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OP-ED: Can education help reduce inequality during the pandemic?

  • Published at 09:24 pm August 6th, 2020
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Why remote education is not reaching everyone

As the pandemic goes on, it has affected all parts of daily life. One of the worst victims of this, unfortunately, has been the student population. All 200,000 schools in Bangladesh are closed. Board exams have been cancelled, and there seems to be no sign of schools opening up soon. Amid this, most of the schools in the country have switched to online education, but the feasibility of this mode of education is in question.

To ask why online education isn’t sustainable is that only 60% of the country has access to the internet with a minority having access to stable wi-fi. Most people access the internet by buying mobile data. The major method online classes are being conducted are through video platforms such as Zoom or Google Meet, programs which require a large amount of data and, hence, make it expensive for data users. The poor infrastructure usually means connection issues are common, especially for children in hilly or remote areas.

However, let us put that aside and for argument’s sake, say that yes, everyone somehow has access to a stable internet, will that solve our problem? Unfortunately, the answer is no. First, you require an electronic device which for the average Bangladeshi is expensive.

Most people have to resort to smartphones, but the problem arises when a family has multiple children of different ages but only one device. This may lead to issues such as gender imbalance where a family may feel that the son’s education is of greater priority, and hence give him the device instead of the daughter.

Second, most of the teachers in our country are not ready for this transition to online education. The entry idea of online schooling is foreign to them and based on a lack of a proper training and support system, making them unqualified from an IT perspective.

As a result, schools in which most students hail from lower socio-economic backgrounds or rural areas will suffer. Schools with lots of resources and tech-savvy teachers in urban areas will easily surpass schools which lack these resources, widening the gap between the privileged schools in the nation and state-owned schools even further.

In a country that already struggles with income inequality, can we afford to take steps which will increase the risk of socio-economic disparity even further for the future generation? If equal opportunity qualitative education is not provided due to the pandemic, will it not serve as a bigger incentive for younger people to drop out?

Thus comes the responsibility of the government to step in and reduce this disparity and ensure qualitative education for all. Providing proper education for all is the only tool to reduce poverty and inequality and the one tool that the government should optimally use in its full capacity. One way the government can achieve this is by allowing education at home through nationwide dedicated TV channels following a standardized curriculum.

Currently, the government along with Unicef has been broadcasting recorded lectures for students from pre-primary to secondary education through Sangsad Bangladesh Television. However, attendance has not been the best, and no televised class has taken place since May 30.

The first problem arises from the fact that the lessons conducted with Sangsad television are in English or standard Bangla. This has been a barrier to children of different ethnic groups around the country, or even children from different localities with unique dialects.

Using Sangsad TV is another issue. It is a cable channel. In a country where many televisions do not have access to cable lines, Sangsad TV is not accessible to all.

Multiple channels

What the government can do is set up multiple TV channels based on syllabuses and knowledge-based education for all classes -- primary to secondary. Each channel can be catered to a particular demographic. Bringing in separate class timings can avoid a clash so that siblings of different grades can do classes smoothly. Proper quality should also be a priority to increase the concentration of students.

Making optimal use of BTV is another option. The government can conduct classes through BTV, a terrestrial channel which does not require cable lines. To increase awareness, communication schedules continuously and widely using every available media including television, radio, and websites of education ministries and education television networks (eg, Korea).

Local schools can update parents through SMS or WhatsApp to remind their children about classes and daily schedules to ensure they maintain proper attendance.

Lectures can be uploaded later on YouTube or government websites to allow those who can access later to do so. There should also be efforts to ensure teachers from local schools reach out to their students to certify they are not having any problems dealing with the syllabus and to monitor their work.

Education through television can also be done in a fun way. Inclusive content designed to target children about specific lessons can achieve a lot, with the principal example being the Unicef-sponsored cartoon Meena, which has had an enormous impact on feminism, menstrual hygiene, mental health, and environmentalism in the country.

A teacher’s monotonous lecture can bore students, especially younger ones. Fun and inclusive content can play an integral role in ensuring concentration and active participation of the students. For long, the disparity in education between the masses of the country has grown, those who live in urban areas and can afford private education have leapt bounds ahead of those relying on state-provided education especially in rural and remote areas.

Covid-19 has only amplified this, it is those private schools which are successfully being able to integrate technology to move on with their syllabus while children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are being left behind.

Children are our future. It is the state’s responsibility as mandated by the constitution that all children receive equal education. To achieve the dream of a prosperous Bangladesh, we must not alienate the large number of young people who will be our future workers and tax-payers.

Faraz Mohiuddin Choudhury is a freelance contributor

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