After the Covid-19 lockdown started in Bangladesh and our university opted for online classes, a student wrote to us. She moved back to her village and did not have her own laptop. She feared that her grades would suffer and others with better internet access would get undue advantage. This concerned us as teachers and we replied that we would provide video recordings of all the lectures. She can watch those later in her own time—even offline after downloading—and ask questions anytime through the university's digital platform. She was relieved and so were we. As the lockdown days unfolded, we attentively followed the conversations of the authorities from all sides and noticed that students were not part of the formal conversation. As teachers, we believe that our main accountability is towards our students and we feel an obligation to bring students' voices into the discourse.
We surveyed 204 top-tier private university students who attended online classes during the Covid-19 lockdown: 61 percent of them are male and 64 percent are undergraduate students; 90 percent of the students are between 21 and 30 years old. About one third of the students are currently living outside Dhaka and 12 percent in rural areas. About 42 percent of respondents reported having some form of income generating occupation before lockdown. After lockdown, 34 percent of them have lost that job and 57 percent have experienced a decrease in income. Almost half the respondents lost a part of their pocket money.
Some students' self-reports and a few teachers' accounts in social media over the past month may have created a perception that students only want a long holiday without any class and exam. This selective perception belittles the students and their intention to ensure a level playing field with less psychological stress. In contrast, our survey suggests that 52 percent of students want some form of class during the Covid-19 pandemic and, among them, 82 percent prefer online class as opposed to in-person class with proper safety measures. Half of the students prefer some form of grading to finish the ongoing semester without much delay to avoid session jam. Among them, 96 percent are in favour of some type of online assessment whereas only 4 percent want a grade based on work done during in-person classes.
All respondents had experience with both live/real-time online classes and recorded video lectures during the lockdown. Among them, 58 percent prefer recorded video lectures and 42 percent prefer live/real-time online classes. Students who prefer live/real-time online classes find those to be more interactive and easier for instant queries. In contrast, students who prefer recorded video lectures find those to be more flexible, less bandwidth intensive, less costly, and more equitable. About 76 percent of the respondents experience a slower internet connection after the lockdown and that may be why 84 percent of those who do not prefer live/real-time online classes report connectivity problem as the main reason for their choice. About 71 percent of the respondents who prefer recorded video lectures report that they can go over the recordings as many times as they need to while more than half of this group complain that some materials presented during the live/real-time classes are inaccessible later.
Online classes are not perfect substitutes for in-person lectures and we find that respondents are stressed about grades as 58 percent report a lower grade expectation after the start of the online classes. This stress is due to the innumerable uncertainties students face during this pandemic. They are under huge psychological pressure like the rest of the society. Therefore, an innovative and empathetic approach is important while designing online assessment tools that take into account the digital divide as well as the psychological aspects.
In our survey, we find that 86 percent of the respondents prefer take-home assignments as opposed to real-time online exams. Take-home assignments can significantly reduce the digital divide by addressing the connectivity problem to a large extent. Usually, take-home assignments have submission deadlines of 24-48 hours whereas live/real-time online exams need to be completed within 1-2 hours and can cause significant anxiety. In an already difficult situation of Covid-19 pandemic, we need to make the playing field level for everyone. Take-home assignments, if properly designed, can be as rigorous as in-person exams. Most courses, may be with the exception of purely mathematical ones, can use a combination of analytical questions, case studies and policy analysis to test students' critical thinking ability and creativity. Since students can communicate among themselves and consult books, websites etc., teachers need to use plagiarism checking software and ensure that students get rewarded for unique answers. We should remember that in this digital age, with people having multiple devices, it is almost impossible to guarantee a collusion and plagiarism free exam even in a live online environment.
Unlike most other sectors, the education sector, with the help of technology, can keep operating even during the Covid-19 pandemic without increasing the risk of spread. The recent directives of the education ministry and the University Grants Commission (UGC) urging all universities to ensure online classes and allowing private universities to hold online assessments following UGC guidelines are commendable. However, we feel that the voices of the students are missing from the ongoing discourse. This survey is an effort to fill that void and, on the basis of the survey, we recommend that all online live classes should provide video recordings to the students for future reference, and assessments should be based on well-designed take-home assignments in as many courses as possible. For students, their education and grades are very important, they are uncertain about what is going to happen during the Covid-19 pandemic, and they are anxious. The authorities need to create a clear set of guidelines regarding online classes and assessments with a view to reducing the ambiguity and the resulting anxiety. Incorporating students' perspective in the guidelines is imperative to achieve that.
Dr Asad Karim Khan Priyo is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, North South University. Dr Ummaha Hazra is Assistant Professor, Department of Management, North South University.