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OP-ED: A student-centric response to the pandemic

  • Published at 08:06 pm September 19th, 2020

Adapting university education to Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic took the world by storm. We, at Brac University, had to react very quickly. In the early months of 2020, the virus was still a distant threat. As I saw the multitude of our students buzzing around the university buildings in the busy area of Mohakhali, I took immediate action. 

I realized that the information about the spread of the coronavirus left everyone with many questions. I decided to invite IEDCR Director Professor Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora to a seminar on the Outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) on February 19 to discuss preventative actions and to take valid information about the virus. 

The seminar took place before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Bangladesh. To keep our community safe, we incorporated temperature checking for all building entrances and distributed hand sanitizers and masks in the weeks until the government decided to shut all educational institutions on March 16. 

Every decision that I make is based on the welfare of the students. That has been the driving factor and it will remain this way. 

The obstacles to finish the semester in the face of the Covid-19 threat were recognized as early as February. We had prepared to introduce online learning and teaching. However, after the lockdown was announced, it was evident that in-person exams would not be possible, and it was unsafe to require students who left Dhaka to travel back to attend exams. 

Online testing was problematic due to the abrupt transition to remote teaching and learning. Many students faced internet connectivity issues that needed to be tackled first. In light of all those issues, we took our first major action and ended the semester two weeks early; this was only reasonable under Covid-19 circumstances. 

The second action we took was the launch of the Student Assistance Fund for the summer semester 2020. For the summer term, initially, Tk15 crore ($1.8 million) was committed for the fund in the summer. That sum was adjusted to Tk23 crores ($2.7 million). Every student received full non-tuition fee waivers and 10% tuition scholarships. Some received more than 10% and up to 100%.  

I initiated the Student Assistance Fund to reach those most affected by the crisis. This targeted approach added to staff workload but helped us ensure that the resources went to those in greatest need.  

Now, as the fall semester is approaching, the pandemic remains a challenge, with the additional impacts of super cyclone Amphan and the flooding in July. So I have decided to pool funds to keep the Student Assistance Fund running, although the university faces very tight financial constraints. It is important that we continue to support our students and we have gained valuable experience running a large Student Assistance Fund.

Our third major action was the development of Brac University’s online learning platform buX. It would have been easy to buy ready-made software or keep using Zoom and Google hangouts to teach online. That would have neglected the difficulties facing students and faculty through the pandemic.  

The development of a platform that fits the specific needs of Bangladesh, including low bandwidth in remote areas, was a student-centric response. It enabled all students to have access to the university’s teaching resources. Remote learning with buX ensures learning wherever students are and whatever their level of internet connectivity. It makes the remote experience interactive and lively. 

The students can study at their own pace, which compensates for the additional stress everyone faces during the pandemic. We are continuing to develop buX in the light of student and staff experience.

buX is the heart of “Brac University X,” our new virtual campus. It is also a direction sign for the future. The world is changing rapidly and thankfully the internet enables us to adjust relatively easy. It also opens up new opportunities for higher education. Brac University was never afraid of unknown territory and has reinvented itself over 1.5 years into a student-centric university with international standards. The Covid-19 pandemic is a challenge, but one we confidently accept. 

Vincent Chang is Vice Chancellor, Brac University.

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