Online Education: Bangladesh Perspective, Challenges and Way Forward
COVID-19 pandemic is a global reality of the year 2020 that had ceased the educational activities during the beginning of the lock down phase worldwide. However most of the educational institutions all over the world already broke the spell of the initial perception and inertia due to the pandemic and resumed their academic activities through online platforms. Although, most universities including world ranking institutions are struggling with finances, nevertheless, the effectiveness of online teaching and learning is gaining its prominence from the perspective of revitalizing the aggravating mental and spiritual states among the students along with the pandemic. The students are all the more joining eagerly in online semesters with higher retention rates, finding the e-learning process as a greener option with learning and assessment progressing with reduced distractions and with less of a time investment as commuting is not a requirement. Furthermore, online platforms provide quite a flexible and all-inclusive opportunity with additional guidance and tutoring support from the instructors. Studies have already demonstrated that online mode of teaching will enable the universities to teach 15-18% additional students at the same cost.
Bangladesh situation was no different than facing the reality and then moving on with it. Most of the Private Universities in Bangladesh operates in trimester schedule which offers lesser leeway and flexibility to transit over to a new mode of teaching or system in a wider timescale. Accordingly, being in midway between the semesters, most had to switch to online platform immediately for completing the semester and faced huge difficulty due to lack of experience in it.
Before the broader perspective is discussed, it would be appropriate here to share the first-hand experiences gained by the authors directly from their workplace; University of Asia Pacific (UAP), where most of the students are from middle class families and rural areas of Bangladesh. UAP has been fortunate on the onset of the pandemic in terms of its academic activities since final exams had already ended and publication of results for Fall 2019 semester was ongoing. Thus, the university was not facing any immediate pressure of looking to continue its activities as the initial lock down phase coincided with the semester break. Also, UAP is one of the few private universities that still maintains two semesters per year allowing with the flexibility to extend the semester break before Spring 2020 semester. This was a good opportunity to observe the situation for scope to resuming campus activities followed by moving on with the virtual options. However, it was a prudent gesture of the Board of Trustees, UAP that on the day that lock down started (March 16, 2020) in universities, the board had already requested the administrative body to engage workforce into launching online teaching at UAP. Keeping this initiation in the backdrop, this article provides an overall experience on transition to online education at UAP while dealing with the perspectives, challenges and way forward in this journey for Bangladesh in general.
Stepping towards online platform
The first step was to form a special coordination committee consisting of the administrative body, the Heads of the various Departments and the Directors of various Centres and Offices at UAP. The committee started working immediately on situation analysis of all the available online platforms feasible to be applied in Bangladesh including both free and premium customized services remaining within the flexible boundary of time frame and also the directions from the Government through University Grants Commission (UGC).
The consideration in choosing a platform for online teaching is related with service quality, cost of using it, flexibility and relevance with academic teaching learning options which are the general considerations in one hand for quality teaching and on the other hand the targeted students in Bangladesh with restricted levels of affordability in general. UAP, being a private university, in no way wished to increase the financial burden on the students at the expense of enjoying the comfort of taking advantage of the customized services. It was also decided that students could access this platform only through UAP domain email so that no other media would have access to UAP system and the sessions. This security issue was an important consideration in selecting the platform. After choosing the most feasible set of platforms, a committee headed by the Computer Science and Engineering Department at UAP backed up by the IT department devoted their effort in preparing a very detailed manual along with a video tutorial in a step by step approach to be very easily adopted and consulted by the faculty members. Archival of these resources was also ensured for greater national support.
Student Registration Policies and facilities
The UAP administration adopted certain policies to aid the students in this special time of crisis to alleviate the burden of the full payment of registration fees and to compensate additional expenditure for internet access for resuming online classes. Accordingly, a 20% waiver, equivalent to around five crores' amount, was offered during registration and the payment was allowed to be made in multiple instalments. Besides, other usual forms of waivers categorized as Merit Scholarship waivers, Freedom fighter's family waivers, Vice Chancellor's special waivers were also offered which are worth 4 crores' amount. Notably, direct financial support were also extended to the students by the members of Board of Trustees at UAP. In addition, to save the students from physical visits to banks, several options for online payment methods were introduced. These well thought steps proved out to be extremely useful for bringing the students on board and launching of Spring 2020 semester. These cautionary steps are very helpful for providing a sense of safety and security among the vulnerable students.
