On March 16, 2020, amidst fears of the coronavirus outbreak, the Bangladesh government issued a directive decreeing all educational institutions under the Ministry of Education to close. 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.
It should be noted that a Quacquarelli Symonds Limited (QS) survey conducted among 16,000 students and 400 university administrators worldwide showed 54 percent of respondents shifted to online teaching and 63 percent of student respondents expected their universities to move online. The data was gathered from February to March 2020.
Regarding infrastructure, we had integrated a learning management system (LMS), Moodle, an open-source learning platform used worldwide, in 2007. After intermittent training, the LMS was officially launched in Spring 2014. Initially, our faculty members used the platform as an additional support to teaching and not as a replacement for classroom or face-to-face classes. The system, thus, was being used as a supplementary space to upload helpful, additional course materials, distribute and collect assignments, record grades, take attendance, conduct quizzes, and chat with students so that learning continued beyond the classroom.
Newly hired faculty at our university are trained in Moodle every semester and refreshers offered for others. In September 2018, we formed an Online Education Study Group to recommend measures on how to move forward with online teaching and learning at the university. The group suggested assessing the impact of online education at our university and others; prioritising online education strategies that build upon our core values; limiting online engagements to those instances that yield clear benefits to students and relevant stakeholders; and undertaking consultations with faculty members regarding online learning strategies.
Given these, various departments and centres at the university have made inroads in conducting online learning. Much of these have been instrumental in facilitating the shift from face-to-face classrooms to online teaching during this critical time, while prior familiarity with an LMS among faculty members and students became the most important factor in facilitating this shift.
Despite this familiarity, however, Moodle was never used for teaching exclusively. So, options to use other mediums to complement Moodle were recommended when the emergency situation arose. The goal was to reach and accommodate as many of the students in a course as possible, and to prioritise the delivery of the course content, rather than focus on the platform used. For video conferencing, the faculty opted to use Zoom, Meet and Hangouts. For students with intermittent access to the Internet, documents and other materials were uploaded not only to Moodle, but to Google Drive and Facebook groups, or emailed directly to them. Faculty members also recorded their synchronous lectures and uploaded them to the course-related Facebook private groups or YouTube so that students who could not login at the time could view them later while others could use them for review.
In addition to the use of a full-fledged LMS, an initiative was taken to link up with Coursera to allow students and faculty members access to other online courses from universities worldwide. In April 2020, Coursera granted us access to more than 4,600 free certified courses for 1,000 of our community members for the next six months. This agreement with Coursera proved beneficial not only to the students but to faculty and admin members as well, many of whom are taking advantage of this opportunity.
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.
We think it safe to say at this point that our university has achieved a good measure of success in transitioning to online teaching/learning. A report from the university's Institutional Quality Assurance Cell (IQAC) verifies that 94 percent of classes were held successfully in the Spring 2020 semester. But since this is the first time we conducted classes online, we needed to also gather data to explore ways to improve the experience for all concerned as we move forward and prepare for the upcoming semester. The first step was a broad-based student survey to gain some insight into our primary stakeholders' experiences, as mentioned earlier. This survey revealed that 75 percent of our students live in Dhaka and 92 percent have smart phones. This, of course, augurs well for our next semester. This data will help in choosing alternatives for students in remote areas with limited or no access to the Internet.
Second, the university's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) also conducted a survey of the faculty members to gauge their physical wellness, mental wellbeing, financial status, online class response, and the support they need to improve online participation. Data from this survey is being used to plan for training sessions and seminars.
Third, course and teacher evaluations were conducted online through the University's Resource Management System. Typically, every term, faculty members are evaluated by students for their knowledge of the subject matter, teaching styles, learning assessments, professional behaviour and student development. Courses are investigated in terms of content/organisation, learning environment, learning resources, teacher contributions, and student contributions. These evaluations are compiled and sent to faculty members to help them reassess their course contents and teaching styles for an improved experience in the next semester. The same process will be followed this time too.
As we move on through this pandemic, we feel it is important to support each other every step of the way—not only within our individual institutions, but across universities, because there is always scope for improvement and learning. If we, as faculty members, model supportive behaviour amongst ourselves, it is only natural that our other stakeholders will follow suit. This step by step breakdown of the measures adopted by our university, therefore, will, we hope, serve as a support to others who may be struggling to adapt to the "new normal."
Dr. Jude William Genilo is Professor and Head of the Department of Media Studies and Journalism, and Director, IQAC, at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.