A Literary appreciation of the “Commando Regiment”
By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
When the presentation of the book is excellent, a prospective reader would be encouraged to see what is inside. That is where the Colonel won his first round. I will jump over the Author’s writing and talk about the Foreword to the book. It is written by Major General Lalin Fernando. What he has written reminds me of a similar sentiment I read years ago by Jean-Paul Sartre for the eternally popular ‘Wretched of the Earth’ by Frantz Fanon.
General Fernando’s Foreword gives the essence of the story reduced in size but done with military precision. I wasn’t varnishing anything when I linked Sartre and Fanon to the commando book.
Now, I come to the photos. The ‘man of the match’ is there, The Colonel, and he is flanked by another Colonel and a Major General. They were regiment leaders. Then comes the ‘salt of the earth’ two Warrant Officers and an elderly Sergeant, the men that mattered.
Right along, the book is filled with what the soldiers of the Commando Regiment did. The braid was there to lead and so were the brave in uniform who fought to the demanding order. It sure is nice to see the recognition spreading from the ranks to the top even before the story begins to unfold.
When I received a copy of the Commando Regiment, courtesy of the author, I noticed an invitation, too. It was for the launch of the book at the BMICH. What caught my eye, at first glance, was the rank and name of the Chief Guest who would grace the occasion. Strangely, he was no Julius Caesar nor a local Hannibal. But someone who had served in the Commando Regiment from its inception. Warrant Officer Colin Silva, who hails from Tudella was to be the Chief Guest. He’s been the Colonel’s shadow from Day One. Selecting W/O Silva as Chief Guest was not only an honour to him but to all those commandos who toiled, sweated, fought and died for the regiment and the country.
The ‘First Person’ for the event at the BMICH being a Warrant Officer was nothing but a platinum performance by the author. To recognise and honour the ranker who stood by him from the birth of this unit to the day they retired was a magnificent tribute. I salute you Colonel, for your choice of a Chief Guest who has more than earned the laurel than picking one from the “Nodding Crowd” purely for the pomp and pageantry.
That alone made me think of the worth of the man who wrote this book. So, I started reading the story of the Commando Regiment and ‘The Colonel’ who started it all.
The book gives in detail the author’s entry into the military, the usual young blood in search of adventure in a peace-time army. The ambition had been fostered from early teens and shared with younger brother Eksith; they both collected and read and learnt about combat matters and especially about Task Forces around the world trained for dare-devil operations. All that was home-grown till they both joined in tandem the school Cadet Corps that may have cemented the zest they both had to seek careers in the armed forces.
Young Sunil joined the military. He had been a top all-round student at the school by the beach and reached the pinnacle of being appointed as the Head Prefect. All that you can read in the book, including the rigorous training he went through at Diyatalawa to pass out as a Second Lieutenant in the Gemunu Watch.
Next, we see him as a young Captain, 29 years old, and attached to Army Headquarters. One day, out of the blue, he gets a message to accompany the head of the Army, General Dennis Perera, to meet Prime Minister JRJ. The Big shots who flanked the Prime Minister on the ‘power side’ of the table were the who’s who that ran the country. Some were of the great grade, and some were merely those who thought they were great. I leave you to read the book and do your own separating of the wheat from the chaff.
Our author had been called to set up from the ground-up a Commando Unit, the first of its kind in the country. Captain Peiris was to be the Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill. There was one on the Prime Minister’s side of the table who was not from the ‘Dream Team’, Capt Rakitha Wickremanayake. He had just been appointed the Chairman of the new airline JRJ was planning. The setting up of the Commando Unit was a deterrent to anyone who might highjack a plane of Air Lanka, the new airline that was to take wings in an year’s time.
Better read the book and make your own conclusion. This was November 1977. The country was at peace. Prosperity trumpets were blaring away. I could not figure out why the high powers wanted to set up a specialised Army unit to protect two secondhand Boeing 707s from being hi-jacked? True the PFLP with the blessings of Yassar Arafat skyjacked jetliners and took them to Dawson’s Field in Jordan and blew them up. Names like Leila Khalid, Carlos the Jackal, Bader Meinhof, Japanese Red Army and ‘freedom fighters’ as such were scaring the skies toting machine-guns. But that kind of terror in peaceful Sri Lanka was hard to imagine. Maybe someone at that power table was hearing the rumble of distant drums blowing across the island from the north?
“We have decided to select you to set up this exclusive unit” (page 43 will tell the reader the rest, I need not elaborate).
