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OP-ED: Sustain the resilience

  • Published at 01:55 am June 12th, 2021
remote learning

The pandemic hit higher education hard, but we can get something out of it

For those of us employed in higher education in the United States -- or any level of education in most of the world -- the foremost impact of the Covid-19 pandemic of the last 15 months has been the almost sudden shift from bricks-and-mortar operations to processes that are at least partially virtual. No process, be it administrative, infrastructural, technological, financial, or pedagogical, has been left untouched by this phenomenon, even as the world slowly eases back into some sort of normalcy. There is a great potential for exploiting such a shift for the common good.

The change in less advanced countries has been even more pronounced, not just because of the necessary negotiation of technological obstacles, but even more so due to cultural barriers and the legal ones that come in tandem. Bangladesh is no exception. 

Until the apogee of the pandemic, the concept of higher education outside of the physical classroom and brick-mortar campuses was tolerated at best and, more often, scoffed at by the public higher education bureaucracy. Without the sonorous sounding professors holding court in their towel-draped high chairs, the feeling went, how could anyone worth educating be educated? 

Sure, some of those mofussil folks from the hinterlands could pretend to go through the motions of the National University distance education offerings, but come on … nobody wanting to be a magistrate or multi-national banker upon graduation would even think of that! The utterly bureaucratic regulatory framework of the University Grants Commission (UGC) made sure that any significant innovation towards 21st century learning in Bangladesh’s universities -- including private ones with serene sounding names -- was met with looks of mortified horror and nipped in the bud.

And yet, here we are. Necessity being the mother of invention, once the public health crisis became accepted as reality, the UGC quickly granted temporary dispensations for online classes, virtual seminars, and remote assignments. Better late than never, I suppose.

Now that there are glimpses, and these are only glimpses so far, that the pandemic may be finally losing some ground, it is important not to simultaneously lose the battle for educational choices suited for the current century. 

There is no cogent reason anymore for the UGC to stop universities from making permanent the pandemic-related innovations in remote learning and virtual teaching. The resiliency shown in the face of a major public health crisis should be sustained and added to the repertoire of higher educational opportunities. For one, we never know when the next similar emergency strikes; for another, the greater the remote opportunities for higher education the greater the access for those who otherwise couldn’t afford to avail of the classrooms of major universities in the major metropolitan areas of the country. 

Let’s also not forget that the constant threats of intimidation, violence, and killings by ruling party “student” fronts are minimized to some extent when vulnerable students do not have to physically be on dangerous campuses to gain an education.

It’s time to make the higher education improvisation from the Covid-19 pandemic permanent; something good can and should come out of these dark 15 months of the recent past. But ideally, the UGC and the regime at large ought to go beyond just tolerating remote learning and, instead, actively facilitate it with a robust policy matrix. 

Allowing educators, universities, and students to buy software easily from Amazon, Microsoft, Zoom, or Google would be a great start. Let individuals and institutions use their own money via credit cards to purchase educational material without having to run pillar to post for pre-clearance from half a dozen bankers and bureaucrats whose horizons of imagination are stuck in the 19th century. 

Secondly, remove statutory barriers that limit testing and examinations to physical locations only; with high technology virtual proctoring providers like OnVue and ProctorU, the issues surrounding cheating are greatly minimized in these situations, as reams of evidence from the rest of the world shows.

Finally, there is a tremendous opportunity to go beyond the rhetoric of “Digital Bangladesh” and actually invest in greater connectivity both at the network level and the “last mile,” especially in the country outside the divisional headquarters. Such investment could be a public-partnership, especially if tax benefits are provided for the companies that step up to augment the national internet connectivity capacity.

The pandemic hit higher education hard; why not get something out of it to make higher education more accessible? 

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