The Academic Experience Project is a faculty-student collaborative work aimed to glean insights about the experiences of tertiary-level students. Each Friday, The Daily Star publishes an op-ed highlighting its findings. This is the ninth article of the series.
"It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge"
– Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein's observation above, made decades ago, radiates an essence that holds the same significance for our faculty today, if not more. It is not arguable that teachers play a major role in creating a strong human resource base for a nation's future. And now this role is about to evolve further in a new world of distance learning influenced by Covid-19.
There is a growing belief that "human quality" in Bangladesh has been steadily deteriorating over the years. Employers use every opportunity to make this point, holding the education sector largely responsible for this lamentable situation. Arguments supporting this contention are as follows: There are about 57 public and around 105 private universities in Bangladesh. But whenever a global ranking scorecard of universities is published, we often start checking from the bottom of the list. For some ranking systems, not even a single university makes it into the list. The defence offered by the authority against this is that the rankings are biased and not credible.
It is no secret that faculty development gets very little attention in the higher education institutions of our country. Unlike the top-ranked universities overseas, there is no pressure to learn new pedagogies or produce original research work in our universities. Embarrassing news about plagiarised work of some faculty members pop up every now and then. Teaching also gets a bad rap if you ask a student to assess their teachers. Here are two examples of what some students think:
"Laughably poor standards of pedagogy. The focus of the institution is neither on its students nor on research," one said.
According to another: "I've noticed [that] my friends who've studied abroad had learnt more, been able to grow and flourish more in their respective foreign universities... It's not about cold theory from textbooks to test students; it's about truly helping students grow as people and open their eyes to be able to deal with the real world. It's about [our] learning the necessary skills to thrive in the 21st century."
But things are about to change in the Covid-19 era. Traditional face-to-face classroom learning is being substituted by online learning. In either setting, student satisfaction is a key measure of the efficiency and effectiveness of education. Because academic programmes are heavily influenced by the faculty, it will not be wrong to assume that they are the single most important entity that affects the satisfaction of students, as well as the quality of education.
Until the pandemic, teachers could get away from being their best in a traditional classroom setting. Many teachers treated students like products or customers where student satisfaction mattered little. Very few faculty members acknowledged students as co-creators of knowledge. Since there is no pressure to produce original work and create new knowledge, after becoming a faculty member, many of them become lethargic and apathetic. And the fact that being a graduate with good grades is the only criteria to get hired as a faculty member does not help either.
Many courses get little to no design effort for relevance or efficacy. The situation seems to be worse in the public universities where accountability is minimal. Some opine that the teachers run a "dictatorship" in their classes. They can offer classes whenever they want and can get away with poorly prepared lectures from which students do not really learn anything. But this mindset ought to change in the virtual setting.
Think of an online class scenario: A faculty member is delivering poor-quality lectures every day which the students are finding very difficult to understand. Students may record these lectures to watch them again later for better understanding. Or the lectures may be recorded for the students who could not attend the lectures. Somehow these lectures get uploaded to a social media platform open to many. What performance will everyone see? What would this mean for the reputation of the teacher(s) involved and the institution they represent? Shouldn't this matter be taken seriously by the administration and other relevant entities such as the policymakers? We feel there must be serious consequences!
Can a teacher really afford to be of subpar quality in this setting? Even a veteran teacher, who had thought he/she didn't need to develop and would continue to use the marker-whiteboard because "slides are too complicated" to handle, will have to step up and adjust to this new mode of learning.
In these digital times, a teacher is not only delivering a lecture to a specific classroom. Everything is open in a virtual world and the whole world can be watching. In this new context, faculty members ought to feel pressured to improve the quality of their delivery and deal with other pedagogical issues of distance learning. Academic programmes will also have to be designed in a way that the students can be properly evaluated in online platforms.
The delivery of education is stepping on to a new stage. Teachers who can adapt to the new world will continue to flourish and deliver their finest work. The ones who did not care about what their students learned, but survived due to the inefficiencies of the system, will perhaps be challenged by their very students who may demand that they must improve their performance or make room for more competent instructors. After all, students' time must be respected, not wasted.
Teachers will also face other unanticipated challenges in a new world of distance learning to which they must adjust and evolve, and do so quickly—not only for the sake of their students but also for the uninterrupted progress of our nation advancing on the path to middle-income status and greater achievements, which will require many competent hands on deck. It is the good teachers we look up to for enlightenment and advancement.
Syed Rafi Morshed is working on his MBA degree at IBA, University of Dhaka. Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Visiting Professor at IBA, University of Dhaka, and former Vice-Chancellor, BRAC University. For more information on The Academic Experience Project, contact Dr Andaleeb at bdresearchA2Z@gmail.com.