Technology has the potential to increase access to education, enhance learning experiences, and reduce the cost of schooling.
At least that is what we believed before the pandemic.
Bangladesh is not an ideal example when we talk about countries that handled the virus well. It took us 87 days to reach the first 50,000 cases. Then only 16 more to hit the 100,000 benchmark. The number as of today almost 400,000.
With these sort of numbers, it is quite evident that the virus is not going away soon.
We are already in a place where the world has shifted to screens and video calls to continue the academic calendar. However, it is evident that this was not thought through deeply at the start when the pandemic suddenly forced us to move our entire academic model online.
Although this shift may have arguably worked for many countries, unfortunately, we cannot say the same about us. After months into online classes, we asked 400 college and university students what they thought of their new classrooms. Only 32% of the students found the classes to be effective.
To put that into perspective, out of every five students, only two found the classes to be somewhat useful.
From this disparity, it is safe to deduce that our country has not been able to deliver the quality of classes it promised to deliver.
So, what went wrong? When asked about the problems, this is what the surveyed students had to say:
Students from a weak financial background had this problem in common: they don't have, or they cannot afford the proper electronic devices (smartphone, laptop, etc.) required to attend online programs.
Another added problem to this are expensive mobile data packages, as most of the students from this background don't have an internet connection at home.
Given that 20% of the population is living below the poverty line and more than 16 million new people were added to this list due to Covid-19 fallout (according to a study conducted by Binayak Sen, Research Director of BIDS), this unaffordability problem is something we should've seen from a mile away.
Remote class is an alien idea to us. A considerable number of students and faculty members are not familiar with the technology that concerns online classrooms, which brought us to a point where the classes became less productive than physical classes.
Slow Internet and load-shedding:
With institutions now closed, the students who lived in dorms or hostels have gone back to their home. In most of the cases, their home is either in rural areas or outside the city.
It might be hard for the people living in the city to realise how substandard the network speed is in those rural areas compared to where they live. Problems students face due to a slow internet connection include frequent disconnections from the class, voices breaking up, not being able to get in at all, etc.
Furthermore, electricity has never been a plus point in Bangladesh. The frequent load-shedding make it difficult for the students to attend classes, finish exams or submit assignments.
The biggest burden that comes with exams taken online is the fairness of it. To a certain degree, the exams are exposed to different acts of plagiarism, which raises questions regarding its credibility. This point speaks for itself as we see a spike in the recent grades that has led to the general public being sceptical of the new system.
While online classes may not be the best alternative to continue the academic year, we believe it can be improved.
Firstly, we recognise how a large number of faculty members and students are unfamiliar or have very little expertise with the technology that concerns online classrooms.
In this case, an introductory video on how to work with Zoom, Google classrooms or any similar platform should be provided by either the Ministry of Education, student university bodies or the faculty of respective universities. This way both the students and teachers could utilise their experience in a much more efficient way.
Secondly, we have noticed how the internet was hard to access and a lot of students did not have a proper electronic device to join the classes. We believe the government with the collaboration of universities can come up with an interest-free loan system to provide these for the students. We already see some universities adopting this system.
Also, students from private universities demand that there should be a change in the tuition fee as online classes do not cost as much as in-person classes. We believe private universities should come forward and lower the tuition fees as the country is going through an economic turmoil.
Assuming that the telecom companies can still pay all their employees, they can come up with cheap packages or a per-day free internet deal for the students. Some mobile operators have already introduced more affordable data packages in this pandemic.
As for the exams, in situations like this, where an invigilator is not present to verify the credibility of the exam, open book question papers have proved to be effective. Another approach could be having multiple question papers. We believe dividing a class into different sections where a set of questions will be allocated to each section individually could prove to be a better alternative than the model we see today.
The data we received from the survey suggest that online classes are generally not as practical as it was expected to be. Right now, virtual courses are allowing students to interact with teachers in ways that would have been impossible if an epidemic had closed schools even a decade or two earlier. So, we may be sceptical of online learning, but it is in our best interests that we accept the idea and work on it.
Shoaib Mahmudul Haque, Freshman, Department of Population Science, University of Dhaka
Malik Araf, Freshman, Department of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia