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OP-ED: Online learning: The story so far

  • Published at 03:57 pm August 9th, 2020
online education

What more can be done to ensure education does not come to a halt?

The virus has been an equal opportunity offender in that it has spared no sector. Sectors without a significant digital interface between consumers and producers/distributors are particularly hard-hit.

The tertiary education sector has also been hit by Covid, not just in Bangladesh, but all over the world. At home, in May 2020, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has permitted all universities to conduct academic activities online. The rest, we believe, will be history, and hopefully, a glorious one for e-learning.  

The decision did not come easily, of course. There were stakeholders who underscored the pitfalls of online learning. From our viewpoint, it is dangerous to have 350,000 students of 105 private universities; 680,000 students of public universities; and a large number of others at medical universities; not to mention college students registered at various public institutions, to be out of touch with academic activity, indefinitely. 

On paper, the consequences would have been cumulative backlog, increased cost of education, increased competition for government jobs, corporate jobs, and overseas university enrollment. Behind the scenes, this would have exacted a toll on mental and emotional health on students that would have been significant, and the effects, potentially far-reaching, on families, the society, and by extension, the nation. 

To best tackle this unprecedented situation, leading private universities of the country have acted quickly, nimbly, and diplomatically, balancing multiple stakeholder interests, logistical and technological, and of course, public health challenges, to ensure that the show goes on.

The University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), Brac University, and American International University of Bangladesh (AIUB) have successfully rolled out online classes using a variety of existing and new software solutions. 

To take the case of ULAB, it had made initial investments in online learning as early as in 2007. By 2014, ULAB had rolled out “Moodle,” a well-known learning management system (LMS), which faculty members were using in conjunction with face-to-face classes. All faculty members were required to undergo Moodle workshops even before Covid. 

Once the pandemic broke out, ULAB put together a task-force to oversee the transition to online learning. In addition, to faculty development workshops on Google Classroom and the best uses of Zoom for teaching, a capacity-building committee for students was appointed. 

Research was also conducted by ULAB’s Student Affairs Office to understand students’ access to technology and the internet, so that teaching methods and software solutions could be customized.

The end-result is that ULAB, like other top-tier universities, now has full logistical, technical, and pedagogical capacity to conduct undergraduate and post-graduate courses online. It’s the new Brave New World. And we all would be wise to embrace it. 

Of course, embracing does not entail eschewing the drawbacks and bottlenecks. Not all universities are equally prepared to handle the transition to online. Many students from both public and private universities presently do not have stable access to the internet and suitable smartphones or laptops. 

According to BTRC data, there are 93.7 million mobile internet users and 5.7 million broadband internet users, and a smattering of WiMAX users. Therefore, we have grounds to cover in terms of internet penetration.

Of course, that is no reason to penalize those who have access to the internet, ie, the majority of students, especially given that Covid will continue to wreak havoc in 2020, and most likely, beyond. Therefore, the Ministry of Education and UGC’s support in ensuring universities transition to online learning was a critical and timely move. 

The Deputy Minister of Education, Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury, in a recent roundtable organized by the ULAB Center for Enterprise and Society roundtable, spoke about the importance of overcoming the digital divide, since online learning has the potential to reach people in far-flung corners of the country. 

So, how do we overcome the digital accessibility barriers? The problem of limited connectivity during the Covid-inspired transition to online learning is not unique to Bangladesh. In Indonesia, which has an internet penetration rate of 64.8% (similar to Bangladesh), the government has rolled out an online Learning System Program (SPADA) which supports various LMSs across universities of the country. 

India is even more impressive. With only 36.0% internet penetration, India has set an ambitious goal of increasing their gross enrolment in higher education by 5.0% within 2020 through boosting distance learning, particularly in rural areas.

They are seeing Covid as an opportunity for the growth of online learning, and by extension, education at large. There are efforts underway to raise $15.5 billion from Indian corporates and high net-worth individuals, for nationwide investments in online learning. 