Either way, our Captain Peiris was no politician. They wanted a Commando Unit and his job was to obey orders and get the special unit operational. It is clear that Captain Peiris had great respect for his Commander General Dennis Perera and more than that, he knew the integrity of the man and had total confidence that the General would never scapegoat him and sell him down a political drain.
On the other side of the coin was his wife Manisha. I can imagine what role she played in the Commando Unit drama. I have worked with her before and know how valuable her ‘still water’ personality is. Captain Peiris would have received the unstinted support and much needed encouragement as well as the sincere salient criticism from Manisha, the Captain’s Captain.
When reading the book, it was clear to me that the author was a man of deep faith. His reliance on God was a major factor that boosted his confidence in himself. No wonder when the crossroads blocked the path, he knew which way to go.
Setting up an entire new unit in the military was no walk in the park. Amidst a hundred logistical hurdles there were officers with more brass on their shoulders who wished that the young Captain would falter and become a defeated orphan. The criticisms came direct and in camouflage. Yet, the man had the grit to fight it through and snigger the last laugh. Sunil Peiris had what it takes to survive. General Dennis Perera had chosen wisely a round peg for a round hole that fitted perfectly.
The soldier selection was from people recommended by their respective units. Thirty were chosen, out of which 29 reported. The training started and four dropped out leaving a mere 25 passing out after their final exercise of a march from Inginiyagala to Sigiriya.
The entire planning structure and the detailed training procedures are all in chapter 4 from page 71. It gives the reader a very good idea of how men were moulded to fight the impossible.
The first home of the Commando Unit was established temporarily at Diyatalawa. The numbers were small but well-trained, tinkered and minted to become fierce fighting machines. Reminded me of Thermopylae. The 25 were the first to represent the unit. And the numbers increased as the new recruits added their names to the muster. The operations they carried out and the battles they fought are detailed in the book and makes interesting reading. Very interesting, indeed.
The years rolled by and the conflict exploded plunging the country into a brutal war. The death toll rose on both sides which also included innocent civilians who were caught in the crossfire. The leadership of battle adversaries, often politically motivated, moved their pawns and sent them to die. Some for their country and some for their cause. Simplified – it was our soldiers, their war.
By this time the Commando Unit had moved out of Diyatalawa and found its permanent residence in Ganemulla.
Chapter 13 is about a personal tragedy that the author wrote perhaps to seek some solace or maybe he just did not want to tell his story without baring what was tucked at his very soul. This chapter has nothing to do with the Commando Regiment of the Army. Yet, it is about an event that took place in 1985 in a lonely airfield in Batticaloa (pages 175-180). I have no heart to write about that. Mine would be meaningless words with hardly any comfort to someone who will carry the sorrow to his grave. I leave you to read and digest how absurd and fickle life could be.
The fighting had intensified, and the political jigsaw puzzle was being fitted by the powers that be with some of the key pieces missing. The IPKF arrived adding a strange dimension to the already abstract equation. Parents buried children, what did it matter whether they were Sinhalese or Tamil? I clearly remember the times, the mid-80s and what a political mess it was. The Commando Unit increased in strength and was in the forefront fighting the enemy and protecting civilians.
The Colonel left the Army in 1988. Whichever way you look at it, the parting was a sad farewell to a dedicated career soldier. The band played ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the ‘Father of the Regiment’ took his last salute from the Commandos in the Ganemulla Camp and walked to his jeep and was driven away.
The reason was nothing strange. It was purely political.
In 2009, when the guns went silent in Nandikadal the Commandos went back to Ganemulla. What started with 25 soldiers in 1978/79 had grown to four regiments of tough men who wore the maroon beret. Some had died for their country, 43 officers and 689 other ranks. Some suffered injuries and were marked for life. There were 49 officers and 890 soldiers among them. Such figures are on record. My fervent wish is the continued remembrance of the sacrifices they made.
Maybe not now, but in the coming years,
Possibly in a better land, without conflict and corruption, but in lasting peace
We might recall the swollen mounds that buried the unknown soldier,
Or a cemetery memorial of a lost young life
At such times we could imagine the meaning of the shed tears
Perhaps then, we will understand.
Govt. responds in kind to Thuyacontha’s salvo
At the behest of the then late President Ranasinghe Premadasa way back in 1989, the then Election Commission recognised the PFLT (People’s Front of Liberation Tigers) as the political arm of the LTTE. The late Gopalswamy Mahendraraja aka Mahattaya, the LTTE Deputy Leader was its founding leader (He was executed in Dec 1994 on the orders of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran after being in captivity for 16 months). The then government was ready to give the LTTE an opportunity to contest elections.
