With students and teachers in lockdown, how can we ensure learning does not suffer?
The past few months have been a whirlwind of anticipation, frustration, and uncertainty over the global outbreak of the infectious coronavirus. What had been speculated as a mere case of flu in one country has spread throughout the globe like wildfire in just a matter of a few months, taking the shape of a pandemic.
Therefore, the only option left to limit the spread of the virus came down to a strict lockdown on all social, economic, and educational activities, prompting factories, shops, offices, and schools to shut down for an indefinite period of time.
Although such measures of social distancing are indispensable to limit the spread of the virus and save lives, we cannot deny the impact that this outbreak will have on the world. While we follow all medical advice and listen to the plans to save the economy, an oft-ignored aspect of the lockdown is education.
As education plays a huge role in driving positive changes in society, along with the creation of employment opportunities, it is important for us to ensure an alternative response to dispense a safe and consistent way of learning. After all, much of our economic growth is underpinned by increased formal and informal education in all sectors, from farming to software.
Following the announcement of the shutdown of all schools and academic institutions by the Education Ministry of Bangladesh, a state of anxiety and uncertainty fell over the young generation; especially among the HSC candidates who were to sit for their board examination from April 1.
Along with that, final exams in all schools and universities have been postponed and are said to be rescheduled. With the situation worsening, there is a possibility for the authorities to extend the lockdown, prompting session jams and delays in important exams.
It also puts job seekers in an apprehensive state as the preliminary exam for the 41st BCS exams is most likely to be postponed. If the current 2 million students from the young generation and from different socio-economic backgrounds are out of touch with education for a prolonged period, what will happen to the future of the nation? What facilities are we providing in order to help these students at this time of crisis? Are these facilities efficient enough?
In order to answer these questions, we have to understand the immediate challenges that the students are facing due to the outbreak, and analyze the efficacy of the ongoing process to come up with some innovative solutions. With normal classes at a halt, the government has urged the schools and university authorities of all educational institutes to conduct virtual classes through various digital platforms.
Teachers are taking classes via the Zoom application, Facebook Live, Google Classroom, etc. Moreover, the government is broadcasting subject-wise classes for primary and secondary school-level students on BTV World (Shangshad TV) and is building websites to offer free education so that students can easily access it from home.
Meanwhile, some education influencers are producing relevant content on social media to help the students confined at home. However, though online classes and digital learning have had a positive stimulus amongst the technologically privileged students, the venture to retain the flow of education has not been the same for everyone. Every system has its shortcomings and it is necessary to address them.
It lacks infrastructure
First of all, the process lacks a definite infrastructure, as educational institutions already taking online classes are not doing so under any specific guidelines. Without proper instructions from respective authorities, both students and the teachers are finding themselves in a state of confusion.
Initially, many teachers were quick to adapt to an online system and many parents tried to be as supportive as possible at home. However, each institution had mixed policies on their assignments and how to prepare for the final exams. This frustrated many teachers and students, but also frustrated the parents, who were not able to help their children with adequate knowledge, time, or digital logistics.
The aforementioned situation led UGC to declare a ban of all kinds of online exams and for final exams to be taken after the situation improves.
It is not interactive enough
Secondly, with limited time at hand and lack of tools or equipment, the classes are not proving to be as interactive as those in physical classrooms. The teachers are online for a few hours in the day, in which all the subjects are being taught. This hardly gives the students any time to understand the subjects thoroughly.
Furthermore, television classes do not have a way of ensuring the understanding of the students. This is more problematic for students of science and engineering who require a lab or a studio to conduct their studies.
It is creating a digital divide
Most importantly, this method of continuing education through media and other digital platforms is discriminatory, as less than 40% of the youth of Bangladesh have access to the internet.
The students right now require resources like desktops, laptops, smartphones, and a stable internet connection. Other than that, one has to invest in mobile data in order to attend these digital classes, which might not be easy for many of the students belonging to a lower, lower-middle class background or people living in rural areas.
Due to the lack of logistical support, most public university students are not able to take online classes. Moreover, the huge number of students in each department makes it more difficult. We have been unfortunate that Bangladesh spends less than 2% of its GDP on the education sector, whereas there has been a demand to increase the allocation to 5%.
Nevertheless, given the present circumstances and in order to continue with education during this crisis period, I believe that we can focus on the following strategies to mitigate some of the problems of inequality in education.
1. Primarily, in order to make online classes worthwhile for the students, the Education Ministry along with other academic authorities should draw a definite guideline for how the academic activities should run during these tough times.
2. A separate “Syllabus for emergencies” can be crafted so that students no longer feel directionless. Collective and quality content need to be created, which can offer classes and exercises for the students as per their grades.
3. In order to ensure effective learning, digitized classes need to be more engaging. Already, we have reservations that our education system needs to be more analytical and less based on memorization. So, academic authorities must provide the teachers with some guidelines for conducting interactive online classes.
4. By creating an atmosphere to answer students’ queries, the teachers can assess the success of the classes. On the other hand, television classes can be made more engaging by introducing free calls and messages for students, which can create an interaction between the students and the teachers.
5. For the students who are restricted to learning from BTV, they also need to be offered classes on how to perform physical exercises by staying at home, which is fundamental to a healthy body.
6. Many countries around the world are making great progress in delivering quality education through technology. We need to create a lot of digital interactive educational content and at the same time, we can provide free bandwidth to teachers and students during certain times of the day.
7. We can even provide free data access to particular education websites which have approved content. The radio can also be used as a medium for sharing educational information.
8. However, it is most important to also train the instructors on how to teach online in an effective manner.
These are some of the stopgap solutions that can only be implemented through the joint contribution of the various stakeholders like the government, education professionals, technology providers, telecom agencies, civil society, and NGOs.
If we can build resilience and confidence among the youngsters by containing the present situation and developing an effective virtual education system, we can be prepared to tackle the long-term effects of this and future pandemics.
I know we cannot make any immediate decisions on issues of education; however, it is important that we at least have in-depth discussions on this topic and its longterm implications.
Nevertheless, I urge students to not lose hope and believe that there are many silent heroes who are doing their best to develop a suitable alternative to the old way.
Tabith Awal was a mayoral candidate for Dhaka North.