The Covid-19 pandemic has brought a sudden, tumultuous, and radical transformation in the education sector of Bangladesh.
On-campus classes at universities, schools, and colleges have been closed since mid-March. This prolonged countrywide shutdown of educational institutions has created worries about session jams and the future of our students.
As a loss control policy, launching online education was an emergency response. The University Grants Commission (UGC) took praiseworthy steps to begin online classes for the betterment of our future generation which embarked on a new journey of adjusting to a novel method of teaching.
Traditional in-person classroom learning is now being complemented with new learning modalities from live broadcasts to virtual reality experiences through television, radio, and social media platforms i.e., Google classroom, Google meet, Zoom, Facebook, etc.
Even at the government school level, the country's Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE) initiated broadcasting pre-recorded secondary level school lessons with the help of Access to Information (a2i) to help the school children continue their learning during the pandemic.
Although most of the students in Bangladesh are now undertaking online classes, it has lots of pitfalls for the learners.
The most common problem is Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS). CVS happens when somebody focuses their eyes on a computer or other display device for long uninterrupted periods. The eye's muscles are then unable to recover from the constant tension required to maintain focus on a close object.
According to ophthalmologists, excessive screen time can create obesity, attention problems, and sleep disorders. Likewise, spending too many hours staring at a screen can lead to eye fatigue, dry and irritated eyes, loss of focus flexibility, near-sightedness, retinal damages etc.
Dr Sindhu H Thota, an ophthalmologist, is currently doing her research in the USA. Sindhu talks about the deep and negative effects of online classes. She stated that when children use computers, their eyes have to focus and refocus all the time. Their eyes react to images that are continually moving, shifting focus, and changing.
These send rapidly varying images to the brain. All these require a lot of effort from their eye muscles. To make things worse, the screen has contrast, flicker, and glare.
They tend to blink far less frequently when using a computer or mobile. It causes the eyes to dry out and blur vision periodically while working. It also causes eye strain and discomfort.
Doctors say that there might be long and short-term problems for the children. Headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and fatigue are the most common problems, but doctors also fear about the risk of myopia, an eye condition that causes near-sightedness, may go up as life has turned completely virtual.
According to a 2016 study by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, nearly 4,758 million people (49.8% of the world population) worldwide might be affected by myopia by 2050.
Harvard Medical School researchers have affirmed that much use of computers and smartphones that release blue light can disrupt sleep patterns by suppressing the secretion of the hormone melatonin.
Once sleep patterns are disturbed, students and teachers are prone to physical illness easily.
I have surveyed students and teachers about the problems of online education. My sample size was 50 participants from five universities, two colleges, and two schools. Out of 50 participants, 98% said that a long period of the online class can be tiring both physically and mentally.
Mahamudul Hasan, an assistant professor at Patuakhali Science and Technology University, said that recently he has faced his eyes drying out and blurred vision problem from long hours of online classes.
Moreover, he has felt intense headache after staring for a long time at the computer screen while preparing study materials.
He has already consulted with an ophthalmologist who suggested him to cut down on his screen time.
Kashfia Kamal, a student of the School of Business at Independent University, Bangladesh, stated that she has suddenly noticed drastic changes in her eyesight, focusing, and also her sleep schedule right after she increased her screen time.
She has started taking medication for dry eyes and also for the sleep disorder which has been hampering her lifestyle as well.
Md Abdullah, a student at Notre Dame College, is suffering from acute headache after three hours of online classes and studying online for five hours.
He gets exhausted after completion of the class, according to his mother Alo Chhaya who is now confused about the online classes.
Shayan Islam, a student of class one at Bangladesh International Tutorial School, is suffering from eyestrain after three hours of online classes.
His father Md Saiful Islam said that the duration of the online classes needs to be shortened.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) daily screen time guidelines for children and infants, infants should not get any gadgets while children between the ages of one and five should spend no more than one hour daily staring at devices.
The WHO does not provide specific limits for older children, but some researchers suggested that excessive screen time for teenagers could be linked to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression and eyesight problems.
A recent study in the journal Lancet Child and Adolescent Health found kids who spent more than two hours a day of screen time performed worse in cognitive tests compared to peers who spent less time. These cognitive skills included memory, processing speed, language, and attention span.
To solve this problem, doctors prescribe redesigning existing modules of virtual learning sessions so that eyes get rest. The American Optometric Association recommends the 20-20-20 rule, which requires one to take 20 seconds to look at something at least 20 feet away after every 20 minutes of screen time. This lets the eyes get some rest and then get into the neutral state.
Experts say that proper rest to the eyes and its muscles is needed to relieve the associated eye strain. They also suggested getting an adequate night's sleep.
In line with these recommendations, it is high time the government, the Ministry of Education, and the UGC should set the standard of online education, taking in consideration the welfare of our future generation instead of hasty return to on-campus class.
The author is Assistant Professor, School of Business, Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology (AUST).