By then all other Indian trained Sri Lankan terrorist groups had entered mainstream politics. Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda (EPDP leader) is just one of them.
The UNP brought him to politics. In fact, the UNP brought several other ex-Tamil terrorist groups, including the PLOTE into mainstream politics. The PLOTE received international attention when it mounted an abortive bid to seize control of the Maldives in early Nov 1988. It too, is represented in parliament today.
The parliament during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure had no qualms in accepting LTTE battlefield commander Karuna Amman responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers. Karuna also received a top position in the SLFP while his associate another ex-terrorist Pilleyan serves as a Deputy Minister now.
The JVP itself was allowed to re-enter mainstream politics regardless of its murderous past. Therefore, why consider a retired AVM a threat to national security?
The issue at hand is that those who governed this country in the past three decades had caused so much destruction, they fear the emergence of a political power other than them.
That is the crux of the matter.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
On behalf of the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government, State Defence Minister Premitha Bandara Tennakoon last Friday (24) reacted to accusations over the blacklisting of retired Air Vice Marshal Sampath Thuyacontha.
The Matale District MP declared that Air Force headquarters had no other option but to resort to legitimate counter measures against the threat posed by AVM Thuyacontha.
The officer concerned also served as Sri Lanka’s Defence Attaché in Islamabad after the successful conclusion of the war in May 2009, retired in Nov 2021. His retirement took place a few months before public protests erupted against the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over disruption of essential supplies consequent to an unprecedented debt and balance of payment crises.
The former Lieutenant Col. Rajapaksa was caught up in the crisis that had been caused by mismanagement of the economy over the years and especially during the tenures of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (1994-2005) and she left office leaving a negative growth rate, Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2015) and Maithripala Sirisena (2015-2019). However, during the Yahapalana administration the finances were under the UNP control.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa contributed to the calamity by slashing taxes, including VAT with the idea of encouraging growth, but at the worst possible time in the aftermath of debilitating suicide attacks by terrorists on Easter Sunday 2019 and the onset of the COVID pandemic, stubbornly failing to seek IMF help with clear signs of economic trouble and ruination of the agriculture sector by his hasty decision to ban the import of chemical fertiliser and other agro chemicals. The 2019 Easter Sunday carnage debilitated the vital tourism sector and covid-19 pandemic caused further deterioration. However, to be fair to President Mahinda Rajapaksa he achieved much during his tenure. In addition to winning the 30-year war, which many pundits said was something our security forces were incapable of achieving, he successfully embarked on a series of massive development projects with Chinese assistance, including building expressways as never before, an international airport, etc., while fighting the costly war to a finish.
Tennakoon, the youngest ever to serve as the State Defence Minister found fault with the SLAF veteran for causing dissent among the SLAF. The State Defence Minister is an SLPP Matale District MP and one-time minister Janaka Bandara Tennakoon’s son.
Premitha Bandara Tennakoon received ministerial appointment from President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Sept. 08, 2022.
The bone of contention is a fiery speech the AVM delivered on March 05 in Gampaha. Referring to the debarred SLAF officer’s previous speeches, the State Minister declared the Gampaha speech was not acceptable at all.
The State Minister discussed how the retired officer’s actions were in line with the overall JVP-led Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) political strategy that could cause further turmoil in the country by inciting hatred on the government.
MP Tennakoon dealt with the issue at hand against the backdrop of the overthrowing of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa following unprecedented mob violence, which were painted as peaceful protests by interested parties.
The State Minister in particular pointed to the culpability on the part of the JVP in inciting the public against the then government and security forces. The State Minister was responding to JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who raised the issue at hand. Let me leave the JVPer’s rhetoric and just concentrate on the primary issue. The Colombo District MP essentially asked whether ex-military personnel could engage in politics only if they aligned with the incumbent government or those acceptable to the regime.
The JVPer also questioned restrictions imposed on Maj. Gen. Aruna Jayasekera, who led the group of ex-military personnel affiliated to the JJB.
Lawmaker Dissanayake challenged the government over the degrading treatment of a retired senior officer while comparing the latest development with the high profile role played by Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election and war winning Army Commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s role.