Then there is China. China is the earliest and one of the hardest-hit countries. They were among the first to launch online classes using smartphone apps and online platforms. They have also developed an online classroom hosted on the cloud, which has received widespread praise. The Chinese are also using the state television to broadcast lessons to reach students without internet access.

Continuity in education is of paramount importance. Education is not something you switch on and off, like a light bulb. Session jams are an unfortunate relic of the past, and credit is due to the relevant authorities in education for pre-empting this at the time of Covid, when stress has hit students hard anyway, and compounding this could have been disastrous. 

Back home, the Ministry of Education is currently in conversation with the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for technical and financial assistance to enable digital transformation in the education sector.

Other Government initiatives such as the “One Student, One Laptop campaign,” which has established 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in upazilas, have also seen progress. UGC’s survey on online higher education is a step in the right direction. 

One of the hidden (perhaps not-so-hidden anymore) benefits to online learning is that it paves the way for international collaboration. 

Sitting in Bangladesh and taking a class at a leading Western or Asian University is more feasible now, provided the right frameworks are in place to guide relationships between domestic and international universities. 

Realizing this opportunity, the Commonwealth, UNESCO, World Bank, and ALESCO have partnered with more than 45 universities and educational institutions from around the world and created an International Partnership of Distance and Online Learning for Covid-19. There are opportunities here for Bangladesh-based universities to join this network and benefit from its resources.

However, to bring such dreams to fruition, it is essential that prioritization of e-learning and distance education be reflected in the next national budget. Of course, no budget is perfect, and every year’s budget offers a chance for reflection and improvement in the next.

However, we were surprised to see very little allocation to not just online learning, but the lack of an orientation towards supporting Covid-resilient sectors, in the recent budget.

The thinking here is that at a time when several sectors of the economy are affected by Covid and revenues are depressed by 50-90% across sectors, why not dedicate more resources to sectors that are Covid-resilient? And what sector is more Covid-resilient than online learning?

Of course, digital health, pharmacies, groceries, online news, social media, and online content streaming are also among the Covid-resilient sectors. But the point is that since Covid may well continue to cause damage in the foreseeable future, it is essential to offer extra support to sectors that can thrive and grow during Covid, and in time, create more jobs, and enable economic growth and development.

In the FY21 budget, around BDT 66,400 crore has been allocated for the education sector. This amounts to 11.7% of the total expenditure and a 2.1% share of GDP. Truth be told, this is a very low percentage allocation, far lower than Bhutan even.

Moreover, there was no explicit commitment to online education in the budget. Take South Korea’s example. South Korea has allocated $624.7 million for building remote learning infrastructures in its national budget for FY21.

Even Bhutan has allocated $8.9 million to facilitate online learning through digital platforms. Moreover, Bhutan has allowed an exemption of a 5.0% sales tax on telecom services to aid e-learning in the time of lockdown.

Bangladesh and other developing countries alike could greatly benefit from such timely initiatives to gain traction in online education. 

However, solely relying on the government to achieve milestones in online learning is neither reasonable, nor sufficient. While some universities are stepping up, others ought to follow suit.

There is no telling whether Covid lasts till 2021 or beyond. Young minds ought to be productively engaged and there is fertile ground for cross-learning between universities that have established credentials in online learning and others still trying to figure it out. 

Last but not least, there is considerable scope for market entry and growth for enterprising edtech startups as long as they can collaborate with universities, instead of trying to become the next Khan Academy or Coursera of Bangladesh.

There is a market beyond universities for sure, but copy-pasting global models is not the solution. It is for university and formal degrees that Bangladeshi students and parents actually invest in, and this is the market that startups ought to try to enter.

Lumbini Barua is Research Associate, Center for Enterprise and Society, ULAB. Sajid Amit is Director, Center for Enterprise and Society, and Director, Executive MBA Program, ULAB.

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