'Society has to decide how much you want to invest in grooming connectivity'
Lack of high volume internet access needed for online classes is an impediment to e-learning in Bangladesh, educationists and experts say.
Panelists from home and abroad expressed their views addressing a webinar on the legitimacy of online classes and whether the opportunities are available.
The Dhaka University Central Students’ Union (Ducsu), in collaboration with Dhaka Tribune, arranged a virtual discussion titled “Transitioning to e-learning: Higher Education in the Global South” on Monday night.
Dr Justin Reich, director of MIT Teaching Systems Lab, remarked that the access issue is more of a political problem than a technical problem.
“Society has to decide how much you want to invest in grooming connectivity. There are lots of places in the US as well without access connectivity,” he said.
He added: “Schools can give away computer persuasion packages. They can make available mobile data and hot spots as part of persuasion packages costs paid for by the universities.”
He hinted that the federal government or the state has the responsibility to ensure access and suggested subsidies for poor families.
“We don’t need every faculty member to be good at figuring out all aspects of online teaching. So hire specialists to deal with the technological issues where one technical hand can support and assist 20-25 teachers,” Justin added.
He also suggested using local television channels and having separate hours for different age groups.
“We have seen a triumph of all technologies. There are lots of places, particularly in the global south, where you cannot depend on e-learning, though the process has been popular in western countries for many years now.
“Older models are what open universities in the UK or India follow. At first they set a curriculum model and at the beginning of the course the authorities send a bundle of printed materials mailed through the postal services,” the director of MIT Teaching Lab said.
ASM Maksud Kamal, president of Dhaka University Teachers’ Association and professor at the department of disaster science and management, referred to a projection that around 90% of respondents in a study thought they would be able to take part in online classes.
Also, around 35% of DU students are somehow lagging behind in gaining uninterrupted online access. They also have financial constraints as well, because of living in rural areas.
He said: “We need to use the opportunity of a pandemic which will become a culture of our educational system. We have to go forward with holding e-learning classes which can be practiced after the shutdown ends.”
A separate web portal development is necessary in this regard, he added.
“These online class systems can be used later for evening classes (commercial courses) of public universities, so that we can pave the way for our regular students in a wider inclusion and provide them proper room for their studies,” said Maksud, dean of the Faculty of Earth and Environmental Sciences.
“Income from evening courses can be used to develop a system to provide e-learning materials as well as online classes,” he continued.
Dr Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, professor of economics at Yale University in the US, suggested public universities of Bangladesh conduct classes physically for the underprivileged.
Referring to what Prof Maksud Kamal said earlier, Dr Ahmed said: “They will continue doing classes from home until the pandemic ends.”
He said: “As I have taken classes at Dhaka University, I have seen very big and beautiful lecture galleries. Those who are unable to access technology can take part physically in the classrooms, maintaining social distancing [because more people are attending the class online]."
Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury Nowfel, deputy education minister of Bangladesh, stressed ensuring that teachers at the universities are carrying out their responsibilities.
He said: “In other countries, universities have been availing e-learning opportunities for many years even when they had regular classes. Our universities also had the opportunity to develop that earlier when things were normal.
“We, the ministry, don’t interfere with their systems as the public universities are run by separate university orders [Example: the DU Order, 1973]. So it should be the respective universities’ call. Access is less in our public universities and is unique compared to other universities in the world,” he added.
“An online class system is not a holy grail,” the minister added.
“90% of the students in the country from Primary to Higher Secondary level have access to television. We are conducting classes on our parliamentary channel at this time.”
“There is inequality in higher education in terms of operating systems at private and public educational institutions. We have to accommodate regulations that will enable them,” he continued.
Bangladesh now has to invest in e-learning, he suggested.
Conducting the session, Ducsu Assistant General Secretary Md Saddam Hussain said there is no real basis for online classes at this point. He said: “We don’t want it as many of the under privileged will be deprived [of this facility.”
Ducsu International Affairs Secretary Shahrima Tanjina Arni was also present at the session.