Obviously that is the bone of contention. A decorated pilot, who commanded the celebrated No 09 Attack Helicopter Squadron, Thuyacontha is the senior most retired SLAF officer to declare his support directly to the JVP. The move may have caused alarm among the top government leadership as well as the intelligence community in light of the fact the JVP had been responsible for two abortive violent rebellions in the country and both of which had to be crushed by the elected governments then in power after much bloodletting. That is an undeniable fact. Directorate of Provost, SLAF, in a confidential missive, dated March 10, 2023, addressed to all stations blacklisted four personnel (three retired, including Thuyacontha and one discharged). In addition to the renowned pilot, the other blacklisted were Warrant Officer R.H.A. Indika, Sergeant H.A.U.A. Premaratne and Corporal W.A.P.C. Perera. The JJB has vowed to move the Supreme Court against the government move.
Unfortunately, the issue erupted during a UN inspection of the Sri Lankan Army’s capacity to enhance its deployment in Mali, a landlocked country in West Africa.
Restrictions imposed on war winning Sri Lankan military leadership by the UN as well as individual countries such as travel ban on General Shavendra Silva should be examined alongside the other contentious matters. Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC, is on record as having said (in response to a query raised by the writer at a Foreign Ministry media briefing) that entire fighting divisions had been targeted by the international community, meaning the Western camp led by the US.
Nalin Siriwardhana formerly of the Navy in a Facebook post strongly backed measures taken against AVM Thuyacontha on the basis that those serving and retired officers engaged in politics for their personal benefit.
Australia-based dual citizen Siriwardhana without hesitation declared that the likes of AVM Thuyacontha should engage in politics without wasting time in a bid to deceive the public. One-time Sri Lanka Telecom employee emphasised that the officer concerned couldn’t have been unaware that such disciplinary measures were routine in the case of those retirees who engage in politics.
Siriwardhana stressed that as there couldn’t be any exceptions, the AVM shouldn’t expect special treatment under any circumstances. The Commander-in-Chief, in this instance, President Ranil Wickremesinghe who also holds defence portfolio enjoys the right to appropriately respond to such unacceptable conduct on the part of retired officers and men.
Retired Lieutenant Siriwardhana figured in a previous Midweek piece (A forgotten episode: Black Sea Tiger raid on Colombo port, published on Oct 12, 2022 /https://island.lk/a-forgotten-episode-black-sea-tiger-raid-on-colombo-port/).
The former Navy officer’s stand should be carefully examined taking into consideration the duplicitous response of successive governments to military men dabbling in politics. That was the issue raised by the JVP leader in Parliament. Before that let me briefly discuss Thuyacontha’s contribution to defeat the LTTE.
A daring pilot
The Aerial Tribute: The Role of Air Power in Defeating Terrorism in Sri Lanka authored by Dr. Nirosha Mendis at the request of Air Marshal H.D. Abeywickrama
(Feb 27, 2011-Feb 27, 2014). Without doubt, Dr. Mendis’s work is the only available complete account of SLAF’s role in the war with excellent analysis of the role played by different formations and units. The author skillfully dealt with the No 09 Attack Helicopter Squadron and the overall impact the daring unit had on the war.
One of the most thought-provoking brief episodes mentioned therein is serious battle damage suffered by Mi-24 helicopter gunship piloted by the then Wing Commander Thuyacontha, the daring Commanding Officer of the No 09 Squadron, headquartered at Hingurakgoda. This was during Close-Air-Support (CAS) mission over the LTTE stronghold of Mulliyaweli, Mullaitivu during the final phase of the offensive action.
Thuyacontha’s fighting machine was hit 32 times during that battle, one of the fiercest during the Eelam War IV. On the paqrticular day the daredevil CO of the No 09 Squadron flew on the mission from China Bay, Trincomalee and found it difficult to return to the base due to heavy battle damage. Thuyacontha told The Island: “We were short of rockets, therefore Mi-24s couldn’t engage targets from somewhat a safe distance but move closer to engage targets with guns.”
Having received the command of the elite Squadron in 2005, the year before the Eelam War IV erupted with simultaneous LTTE offensives in the North and East, Thuyacontha relinquished command in Sept 2009.
