The year was 1665. A plague epidemic was ravaging England, and a student returned home from Cambridge University due to a 'social distancing' order. While in isolation, he discovered the theories of Gravity and Motion and also developed Calculus. That student was Isaac Newton.
Newton's towering achievement was an exception. Unfortunately, pandemics usually cause setbacks to education and our knowledge instead of advancing them.
1.59 billion students worldwide, and 1.2 million university students in Bangladesh are facing a study gap due to the pandemic. Most public and private universities in Bangladesh have eliminated the dreaded 'session jams', but due to the lockdowns, students face the bleak prospect of session jams again. The situation is so dire that UNESCO has called it an "unprecedented education emergency."
Online learning can be a solution to this problem. Such online learning requires facilities and infrastructure at the universities, a robust data infrastructure at the national level, and computing devices as well as sufficient and affordable data services for the students. Currently, very little concrete data exists to help understand whether those requirements can be satisfied.
Previous research on pandemics shows that higher economic and social damage was caused by prolonged school closing. Bangladesh will have fewer graduates, fewer teachers, doctors, engineers, and other professionals by the time the pandemic is over and will face such costs.
In this situation, online learning seems like an obvious choice. However, the University Grants Commission has issued contradictory directives- firstly allowing online classes on March 23rd, and then ordering on April 4th that all online testing and assessments be stopped. UGC later reversed its decision and allowed private universities to hold online tests subject to certain conditions.
Additional questions arise: is online education practical, affordable, or even feasible? Are the students enjoying an unexpected vacation, or are they worried about the study gap? Are they interested in online classes? Do the universities have sufficient resources? Are the professors trained to take online courses? To find the answer to these questions, the authors interviewed 83 university professors, an online survey was also conducted among 695 students from the private and public university.
60% of the students responded that they are not worried about the study gap, and 22% responded that were concerned. 47% are interested in taking courses online. This indicates that even among those who are not worried about the study gap, there is interest in online learning. When asked about computing devices, less than one-third responded that they have a computer, which is essential at the university level to write assignments and submit them. Slightly more than 1% of the students responded that they had neither a computer nor a smartphone, which would make any online learning impossible for them.
Broadband connectivity would be helpful but not necessary for online classes delivered via video conferencing if students use mobile data on their smartphones or other computing devices. If the online classes are limited to asynchronous delivery of content such as PDF files to be downloaded and studied by the students and subsequently assignments are uploaded to be graded by a faculty member, then mobile data may be sufficient.
In the survey, 34% indicated that they have access to mobile data only, while 63% indicated that they have access to broadband. 3% of respondents indicated that they have access to neither broadband nor mobile data. Similar to the access to the computing device, access to network connectivity would be an absolute necessity for online classes to be useful to the students. Lastly, 78% of the students responded that they consider the price of data to be too high, and a whopping 92% indicated that they would like to have cheaper data and desired government intervention.
A 'digital divide' is defined as the gap that exists between individuals who have access to modern information and communication technology and those who do not. The results from the survey paint a very clear picture: the lack of computing devices, lack of data or the high price of data creates a digital divide, that would make a fair and equitable online lessons an impossibility.
On the other side of the equation, 80% of the surveyed faculty members indicated that they were willing to teach online classes, but, 60% of the respondents indicated that their university currently does not have sufficient technical resources needed for successful online classes. Therefore, it is not surprising that over 78% of the professors indicated that they were willing to use free video solutions such as Facebook Live or WhatsApp to deliver their classes. Faculty opinion also paints a picture of a digital divide. When asked if they thought if students have sufficient technological resources to participate in online courses, 73% indicated that they did not think so.
Thus we are faced with two concrete facts: a digital divide exists among students, and universities do not have sufficient resources. To address this, we propose the following:
- Students without computers should be loaned laptops or money to buy the same. The laptops shall be funded by government grants and become university property when the need is over.
- The government and universities should work with mobile operators to offer cheap data to students. This can be done under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program of the mobile operators and would not require any additional expenditure.
- Additionally, the course content should become mobile-optimized so presentations are legible when viewed on smartphones, and assignments should be formed in a way so they may be completed on mobile phones.
Letting students fall behind harms the nation, just as losing crops to flooding do. Therefore, we should work together to bridge the digital divide and ensure our students finish their studies on time so they may serve the motherland and the world.
Javed Ikbal is an adjunct professor at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, USA and Shafia Shama is a graduate student enrolled in the Masters of Development Studies program at BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.