The entire world is combating the SARS-CoV-2 which has spread to almost every corner of the world over the first quarter of 2020. As of May 31, the death toll crossed 3,71,023 while the total number of infections is beyond 6 million, across the world.
To control the rapid spread, many countries resorted to lockdown that resulted in an adverse impact on all areas of our daily life. In Bangladesh, the first three Covid-19 patients were identified on March 8 in the capital and as an aftermath, the country went into general shut down from March 26. Since then, people are largely staying home except for emergencies while educational institutions, most of the industries and businesses are kept shut.
Apart from the economy, one of the worst affected hits of Covid-19 is the education sector. The disease started spreading from China in February and transmission became accelerated in March. Inevitably, by that time, schools and universities across the world began to close gradually. Bangladesh closed all educational institutions from March 17 and students' residence halls were evacuated immediately. Some private universities started online classes from April whilst public institutions are largely at bay from it till now.
BioTED, as a novel training and research initiative, is engaged with students from different universities. As we closed our regular training activities on 2nd week of March and decided to continue one training programme online, we faced some challenges. Some of the students who moved out from Dhaka to their native town/village could not attend the sessions due to poor internet connectivity as well as unavailability of devices.
Moreover, we were informed that some private universities have started taking online classes and are preparing to take examinations as well. This situation intrigued us to conduct a survey on university students with a view to understanding their situation and preparedness for online classes.
Through our students' network, we conducted a quick survey where we received responses from 42 public and private universities and affiliated colleges. In three days (May 9-11), 2038 students participated in our survey where we asked some simple questions. Students from science (55%), arts and humanities (12.1%), social sciences (11.2%), business studies (12%) and other disciplines (4.7%) responded to our survey from both public (58.8%) and private (41.2%) universities.
Among them, 34% are currently located in a rural area and 66% in an urban location. Strikingly, only 23% of the students were in favour of taking online classes in this situation, while the rest 77% opposed the idea.
The underlying fact of this strong dissent becomes clear when we found only 55.3% of the students have access to a laptop, PC, or a tablet to attend an online class. It shows us 44.7% of the students cannot attend online classes due to lack of logistics. The most important factor for online classes is internet connectivity and our survey revealed that 55% of the students are not supported by proper internet connections at this moment to continue with online education. We found that 40% of the students are already attending online classes, among whom the majority (70%) are from private universities.
The most staggering figure is that 87% of students think online assessment will not be feasible and similarly, 82% believe that online classroom is not as effective as a real classroom.
The survey may not represent the actual scenario, because the sampling was not quite random. We had to conduct this survey conveniently amid this countrywide general shutdown. However, it gives us an idea about the scenario.
The most challenging aspects we found from the survey are the current location and accessibility of appropriate device and the internet. Many students moved to their rural homes where high-speed internet may not be available.
On top, not all students were able to carry their books and academic materials because they could not imagine this might go such long. Therefore, we found only 16% of the participants are engaged in their academic study and rest are spending time with TV and social media or sitting idle at-home quarantine.
The fact of not being interested in online classes gives us some clue. The foremost is internet access and the cost of the internet too. An average duration class may take 300 MB of data and if a student attends 3 classes per day he will need to spend around 1GB of data.
They may also need to watch some more videos to supplement their practical, especially for science students. In rural locations where broadband internet is not easily available, this will cost them a good sum. Many of the students may not be able to afford it. Although the smartphone is very common among students, nevertheless the smaller size is not good enough to understand online deliveries. All these facts make online classes a sheer challenge to reach out individual student scattered all over the country in this current situation.
The other big challenge is online exams. We asked students to throw their opinion and many answered that the time is a critical factor. Another important issue is exam designing.
Traditional exam format should not work because student's dishonesty cannot be checked. Online proctoring might help but its feasibility must be checked. To make online assessment a success open-book exams can be tested but whether it will work for all the disciplines is also another worry. Our academics will need to work a lot on laying an appropriate exam system.
Some students who already attended online exams opined that in current practice they are not even given sufficient time to complete their assessment as compared to classroom assessment. Another side of the story is teacher orientation. Not all the teachers are well equipped to record classes. Similarly, they need training in preparing online lectures and the utilisation of online tools. If they take classes from home, their internet connections have to be considered either.
Nowadays, Microsoft and many other developers provide efficient tools for eLearning. Unfortunately, those tools are not very much integrated into our formal university education system. We believe this is the high time to utilize and incorporate those opportunities. However, as prerequisites, availability of the digital device and required internet connection must be ensured.
Otherwise, it may fail to bring the ultimate benefit for comparatively poorer or underprivileged students. BioTED conducted this survey to bring this fact under consideration of appropriate authorities. The Covid-19 crisis may continue and the current gridlock in universities may go even longer.
Not only classes, progressing through the academic year must be ensured to reduce any potential congestion in academic sessions. Therefore, this is the right time to take pragmatic decisions. To take an appropriate decision we suggest universities, UGC and other stakeholders like the Ministry of Telecommunication who regulates internet prices, as well as service providers, sit together and go for an open dialogue hearing from the students and teachers.
Realistic solutions should come from a coordinated effort that may not be derived by hasty moves. It is imperative to mention that according to BABEIS (Bangladesh Education Statistics, 2018) there are 145 universities (public and private) in Bangladesh and the total number of students and teachers are 10, 28,314 and 29,374 respectively.
Such a huge population should be engaged in online education after careful observation and planning. We expect, in this current crisis a solution will be provided keeping the need of less privileged students in mind while keeping the possibility of community infection at bay during this pandemic.
On top, the Covid-19 challenge has given us a unique opportunity too. Our vision 2021 encompasses a digital Bangladesh which has hitherto not been possible to achieve. Overcoming the current challenge will bolster government's capacity towards achieving the goal.
To achieve this goal, government should seriously consider providing subsidy for "internet in education" alike other sectors who have received motivation during Covid-19. The subsidy will in turn develop the digital capacity in university level apart from keeping the education going, thereby enabling our universities to take similar challenges in future.
Once the model is established, it will be a very valuable lesson for replicating it in other areas such as healthcare and social security of digital Bangladesh.
Authors Involved in the Survey
Dr Muhammad Sougatul Islam, Founder and Director, BioTED
Dr Munia Amin is the Co-founder of BioTED
Muhammad Salman is the Co-founder of BioTED
KM Tanvir is a Research Assistant in BioTED