Ex-military role in GR’s strategy
During yahapalana dispensation (2015-2019), ex-military officers openly campaigned for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Initially, the wartime Defence Secretary didn’t have the anticipated support from some sections of his own family as well as the SLPP but gradually he turned around the situation. Retired officers played a significant role in the overall campaign, but to varying degrees. The writer wouldn’t under any circumstances deny backing the high profile campaign from the very beginning. The yahapalana government never tried to dissuade ex-military personnel from campaigning for Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Maj. Gen. G.A. Chandrasiri and Rear Admiral Mohan Wijewickrema went a step further by launching a book titled ‘Conflict and Stability’ in support of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The book launch organised by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s brainchild Viyathmaga was held in Nov 2016. One-time Northern Province Governor Chandrasiri received the appointment as Chairman, Airport and Aviation Services on Dec 18, 2019. Among those present on that occasion were Vice Admiral Mohan
Wijewickrema, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke and Anura Fernando (Later received appointment as Sri Lanka’s Counsel General in Shanghai, China).
Wijewickrema assumed duties on June 12, 2020 as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Pakistan whereas Roshan Gunatileke received appointment as Governor, Western Province on March 24, 2020.
Retired Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, who made a valuable contribution to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s campaign, received appointment as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence on Nov 19, 2019.
The author of Road to Nanthikadal spearheaded the propaganda campaign with appearances on television as well. Gunaratne, the former General Officer
Commanding (GoC) of 53 Division was re-appointed Defence Secretary by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Former Army Chief of Staff Nanda Mallawarachchi, too, received an appointment from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa while ex-Army Chief Daya Ratnayake was appointed Chairman Ports Authority (SLPA). Post-war commander Ratnayake was unceremoniously removed from that post in June 2021.
Former Navy Commander Admiral Jayanath Colombage received appointment as Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in August 2020. Currently, the post-war Navy Commander is Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Indonesia, while retired SLAF Commander Air Marshal Sumangala Dias serves as Sri Lanka’s top envoy in Malaysia.
It wouldn’t be realistic to list all ex-military personnel who received government appointments both here and overseas.
After Sri Lanka’s triumph over LTTE terrorism in May 2009, the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government opened the doors for more-ex military personnel to enter politics. The government brazenly exploited the situation to its advantage. The UNP-led Opposition, too, likewise, brought in the then General Fonseka into the political ring in late 2009. Fonseka received the backing of a coalition that included both the JVP and the TNA, despite it having recognised the LTTE as the sole representative of Tamil speaking people way back in 2001 and then having blamed Fonseka and his war winning army of committing war crimes after the crushing defeat of the Tigers.
The UNP led move received the blessings of the US. Thanks to revelations made by the Wikileaks, the direct US involvement in the project that brought forward Fonseka as the common presidential candidate cannot be denied.
The US intervened on behalf of Fonseka after he was incarcerated. Sustained US pressure contributed to Fonseka’s subsequent release but he couldn’t come to terms with the UNP subsequently though he received their support at the 2010 presidential poll.
Washington well-known for playing Dr. Jakyl and Mr. Hyde roles world over to maintain its world hegemony, it would be interesting to know the US reaction to the Thuyacontha affair, particularly against the backdrop of perceived US readiness to work with the JVP too. US Ambassador Julie Chung paid a rather unusual courtesy call on JVP leader Dissanayake, MP, and Vijitha Herath, MP, at their Bataramulla headquarters on May 14, 2022. That visit was made at a time when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was struggling to regain control of the rapidly deteriorating situation. The US Ambassador had no qualms in meeting JVP leaders in spite of accusations the party influenced the campaign directed against the President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the military and the ruling party.
State Defence Minister Tennakoon didn’t mince his words when he questioned the JVP’s role in May’s gory violence in the aftermath of a SLPP goon attack launched from Temple Trees on protesters outside it and at Galle Face.
Recent declaration made by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando in Badulla that UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe spearheaded the campaign at the Presidential Secretariat (old parliament), too, cannot be ignored.
President Wickremesinghe has lambasted Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) for being responsible for violence, a charge vehemently denied by the breakaway JVP faction.
Wickremesinghe went to the extent of naming FSP General Secretary Kumar Gunaratnam as the mastermind in the violent political project.
JJB makes headway
AVM Thuyacontha’s unexpected move received quite a significant public response. The government and the main Opposition still appeared to have failed to comprehend why the public appears to be increasingly appreciative of the JJB. Actually, the JJB with just three MPs including one National List MP in the current parliament is politically insignificant in terms of parliamentary strength. Having ruined the economy over the past several decades leading to declaration of bankruptcy early last year, the major political parties should accept responsibility for creating a perfect environment for the JJB. The JVP/JJB had never been attractive to the military or ex-military though perhaps just an insignificant number of officers and men may have sympathized with their cause.
