There is no readymade solution on our hands
The international crisis caused by Covid-19 has impacted every facet of society and has resulted in many crises in how services can now be safely delivered. Our educational system was suddenly stopped in its tracks when schools and colleges were forced to close.
Therefore, whether to introduce distance online learning or not is no longer a hot potato but a crying need if we want to keep the flow of teaching and learning.
It’s not a choice but a necessity for now. Distance online learning has already been introduced at some levels so that we don’t miss out on lessons. But to make it work well for the benefits of all students from different financial backgrounds, there are several things that need to be looked at carefully.
Televised classes have already been introduced by the government. Radio-based classrooms are also supposed to be started soon. Dhaka University, faced with unprecedented challenges and countless unknowns, has also switched to online classes.
All these initiatives have to be lauded. But if we ponder carefully over some facts, we will realize that students who benefit from online classes are few and far between. It has created a fissure between rich and poor students.
First comes the issue of ICT infrastructure. When people talk about online classes and distance learning, it is easy to imagine a one size fits all, that all students have home offices equipped with the latest technology.
Nothing could be further from the truth for some students. The reality for many is a crowded house with no connectivity and a simple phone as the connecting device.
A recent report published in Dhaka Tribune shows that only 3,600 out of 143,000 schools had ICT infrastructures back in 2010, but from 2011 to 2019, more than 4,500 multimedia classrooms were established across the country.
While acknowledging this growth in the technological capabilities of schools, it does not solve the poor capacity of rural students to access distance education. A great fear for many is how they will cope in the event that online exams are scheduled.
Second comes the issue of internet signal. It goes without saying that the internet connection is very shoddy in rural areas and to get a better connection, many students have no alternative but to go out to open fields. But we all know that a comfortable environment is required to absorb the lessons well. Therefore, only rich students equipped with modern technologies and Wi-fi are getting the upper hand in this regard.
Third, internet cost is a big issue. The government has imposed additional value added tax ( VAT ) on telecom operating companies in the budget for the fiscal year 2021.
This can have a detrimental impact greatly on many children as their parents will consider it an extra burden. Already many children are being sent to work due to the uncertainty as to when the class will resume.
Parents are also marrying their daughters off at an early age. This will impact their health, increasing mortality rate during childbirth. In such families, providing money for data purchasing is seen as an intangible luxury.
Like many other sectors we have had some big achievements in the education sector. Reducing gender gap in accessing primary education, providing free textbooks at primary and secondary level, expanding stipends for students, and increasing teacher-student ratio are noteworthy achievements, but we have yet many promises to keep and miles to go in order to be a developed country by 2041.
The education 2030 framework of actions advises to allocate 5-6% of GDP and 15-20% of total public expenditure for the education sector. We are lagging behind adequate allocation in the education sector. There are many other actions that can engage more students in distance education.
Universities should, for example, contribute towards internet costs and buying technologies required to attend online classes. Teachers should cast their informed eyes on students and contact parents on a regular basis to ensure that no one drops out.
Teachers should provide reading materials that are easy to download and can be used offline. Teachers’ ability to teach effectively using the latest technologies should also be enhanced through targeted training.
There is no readymade solution on our hands. However, there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Out of these crises, we must try to devise new systems, implement strategies, and invent technologies. Doing so accordingly will help the generations to come and they will thank us for planning to bridge the current shortfalls and leaving a better world for them.
Inamul Kobir is a recent graduate in Political Science from the University of Dhaka.