Until very recently, I had no idea that Bangladesh’s higher education regulator -- the University Grants Commission (UGC) -- did not allow a university to deliver a credit-bearing course entirely online.
Sure, many universities, especially some of the bigger private ones, use one of several learning management platforms to augment traditional brick and mortar pedagogy, but that is about the farthest it can go without an affirmative change in regulations.
Even the two key portals of distance education at the post-secondary level, the National University and Bangladesh Open University, do not have fully online degree programs at this time.
In the 21st century, such a state of affairs is bizarre at best. In the United States, one out of every seven university level students is enrolled in completely online programs and the trends are similar on both sides of the Atlantic.
If anything, the need is far greater in a place like Bangladesh, where costs of urban dormitory living for rural students, utter traffic congestion in the major metropolises, and the continuing social conservatism vis-à-vis women should be compelling factors in scaling up fully online degree programs with quality commensurate with similar programs built around lecture halls.
Quality is a concern, no question about it. Given our social mores, issues of assessment integrity and equitable faculty focus are bound to arise. Yet, even as I write, tools are available to combat academic dishonesty online, while protocols are in place in many universities that balance the teacher workload between lecture hall and online class formats.
The issue of perception is also addressed by having not only the absolute same curriculum followed in both the traditional and online format of a course, but also making sure that no distinction is made in transcribing those courses on a mark sheet or diploma, thus avoiding potential discrimination.
The need is far greater in a place like Bangladesh, where costs of urban dormitory living for rural students and the continuing social conservatism vis-à-vis women should be compelling factors in scaling up fully online degree programs
There is no reason to discriminate anyway, anymore that is. A large sample study by MIT’s Professor David Pritchard published in 2014 in The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning found that the actual learning in traditional classrooms and in online classes has no measurable difference in its effectiveness.
This is largely due to the rigour of a traditional curriculum and its attendant assessment being translated with the same level of quality in the online learning sphere. It is not always easy and there are costs; but it can be done with the ever new toolkit of technologies coming to the fore; and, more important, the return on investment for a country like Bangladesh could be quite high.
A quality online course of study leading to a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree would allow many working adults and homemakers opportunities that they fail to avail today; to the country, it would give the gift of more people who are better skilled to contribute to the national economy at a higher level; and to the environment, the blessing of having slightly fewer people commuting to universities on already clogged roads would be priceless.
None of this is to suggest that tomorrow everyone should be enrolled in an online BA or BSc of their choice. Far from it.
Common sense indicates that some programs and courses of study -- business, education, social sciences, and humanities -- are better suited for online education than others which involve a heavy complement of lab work or field study.
Nor is an online degree program equally good for everyone; there are small scale studies to suggest that working adults who are motivated are much better prepared for this endeavour than the traditional 18 to 20-year-olds entering the university level fresh from the high school level.
Fundamentally, the online option is much better for people already having a goal in mind, self-driven, and not easily distracted by ancillary things in life (and, of course, in possession of a reliable, broadband internet connection at home).
A small scale start in this area is worth doing. Even a tradition-bound UGC -- which, with all due respect, is made up of career bureaucrats rather than innovative educators -- should consider allowing some universities to pilot some portions of some degree programs in cyberspace.
Experimenting, innovating, scaling up, or scaling down with the feedback received … isn’t that what science and education should be about?
Try it out. Who knows? For a Digital Bangladesh, a digital education may even work out well.
Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.