AVM Thuyacontha or Maj. Gen. Jayasekera wouldn’t probably at least considered voting for the JVP/JJB if not for the ruination caused by major political parties.
Instead of taking remedial measures, at least now, the government has decided to confront the perceived threat from the growing opposition.
The composition of parliament possibly doesn’t reflect the present public sentiment at all. The unceremonious exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in last July may have proved that the electorate no longer respected the two mandates received by the ruling SLPP at Nov 2019 presidential and August 2020 parliamentary elections. But the question is whether the entire ouster was instigated and executed from scratch by the West with the help of local quislings as has happened in so many other countries where they have successfully instigated regime changes or attempted them from Chile to Bolivia, Iran, Libya, Syria etc, etc. And they have the audacity to threaten regime change even in Russia!
In spite of incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe being legitimately elected by parliament in last July, discontent among the electorate is growing as claimed by the opposition. A major propaganda effort to depict the finalisation of the USD 2.9 bn and the immediate availability of USD 333 mn as a massive victory for the government went awry when State Finance Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya admitted that within 24 hours USD 121 mn was paid to India. The government seems to be trapped in its own propaganda and being silly.
Those who are rattled by the JVP/JJB drawing support of the ex-military should pressure the government and the main Opposition to address issues at hand. The only way to thwart the JVP/JJB is to take tangible measures to drastically curb waste, corruption, irregularities and mismanagement. If they bother to peruse proceedings of
Parliamentary watchdog committees, COPE, COPA and COPF, action could be initiated to reverse the situation. Unfortunately, the government and the main Opposition seemed to be driving more people to the JVP/JJB by giving corruption a free hand.
Connectivism and higher education
By Panduka Karunanayake
Connectivism is the term used to denote a new way of human learning in contemporary digital society that appears to be rapidly replacing older ways of learning. It is an emergent property of the Digital Age. It has emerged on a background of three global trends, viz., the new nature of knowledge, the wide availability of information & communication technology (ICT), and the new nature of employment. These three global trends owe their existence to the digital revolution and globalisation, which are inextricably intertwined. Wherever in the global village these trends may permeate, we can expect connectivism to follow.
While the phenomenon must have gradually emerged in the last several decades, the term itself is still relatively new. It was first used by psychologist George Siemens less than 20 years ago, and it is still not widely used – nor the phenomenon widely appreciated – even in higher education circles. But its importance is enormous, because of its wide reach and the significant changes it engenders. It has affected several fields already, including learning theories, the structure of organisations, and pedagogical practices in higher education – all of which are crucial for universities.
However, it is important to keep in mind that this is only how things are – not necessarily how things should be. The question of whether connectivism is good or bad is a different issue, and that is still quite open.
But whether or not connectivism is desirable, it cannot be ignored. We need to understand and make appropriate responses to it, in accordance with our own societal values and goals – much like with regard to globalisation itself. Just because we ignore connectivism, it will not simply disappear; instead, our own practices would merely become ineffective and irrelevant with time, our own goals would remain unfulfilled in the end, and our own values would be lost. To some extent, this is already happening.
The purpose of this article is to provide an introduction to connectivism and explain its importance within higher education, with a view to creating awareness and encouraging appropriate responses in the academia and even among intellectuals in general.
Underlying global trends
The three underlying global trends of the Digital Age that have formed the background for the emergence of connectivism are the new nature of knowledge, the wide availability of ICT, and the new nature of employment in contemporary knowledge society.
Knowledge has always played a pivotal role in all human societies – not just in the so-called knowledge societies. That is because one of the important causative or contributory factors to human social behaviour is that society’s culture, and culture is driven by human knowledge. Knowledge has always had an ephemeral and tentative quality, although the general human tendency has been to deny this and give it an artificial air of permanence – as evident in terms like ‘gospel truth’, ‘truths written in stone’, ‘scientific facts’, ‘proven’ or ‘evidence-based’ practices, and so on.
The new nature of knowledge has unceremoniously kicked out this unconscious denial – not by design but by accident. The ephemeral nature of knowledge is now quite obvious – and intensified and even justified. Today, knowledge doubles approximately every 72 days, and the ‘half-life’ of knowledge (i.e., the time after which it is outdated and incorrect, even if it is not discarded) has shrunk. We are compelled to keep chasing after more knowledge, both because new knowledge emerges and also because pre-existing knowledge quickly loses its currency (i.e., its validity and uptodateness). If we don’t join this ‘chase’, we would quickly because irrelevant and ineffective.
