This year, the ministry of education introduced a new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) subject at the HSC-level and made it compulsory for all students. The syllabus itself is excellent; it covers a simple introduction to web page design in HTML, followed by extensive topics in the much more challenging C programming and SQL database programming languages.
Unfortunately, in its enthusiasm to incorporate the dream of a Digital Bangladesh in the HSC syllabus, the relevant government officials have overlooked the limitations faced by the majority of students.
First of all, it should be noted that C programming and SQL database programming languages are usually only encountered abroad at the university-level, and only by students who have successfully completed high school science and mathematics.
That’s because these programming languages are complex subjects, suitable only for science students with mathematical aptitude. It is unrealistic to expect arts and commerce students to cope with these topics.
In Bangladesh, there is already a strong cultural preference for science as the route to a secure career in medicine and engineering. In general, students who have opted for arts and commerce tracks have done so because they lacked mathematical aptitude, as witnessed by the high proportion of students who fail mathematics at SSC and HSC.
By making C and SQL programming compulsory to all those arts and science students who already face great difficulty passing regular mathematics, the Ministry of Education has only put a needless hurdle in the path of the majority of students.
Most non-science HSC students will not be able to pass the university-level programming syllabus, which has now been made compulsory for them. The obvious solution is to make the ICT syllabus compulsory only for science students.
Another major problem is related to cost of computer hardware. Learning C and SQL programming requires spending long hours in front of a computer. The reality is that students need a computer at home if they are to learn C and SQL programming. This is the real reason why even most wealthy countries don’t make computer science compulsory before university; even in wealthy countries, poor families don’t own computers.
Making computer programming a compulsory subject thus effectively discriminates against the poor. The cost of conventional PC hardware is around Tk25,000, far beyond the reach of poor families in Bangladesh.
The only real solution at the moment is to make the HSC ICT subject optional for everyone, as the majority of poor rural students will be unable to afford a computer and will find themselves at an extreme disadvantage compared to wealthier students in cities.
This will only be solved by universal distribution of low-cost computers like the $35 Raspberry Pi (www.raspberrypi.org), which has been created particularly for the education market.
There is a further problem with the ICT subject, namely, the legal issue of software licenses. Although the syllabus has been carefully designed to not include the names of any proprietary software, the board-approved textbooks all assume that the syllabus will be fulfilled using Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office/Access. However, the cost of buying this software is around Tk50,000 per computer, or about twice the price of the PC hardware.
This is too expensive for both schools and students. The solution is to create a new HSC ICT textbook to complete the syllabus using free and open-source software such as Linux and LibreOffice. Writing such a textbook is simple, and will be completed soon by local Bangladeshi Linux/open-source organisations.
In fact, low-cost devices, such as the Raspberry Pi mentioned above, are only able to run free/open-source operating systems such as Linux. So approval of a Linux/LibreOffice-based ICT HSC textbook is urgent.
The final issue is teacher training. To date, most HSC colleges don’t have teachers trained to teach students complex computer programming languages such as C and SQL. It is unreasonable to expect students to pass a challenging ICT syllabus without trained teachers in each institution.
Until Raspberry Pi, or similar low-cost Linux-powered computing devices, are available everywhere in Bangladesh, until the board approves a textbook allowing the syllabus to be completed using such devices, and finally, until there are trained teachers available everywhere for this subject, the HSC ICT syllabus should be made optional.