Opinion: Time to push online learning in higher education
We have come a long way in teaching and learning using technology. Whatever we call it—online learning, virtual learning, or e-learning—it has made education independent of time and place. Users have access to course materials 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Learning management systems (LMS) make it possible to upload course materials, assignments, and exams as well as to create discussion boards and other communication tools. Online learning has made distance learning an accessible and effective alternative that is traffic-jam free and unaffected by unexpected campus closing because of hartals, strikes, and man-made or natural calamities like the coronavirus pandemic. Online learning makes it possible to not lose a semester or spend extra money for overstays in hostels. As a result, it solves the problem of campus housing, which is always a major problem for university students. This also provides opportunities for stay-at-home mothers and persons who have jobs but would like to advance their degrees.
Online learning has many benefits. These include, among others, flexible schedule and environment; independence of place and time; saving on on-campus housing; independence of transportation hassles and expenses; student-centred learning according to the learner's convenience and timeline; equal opportunities for all students, introverts and extroverts alike; improving technical skills through the use of LMS; freedom from campus buildings or fixed learning resources; access to many free courses like Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and modules from anywhere in the world; access to lectures from world-famous experts in respective disciplines; supplementing in-class learning; finishing a semester strong and on time; and independent learning and time management.
There are a few myths on online learning, including the notions that online learning is less rigorous and promotes "cheating", that it is isolating and lonely, and that the instructors are inferior. These are all unfounded. Because of these myths, unfortunately, there was a strong resistance to implementing online learning in higher education. No new technology or change is readily accepted or welcomed because of its "disruptive" nature. In traditional classroom teaching, students are tested on what they read. In online learning, the emphasis is on authentic learning—learning by doing. Students engage in various ways, such as through experimentation, real-world problem solving, problem-based activities, case studies, and participation in discussion boards and virtual communication. Exams and quizzes are proctored like in the TOEFL and GRE to avoid cheating. Online learning provides a strong networking community for group study, discussion, and sharing ideas and interests, reducing feelings of isolation or loneliness. In universities in the global north, most on-campus instructors also facilitate online courses, and all online instructors are required to go through training on online teaching-learning. Communication with instructors usually takes place through telephone, email, discussion boards, virtual live meetings, and chatrooms.
Online learning requires specific software, hardware, technological know-how, and, of course, high-speed broadband Internet. An LMS is required for uploading courses and related resources on the website. Blackboard, D2L/Brightspace, Canvas, and Moodle are some of the popular LMS platforms. Moodle is a free open-source LMS. Desktops, laptops, tablets, or smartphones are needed to access an LMS. A webcam or built-in HD camera and a high-quality headset help in video conferencing and live classroom sessions using Zoom, Skype for Business, Blackboard Ultra, and WebEx. Virtual live meetings can be treated as traditional classroom sessions from one's residence, and all activities can be recorded for later review or for students who missed a class. These classes provide the students with the opportunity to ask questions and participate in discussion.
Many of the private universities in Bangladesh proactively adopt new technologies to provide contemporary education to their students. These students are able to complete their education on time and will have an added advantage in the job market. Most private-sector employers will prefer candidates who are trained in online learning because most jobs will require such expertise. Unfortunately, most public universities in the country are lagging behind in offering their students an opportunity to complete their education on time by introducing online learning, even in the current lockdown situation. It is slated that the universities will probably remain closed for many months, causing a wastage of precious time for students.
Some of the private universities in Bangladesh have been delivering their courses online since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. For example, BRAC University's James P. Grant School of Public Health offers a one-year full-time Masters in Public Health (MPH) programme, with half of its student body coming from abroad. As the lockdown started, BRAC University went online, and most of the courses were offered remotely. In the MPH programme, students have already completed the modular course on epidemiology, which was done with interactive teaching followed by Q&A. Using Google Forms, the School has also successfully conducted exams. According to the course coordinators and School administration, there were some initial hiccups as the students returned home following the lockdown, but since then, it has been running without any significant challenges. The students' attendance in "classes" has also been one hundred percent. Such online teaching was tried for biostatistics in Spring 2006 when the first author was a Fulbright visiting faculty at the School. Moodle was the learning management system used, and the course went successfully.
There is more than one way to train faculty members to teach online within a short period of time. Resources are available to offer free training. Technology companies can help with hardware and software. Policymakers and regulators, such as the University Grants Commission (UGC) of Bangladesh, can play a significant role in developing guidelines and making available the needed resources to incorporate online learning as an integral part of learning in higher education. The public universities must not shy away from this transformation. We believe that this is an important way forward to truly implement Digital Bangladesh.
Mohammed Shahidullah and Mushtaque Chowdhury are respectively Adjunct Faculty at the University of Illinois, Springfield, USA, and President of the Dhaka University Statistics Department Alumni Association (DUSDAA).