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Remote learning in the time of Covid-19 … and beyond

  • Published at 01:48 pm April 10th, 2020
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By embracing online education, Bangladesh can come out better prepared for the future

Early last month, in a matter of days, higher education -- or, for that matter, formal education at any level -- went through a sudden and involuntary transformation the entire world over, as faculties, students, and administrators transitioned from brick and mortar campuses to makeshift ones in the virtual world. 

My office now is an old desk in the corner of my living room, repurposed on the go for my office laptop, some hurriedly extracted files, and the odds and ends of stationery. My faithful dog Copper has not yet quite figured out why his human is at home all day, but is generally happier now that he is not alone for 10 hours each weekday.

The transition for most students and faculty has been probably less satisfactory than experienced by a four-legged simple being like Copper. In Bangladesh, that transition has been even more traumatic.

Two years ago, I had written in these pages that the University Grants Commission (UGC) does not statutorily permit degree programs to be offered entirely online, even in private universities. At most, the erstwhile authorization has been for a “blended” approach on a course by course basis. 

Thus when the Covid-19 pandemic hit with a suddenness and fury that took everyone everywhere by surprise, Bangladesh’s higher education system was woefully unprepared to follow the piecemeal orders and requests, and indeed the definite necessity, for moving to remote teaching. 

And in the midst of this upheaval, instead of helping manage the burden, the UGC is creating even more obstacles by hamstringing private institutions as the latter struggle to innovate in the Covid-19 era regarding grading and admissions in a nimble fashion. But I digress.

The reality is that in the modern era of the lifetimes of most of us, this pandemic embodies a level of change that is unprecedented in its scope and depth for individuals and institutions alike. Higher education systems will be smack dab in the middle of those changes from one end of the planet to the other, and those that cannot successfully navigate in, and learn from, those currents of turbulence will likely not survive too long. 

Leading the way will be the adoption and adaption of remote instructional technology. Mind-sets, culture, policy frameworks, and infrastructure will have to change to move decisively into the era of comprehensive virtual delivery of learning, and not just because that is the way of progress.

This calamity underscores the potential resilience of online learning as an antidote to major societal disruptions, whether those be of the natural kind like cyclones or the man-made type like political violence. 

Bangladesh’s almost ossified higher education establishment cannot continue to be sceptical of virtual learning and yet hope to remain relevant.

Mind-sets change slowly, but that change can be encouraged with positive policy adjustments. After this pandemic, there is no reason for the hidebound UGC to not give blanket regulatory approval for private -- and indeed, public -- universities to offer entire programs and necessary assessments, at least in the social sciences, business, and humanities, via online capabilities. 

To address understandable concerns about quality control, the UGC and the rest of the public bureaucracy needs to dust off the accreditation framework that was enacted several years ago and actually start the process of implementing it. 

Additionally, it is important for the central bank to get over its weird love affair with ancient currency regulations from 1947, and instead make it easier for students and faculty to use their credit cards to buy necessary software and digital education material from international vendors directly.

Bureaucracies cannot be alone in making sustainable changes. The universities themselves should set expectations that their faculty embrace online education as a norm; those teachers who cannot and will not despite inducements and training, should be encouraged to find other ways to contribute their talents to society. The old “sage on the stage in a brick and mortar classroom” is a model that is no longer the exclusive method of pedagogy and pretending otherwise is not just foolhardy but dangerous. 

Finally, the network infrastructure has to be built: Despite the frequent and tall claims of the regime, reliable, high speed internet connectivity remains infrequent in many parts of Bangladesh during certain parts of the day. Moving decisively in the digital education age requires the availability of 24/7 internet connectivity anchored with fiber, cable, and mobile hotspot nodes across the 56,000 square miles of the country. 

This is where the private, public, and donor sectors could step up together to make a difference.

Crises are inflection points; some people and institutions come out better, some worse, and some disappear. By adopting and adapting online learning fully, Bangladesh’s higher education sector can use the turbulence of the Covid-19 pandemic to come out more resilient and better prepared for the inevitable challenges ahead.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected].