The novel coronavirus outbreak has shut down the entire education system as schools, colleges and universities in Bangladesh have remained closed since the third week of March to protect students.
Students in rural areas have been hit the hardest as they lack high-speed internet connectivity, thus remaining cut off from all educational activities.
Now, a group of local young education enthusiasts have come up with a virtual learning platform that is both easy to access and less bandwidth hungry than other commercial options.
If adopted, this tool could narrow the digital divide among students living in rural and urban settings, giving both groups similar access to virtual classrooms.
While designing the features of this software, the team – led by the Technical Director of the project Md Touhiduzzaman – reflected upon how teachers who are not tech savvy and mostly interact with students in the native language, Bangla, would like to teach in virtual classrooms. The top priority was how the software could be brought to use in remote locations where internet bandwidth is low.
Months later, "Durbin Classroom" was ready to roll out. The education ministry and the Directorate of Primary Education are inspecting the feasibility of its use.
"The virtual e-learning platform may soon enter the pilot phase," said Afzal Hossain Sarwar, policy specialist (educational innovation) at the Access to Information in Bangladesh (a2i) under the ICT Division. Durbin Labs Limited has long been working in collaboration with a2i to develop digital content.
Amid the pandemic, tools for remote learning have become more necessary than ever before.
E-learning tools – offline or online – provide scope for more personalised learning. There should be a blended learning environment, Sarwar said, adding, "If we had already had that in place, we would have been better prepared for a situation like this."
Features of Durbin Classroom
"Our first proposition was low-bandwidth video calls," said Mohammad Adnan, CEO of Durbin Labs.
Its low data consumption can be understood through comparative analysis. For example, a 10-minute session on Zoom would require 229.35 megabytes of data transfer and Google Classroom would require 96.8 megabytes. Such a session on Durbin Classroom would consume only 20.5 megabytes of data, according to the Durbin team.
Durbin Labs Limited is now in discussions with different private institutions and the government to showcase how the product can provide a low-cost solution in the present crisis.
Adnan said his company's main objective was to restore the "educational ecosystem" that had fallen apart with the suspension of all academic activities.
Just at the pre-primary, primary and junior secondary school-level, about 45 million students have been left out of education across the country. With no sign of the virus waning, it is feared the institutions will remain closed for a prolonged period of time. That, in turn, experts say, would affect the children and senior students psychologically, leading to an increase in the dropout rate during and after the pandemic.
Adnan said anyone with minimal technical skill can use the software – in both Bangla and English. It runs through a web application so no software needs to be installed.
Accessing Durbin Classroom takes only three steps – sign up using a web browser, log in and create a class, then join the class.
There are two different modes – private mode and public mode.
In private mode, a participant can engage in conversations with everyone else enrolled in the class and the teacher. Here, students can enjoy interactive sessions with high quality audio and video. They can even record the instructor. Teachers can also upload their teaching materials to the digital library prior to a class and share documents.
The public mode is particularly useful when bandwidth is low. To ensure optimum use of low-speed internet in getting access to a class, a student will have the option to just watch and listen to the teacher.
It is like a traditional physical class where a number of students sit together but each of them only look at the teacher to follow his or her instructions.
At any time of the class and afterwards, teachers can check attendance – who has signed in, when, and whether students have attended all classes and for how long.
For senior students, there are features for evaluation, such as through assignment submissions. Teachers can set a deadline; students can see what the tasks they have been asked to complete and by when. They will not be able to submit the assignments after the deadline.
"We are trying to integrate another feature called "white board." It is in the testing phase now, and once incorporated, teachers will be able to conduct classes just as they do in physical classrooms," Adnan said.
Customised for Bangladeshi students
Adnan said the software is customised for Bangladeshi teachers and students, unlike Google Classroom or Zoom that have been designed with the needs of the North American market in mind.
Additionally, Google Classroom and Zoom require high-speed internet. A student who connects with a mobile phone cannot enjoy uninterrupted access in most instances, because of the shortcomings of the device and low bandwidth.
Free versions of Zoom, which are being used mostly by private schools in Dhaka, close sessions after 40 minutes. However, Durbin Classroom allows classes to go on for even five hours at a stretch.
Another advantage that Durbin brings to the table is branding. Institutions can arrange interactive sessions with their logos and identifications and store entire conversations in a private and secured cloud server. No outsiders will have access to it.
Durbin Labs Limited is looking to train 100 teachers for free, especially from public primary and secondary schools, from the first week of August, on how to use the platform. They will also be given free access to the platform for the next three months so they can get used to it and understand its advantages.
For further use, the authority of an institution will pay for the software and provide its teachers with access to the tool. When students log in, they will be able to see the class routine and timing plus will be able to join classes at no additional cost than the price of internet access.