Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dilemma In Providing Education Online By Public University

The public universities are in dilemma of "to be or not to be" with the issue of online education. They are suffering from indecision. Some of the universities have started the system in small scale. Rather it is really difficult to introduce it by a massive program. There are some reasons behind it. We can mention the adequate number of students, the students insolvency, inadequacy to the using of modern technologies, lacking high frequency internet and the infrastructural deficiencies as the most vulnerable problems in the institutions. The authorities are in pressure for such lacking. It is indeed a tough task to ensure the participation for all the students. Moreover, the universities aren't used to it. So the authorities are not well prepared to face the system. If the system is taken into consideration, we will have to face some challenges. In Bangladesh, most of the students come from rural villages. Many of them belong to low-mid income group families. During the corona pandemic situation, the economic condition has worsened. So, involving in technologies is rather a costly affair to the guardians of the students.
Secondly, the slow network also hampers the problem. In Bangladesh, the network function isn't effective and total online system isn't well equipped in all the rural areas, particularly outside the district and divisional towns. So, it appears as a major problem to ensure participation in the system. Thirdly, the students have kept their study materials reference books and notebooks like along with laptops to their hall and messes. The pdf version of these books will not be available to them for free of cost. Question remains, how far the students will be able to learn the main text of the topic through the process. Again, it will not be so interactive in between the students and the teachers. For problems, we mustn't retreat, rather to solve the problem. Proper study, analysis and experiments are needed. Universities may not afford laptops or smart phones to all the students. If the point is raised it will not be rational. But where 70% or 80% will have the access to it, the remaining need to be provided in other way. Otherwise, the majorities of the higher educational learners will be the victim to discrimination.
To minimise possible academic losses, the University Grants Commission (UGC) declared that all universities introduce online teaching of courses. This directive resulted in universities, particularly some private ones, to quickly shift courses online. We consider ourselves lucky that our university had the infrastructure, the technical knowledge and the experience to make this move smoothly. However, not all universities were so fortunate, resulting in many debates over the issue. The UGC's directive to shift classes online came when we were in the first half of the term, with midterm exams looming. Faculty members were instructed to give assignments, take home exams, and viva exams in lieu of synchronous online written examinations. Online teaching and assessment strategies had to be rethought given the levels of students' Internet accessibility. A survey revealed that 60 percent of our students had reliable Internet access, 30 percent had intermittent Internet access, and 10 percent had no Internet access. The students without Internet access could not participate in the online sessions and therefore, special policies needed to be formulated to accommodate them.
When the lockdown began and educational institutions shut down, faculty members at our university formed a Facebook group to serve as a platform to exchange notes regarding online teaching and learning. This group proved extremely useful in collaborating on different practices regarding student management, assessments, pedagogy, course syllabi writing, online learning platforms, cyber security, and other concerns. In a sense, the platform became a community of practices as well as a support group of the teachers helping teachers kind.
What is lacking is any will within the university administration to bring in changes. Had we prioritised such infrastructure, a temporary recourse to online teaching would have been a possibility (the choice of online teaching by our education bosses, however, begs serious pedagogical question but that can be the topic for another discussion). In the absence of such infrastructure, and more importantly given the fact that our students do not have easy and equal access to the internet, now that they are all forced to stay put at their homes, this sudden talk of online-class (as if this is a magical solution to all our problems) sounds very hollow and meaningless. I am sure education bosses are worried. Like them, many of us are no less worried about our students. But we cannot suddenly change when our universities haven't done the homework.
To force something from the top will only produce some superficial effects and give the impression that everything is fine, much like the government's Covid response! But things are not fine in our universities and there are ample signs of that. Our universities are suffering due to an undesirable practice of teacher recruitment. This must go. We need to sort out the issue of student recruitment as well. How can we introduce an admission system that is less hassle for students and parents? We need to introduce a student-welfare centric union. These are some of the issues that we need to tackle immediately. It is high time some form of democratic mechanism is retained in the universities so that we hear a cross-section of students and teachers. But the question remains, is there any political will for this?
The various departments may play the role of sending the PDF versions to the students through email and simultaneously sometimes discussion session and video conferencing may continue. Moreover, the university authorities may go for an agreement to the telecom companies so that an internet package deal benefit will reach them. As a matter of fact, the online education would be an end result of combined thoughts of all experts, authorities, teachers, students and all relevant parties. After all experiments and appreciation, if capabilities are achieved, only then the system will have its proper use and work. All teachers and students need to be facilitated by bringing altogether under the umbrella of this platform.
(Dr. Forqan, former Deputy Director General, Bangladesh Ansar VDP, is a writer, columnist and researcher).