As the Red Queen says in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
This new nature of knowledge is closely entwined with the widespread availability of new ICT – indeed, it is hard to decide which is the cause and which is the effect. We have a plethora of ICT-related methods of acquiring new knowledge, starting with Wikipedia a few decades ago, through to a multitude of online sources of information and platforms of learning, both formal and informal. Crucial to higher education in this regard has been the advent of massive open and online courses (MOOCs), which occurred during the first decade of this century. But of course, not all of these sources are reliable (or more precisely, they are not equally reliable).
Particularly important in this regard is the arrival of Web 2.0: when Internet users became both its consumers (by downloading content) and producers (by uploading content, such as text, images, videos and so on). As a result, both consumption and production of knowledge have become ‘democratised’, enormously diversified, and hugely variable with regard to reliability and usefulness. Standardisation of knowledge, which was once unreservedly given over to ‘experts’, has now become almost unattainable and, in a post-modern world, even questionable.
The new nature of employment of today is the result of the globalisation of capital and production as well as the new nature of knowledge, which has made obtaining knowledge with currency a never-ending chase. In today’s workplace, employees change their jobs frequently. They also seek new types of employment in unpredictable fields (i.e., not strictly in line with their previous training, subject of graduation, etc.) and often go and fit very well into fields that are unrelated to their previous employment or even qualifications. Transferable skills have become the only set of truly necessary skills – because everything else can be readily acquired, has a shrunken half-life, or can be easily hired. The only essential learning one must possess is ‘learning to learn’.
As a result of all this, there is a general tendency to overlook or ignore ‘expertise’ in knowledge and instead value ‘currency’ of knowledge. Whether or not knowledge is considered effective for a specified purpose is given more value than whether or not it is inherently correct in the bigger picture.
What is actually ‘new’ in connectivism?
It is important to understand exactly what is ‘new’ about connectivism. After all, we already do seek new knowledge and use ICT in our work, extend beyond our original disciplinary ‘comfort zone’ through various multi-disciplinary programmes of work (‘combinatorial creativity’), and teach using online platforms such as Zoom. So, isn’t this also ‘connectivism’? What is the qualitative difference between our current practice and connectivism?
The simplest way to understand this difference is by beginning with the participants. The participants (or more precisely, the terms of participation) in the two systems are different. Let me name the participants in our current higher education system as a Group, and those in connectivism as a Network. According to the terms of participation, the same person may belong to different Groups and Networks at the same time.
A Group is made up of members who have fulfilled predetermined criteria for membership and recruitment (such as educational qualifications and admission criteria), are bound by practices of standardisation (such as disciplinary standards, subject benchmarks and professional codes), and are therefore sharing a ‘sameness’. The knowledge they receive or give may be new, but it is controlled by standards, academic practices and so on; in other words, it is standardised and ‘revealed’ to newcomers, who ‘accumulate it’ by transfer, while new knowledge is ‘additive’ in the sense that it is built on exisiting knowledge in a systematic and predictable fashion (except during Kuhn’s paradigm shifts). This is epitomised even in the concept of the curriculum, which is based on the assumption that knowledge is some sort of ‘certain’ entity, that it can be gradually ‘revealed’ to newcomers, that those who fulfill criteria of acquisition can be ‘certified’ as knowledgeable, and that the possession of the degree certificate can ‘vouch’ for this.
On the other hand, a Network is made up of a wide diversity of people: educated as well as uneducated, qualified and unqualified, knowledgeable and not, novice and expert, traditional and iconoclastic, conservative and maverick, and so on. They not only seek knowledge but also add to it. New knowledge is not additive but unpredictable and ‘emergent’ in this complex, chaotic scenario. Those who seek as well as create knowledge are autonomous and not bound by rules of training, recruitment or standardisation. It is this unrestricted, ungovernable ‘openness’ and the resulting diversity that make connectivism qualitatively totally different to what we ourselves are doing with technology at the moment.
This is also the reason why, in recent times, ‘expertise’ has taken a back seat and has been replaced by ‘currency’. Currency in this sense is highly specific to the task at hand and is a neverending chase – what has currency today (or for one task) could easily lose it tomorrow (or be useless in another task).
Implications for learning
What are the implications of connectivism for learning?