Department and Faculty Members
Having the necessary policies for online semester been drafted by the administration, it was then the role of the departments to move in line with these policies and implement those decisions through faculty members. In fact, departments at UAP maintained regular online departmental meetings since the onset of the pandemic in order to disseminate the decisions of special coordination committee meeting to the faculty members at the earliest. This harmony between the administration and departments made the transition smooth. UAP administration acknowledge the fact that it is impossible to materialize the online semester without the support from faculty members. Thus, they looked into the needs and requirements of faculty members to conduct classes online. Many faculty members require PC or laptop for online class as none were prepared for this pandemic situation and was not ready with a well-functioning device. Accordingly, Loans were granted for buying equipment such as PC, laptop, pen tablet etc. and further arrangements were facilitated with the vendors for special discounts that the faculty members could avail. Also, mental health counselling to the administration and faculty members was provided through certified socio counsellors of UAP to deal with physical and mental stress during the pandemic. The importance of mental health counselling is indeed a matter to bring to national attention.
Training on board
The faculty members were provided at first with the manual of the online platforms to be utilized in addition to video demonstration. This was followed by comprehensive live training so that each faculty member could raise their inquiry on the processes to be followed and get familiar with it. Department of CSE played the most significant role in providing these training sessions and the materials inviting useful suggestions from the faculty members who had already started using the platforms getting familiar with it and detecting the possible challenges to face ahead. Transition from the general perception and prejudices against online platforms that prevails in Bangladesh could thus be accomplished.
These trials also made the administration conscious in making the faculty members well-equipped and confident with the IT facilities, the online glitches and ways to trouble shoot the problems. Accordingly, all the IT staff also got training on the platforms and hotline portals were created for trouble shooting the problems faced by the faculty members. The single most concern that drove all these initiatives was acknowledging a global fact that the faculty members are the direct link to the students and on their confidence would depend the overall success of the communication and the teaching.
Specialized Instructions from Quality Assurance Cell
Another important aspect in addition to mode of teaching learning and its delivery was to delve into the course assessment strategies while being online. The Institutional Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) at UAP played a lead role here. The challenges were threefold: limiting the faculty members within the scopes offered by online platforms, considering students' convenience in accessing different online teaching-learning-assessment methods and at the same time maintaining quality and achievements of course level outcomes. There were two apparently conflicting requirements: students' convenience and quality or faculty member's convenience and quality. IQAC had to find a way so that all three components could be addressed carefully. A specially tailored guideline was provided by IQAC for the acceptable modes of lecture delivery, course assessment strategies without compromising the quality of education which UAP always upholds as its priority. It was also emphasized in the dissemination workshop of the guidelines that Outcome Based Education (OBE) approach should be continued to be followed in the teaching learning methods. A more comprehensive approach of assessment strategy has been formulated specific to each department with support and guidance from IQAC which is going to be applied in this online semester. Assessment methods would consist of class assessment through quizzes launched by specially tailored tools, oral exams, project work, discussions, open book exams, online proctored exams followed by viva, assignments, group works etc. Exposure to such diverse ranges of assessment strategies could significantly uplift a student's perception towards learning to help him globalize. All universities in Bangladesh would naturally have respective IQACs in this guiding role.
Empathy, compassion and alignment
Students were reached out through the online platform and a very well thought motivating letter was sent to them at this stage addressing all the possible confusions and apprehensions amongst students that were envisioned to be working in them regarding this new online semester, the ways to access it, use it and be able to learn through it. The message to empathize with them and be compassionate of their situation was well received. Parallel to these initiatives from administration end, all the faculty members were equally active in communicating with their students as advisors and supervisors to make them realize the importance of keeping pace with the outer world and continue with their academic activities. The initial opposition that UAP faced from students' end subsided when they realized the importance of keeping alignment with the Government strategies of continuing online education and also the assurance to receive quality education from UAP. Accordingly the reflection of the interest from students to continue their education online was evident in the registration confirmation of over 90% of the students for Spring 2020 semester online.
Concerns to address
In order to get the students familiar with the system and remove their anxiety of being in live session with their instructors, a trial week of class was held the week before the Spring 2020 started. Students expressed their concerns frankly which were answered by the instructors providing them with the assurance of being flexible, compassionate to their needs, emergencies and numerous possibilities that the online education has to offer.
Although this virtual world is a new concept for both ends, the students are not in direct face to face with instructor as in classrooms, there are informal surrounding conditions in homely environment, internet disruption problems and concern of affordable bulk data availability etc with 5-10% students not having internet facility at all, most of the students managed to come on board and already started the semester with full enthusiasm. These bring forward the areas where the education sector needs national support in terms of quick expansion of internet access in remote areas and suitable arrangement with mobile operators to ensure economy data offer for the students.
