, financial motives, attitudinal issues, and overdependence on tuition.

Moreover, it added that the most commonly cited recommendation in improving the quality of online shadow education was for the Government to take committed measures to enable students and teachers countrywide to actively participate in online education by providing necessary devices and internet connectivity and to conduct awareness programmes for parents. Meanwhile, the report concluded that the analysis of tuition advertisements posted online indicates that the Western Province accounts for the majority share across all websites, although the average number of views is higher in several other Provinces, including the Sabaragamuwa, Central, Southern, and North Western Provinces.

Opportunities and learnt lessons

Based on the study findings, the report put forward a number of policy recommendations to educate policymakers in improving the quality, accessibility, and equitability of shadow education in general. To improve quality, the report recommended obtaining comprehensive data, regarding which it underscored that a key starting point is to collect nationally representative comprehensive data on the scale, scope, and intensity of private tutoring, which can facilitate the undertaking of robust research into the drivers and impacts of shadow education. With regard to the importance of investing in online pedagogical expertise, it added: “Improving the quality of online and hybrid tutoring is critical in the new normal. The pandemic has demonstrated the need for effective teachers who can facilitate and support learning instead of merely delivering content. As discussed, students experienced many challenges in online education regarding comprehending the material, clearing doubts, and measuring the learning related progress.” In addition, monitoring and regulating the sector was also part of the recommendations. The report stated improving the quality of tutoring also calls for better regulation of the sector, which is largely lacking in many countries despite heavy regulations for mainstream education. In order to improve accessibility, the report said: “The study findings show that many students could access online shadow education classes of their choice regardless of location, subject to device availability and good connectivity. Thus, for students to make the maximum use of online shadow education services, better connectivity in terms of devices and internet facilities are essential, especially in rural and marginalised locations. As done in other countries, the Government should follow suit to collaborate with shadow education service providers as well as other organisations to provide necessary resources for access. While it may not be feasible to provide equipment to each student, the provision of specific numbers of devices and networks in given locations, such as schools and tuition centres, in line with needs, can be considered.” Improving equity and affordability was also an area which the report’s recommendations paid attention to: “Sri Lanka should also consider assisting needy and well-deserving students in attending shadow education classes based on a well established transparent mechanism to identify such students in collaboration with parents, tutors, school teachers, and schools. One suggestion is to specify a certain percentage of non-fee paying students per class for group classes and a percentage of hours to be taught for free in the case of individual classes, and to have a mechanism to allocate students with affordability issues to benefit from such a scheme. The Government can also collaborate with private tutors and with community and religious organisations, to connect students with tutors who are willing to provide tutoring for a minimal fee. As seen, many tutors lowered fees in light of pandemic related impacts, suggesting that they may well be open to similar arrangements in non-crisis situations too.”

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