First, it highlights the importance of lifelong learning. In the nineteenth century, persons who left school or university could reasonably expect to complete their full working life with the set of knowledge that they possessed at the start of their career – a person who ‘completes’ education back then could have been considered ‘a finished product’. Today, persons leaving schools and universities should expect to keep learning, so much so that what they know would become entirely overhauled in about twenty years.
Secondly, learning and working are inseparable; both are but one process. We can no longer recruit employees because they ‘know things’, but because they can ‘learn and do things’. As a result, the instrumental value of knowledge far outstrips any intrinsic value it may possess. The single most valued quality of knowledge is its currency – which, importantly, also happens to have a short half-life.
Thirdly, the process of learning becomes more important than the content of learning, because we are aware that the currency of the current content of knowledge will soon be lost. The ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts becomes a core skill, because it gives us access to new knowledge, including innovating. The capacity to know more is more important than what is known. Maintaining and nurturing connectedness become crucial.
Fourthly, while current technology merely facilitates learning (e.g., databases, online learning), in connectivism it will also shape our learning. It will ‘off-load’ much of the learning – from our minds onto devices, databases, etc. Learning will begin to reside in non-human appliances. An evocative, mundane example is the rise of the calculator (which is now part of even our mobile phones) and the simultaneous redundancy of basic mathematics skills in the general population. Today, not even a cashier in a shop can make a simple addition, even with pen and paper – he too needs a calculator to ‘do the math’! Some people who are used to digital clocks cannot tell the time by looking at the traditional clock face, because the latter requires knowing the multiplication table for 5. In both these examples, learning has shifted from our minds to appliances. With artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, this will become even more commonplace and crucial.
Fifthly, the organisation must become a learning organism. It must pay attention to needs such as knowledge management. The need for trust, collaboration and accountability among its employees becomes crucial – without this, not only would the organisation be static and unsuccessful, but even the employees would become outdated, unskilled and unemployable. It is no longer the case that one knowledgeable person ‘knows’, but that an organisation as a whole learns and knows.
Sixthly, new sciences like complexity science, chaos theory, network science and studying uncertainty will become extremely important – they will be the new ‘basic sciences’ of the workplace. A university that does not have these subjects will likely become obsolete or, at best, a repository of ‘old knowledge’.
Seventhly, there are major implications of connectivism to older learning theories (which were mostly derived from Psychology and Anthropology). Knowledge is no longer ‘brain-based’, because it may reside in devices, databases, etc. The human mind may therefore have to leave its basic rules of operation, like simplicity, parsimony and regularity; instead, it will need to learn how to deal with complexity and uncertainty.
Implications for higher education
Higher education must learn about connectivism, for two reasons. First, we must learn and adjust to this, to stay in the knowledge field (i.e., to be effective scholars). We must also carefully study its implications to our teaching practices and take care to impart relevant skills to our students (i.e., to be effective teachers).
Secondly, it is crucial to remember that this is only an account of how things are – not necessarily how things should be. As academics, one of our most crucial roles is in this latter aspect: analysing situations, imagining alternatives, evaluating choices, and justifying judgements. In particular, connectivism is closely entwined with the march of globalisation, the rise of neoliberal economics, the changing nature of industries, the new nature of knowledge, and the evolving demands made on the workforce. It is therefore directly originating from, and serves the agenda of, the power-wielding segments of global industry and has the potential to reproduce and intensify the inequities at the global level. As academics, we have a crucial role to understand and critically evaluate these ‘umbilical cord connections’ of connectivism. What is more, in the wake of climate change that is driven by these global trends, this becomes a huge responsibility that we owe to our future generations.
In short, we must simultaneously understand and adopt connectivism where we must, as well as critique and shape it for the benefit of the wider society and future generations.
The purpose of this article was to create an awareness of connectivism, so that we can collectively explore these implications, especially to the field of higher education. We need to be prepared to face a future with connectivism, including connectivist learning theories, and help the wider society to reap the benefits and navigate the minefield thereof, as well as speak up for the future generations. Ignoring connectivism is not an option.
(The writer teaches Medicine in the University of Colombo.)
The TRC Float
By Lynn Ockersz
In the fatally-fractured Isle,
The top-dog class is back,
Trudging the TRC beaten track,
Blissfully unaware it seems,
That nothing works in this field,
Without brotherly love,
And forgiveness for past crimes…
Both sides owning to faults,
If not, it would be like putting,
The cart before the horse;
Another house being built on sand,
A populist ploy destined to fall apart,
Besides, Truth and Reconciliation,
Are already in the Dhamma books.
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