Online Orientation of new students
Since it was not possible to hold regular orientation of the newly admitted students to start their session on Spring 2020 semester, virtual orientation was organized. Each of the Departments held separate orientation program for their students through online platforms before the classes started. The response was phenomenal. Almost all the students from the new batches participated to connect with the Departments and get familiar with the faculty members. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the Acting Vice Chancellor, the Treasurer and the Registrar of UAP put a great effort in joining the orientation programs of all the departments separately to address all the new students and welcome them at UAP. Some departments even provided video demonstration to the students and great enthusiasm was observed from students' ends.
Experiences, improvisation and obligations that come along with online teaching for any institute
Never have the faculty members been so vigilant and the students so responsive, be it for the new online mode of teaching, delivery and assessment. In spite of the general preparation that the instructors usually undertake, the preparations ahead of the lectures constituted majority of the effort. The module that has been communicated to all the faculty members included that the students have a previous exposure to the study materials and do not solely need to be dependent on screens of any sort, provided the situations arise that they are disconnected from the sessions or have to place them in discomfort in searching for network.
Class lectures in regular on campus days constitute regular delivery of lecture, recording of attendance and sometimes engaging students in discussion for participation which are frequently interrupted by late entry of students and sometimes in periodic rebukes in an attempt to bring the attention of the students back to the class. So, there are both positives and negatives from these face to face interactions as we switch towards online mode. Students do not have to commute anywhere to attend their classes which saves a lot of their time, effort and energy at the same time enabling them to make it to the class on time without any late excuse due to traffic jam. Students are not usually visible directly while the lecture is ongoing, the instructor has to be extra vigilant to keep an eye on the participant panel however without any knowledge on the engagement of the students in situ. Its mostly a one -sided communication over the lecture period unless any student opts to ask or inquire on any topic. Now, it really depends on the instructor how to engage and get all the students' undivided attention throughout the class session. To ensure this, instructors are compelled to look for innovative strategies to check the students one on one basis if he/she was attending the class, is familiar with the content or not.
Faculty members need to provide additional consultation sessions for students which would address the concerns faced by the students on the specific courses and troubleshoot their problems in addition to addressing the power disruption issue. Thus, launching of online semester was successful and the continuation of it brings a new horizon to both the faculty members and the students which is the realization and subsequent actions towards getting the most out of these online tools and become global in applying it. Nevertheless, students are more in the receiving and accepting mode as reported by all the departments so far, which will be making it convenient and easier for both the faculty members and the students in the days to come. Almost full attendance of students in each of the departments and the courses in general seem quite of an outcome to achieve which makes it clearer that students are more inclined to continue with their academic activities despite any extent of obstructions they face. This indeed is a major accomplishment so far. There will be cases and instances of failures and inadequacy as it is a learning process. But sincerest efforts from the faculty members hold the foundation of belief that all the obligations will be met with reasonable success in this trying time.
These experiences have very positive implications for future online portals and learning opportunities in Bangladesh.
- Keeping up students' motivation to attend the classes overcoming their personal challenges is an ongoing pursuit for the faculty members.
- Successful identification of the possible shortcomings and the obstructions that the students will potentially face and provide appropriate solutions for those. For example, instructors have to be innovative in evaluating the class performances of the students and keeping them engaged during the class through utilizing multiple means of teaching. And again, internet disruption and unavailability of 3G WiFi or electricity add to the overall challenge which require the instructors to behave with extra patience and handle the students with great care and extra tutoring service.
- It still is a great concern that the developed assessment scheme for the online semester would be adequate and unbiased enough to ensure comprehensive evaluation of students' performance .
- The practical courses are integral parts of Engineering, Architecture and Pharmacy courses that require physical presence on campus for laboratory demonstration. One strategy is to lengthen the semester by certain weeks to accommodate the laboratory courses after the online semester ends with the hope in mind to move back to campus. If not, the plan is to have groups of students at a time performing the laboratory work maintaining safe distancing.
- No matter the number and complexity in challenges, universities in Bangladesh should always look for the best solution and alternative that will fit the purpose of the students prioritizing the quality of education over anything else. This outlook, if needed to be inherently adopted all over the country, Government needs to be supportive through UGC in legislating the optimum but specific strategies on implementation. Collating the experiences, documentations on platforms and other research from the institutions who have gone through these experiences would be instrumental for effective improvisation of online education in Bangladesh in future.
Dr. Nehreen Majed is an associate professor at Department of Civil Engineering and Director, Office of International Affairs, University of Asia Pacific
G. R. Ahmed Jamal is an associate professor, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Director, Institute of Quality Assurance Cell at University of Asia Pacific
Professor Dr. M. R. Kabir is the acting vice chancellor of University of Asia Pacific