Online classes in the time of coronavirus | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 04, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:58 AM, June 04, 2020


Online classes in the time of coronavirus

Have you ever seen a black swan? Probably not. If you were asked to write about black swans, what would you do if you found out nobody knows about black swans? You'd have to imagine the unimaginable. This is nice in fantasy. You fall down the rabbit hole, off to Wonderland. In reality, imagining the unimaginable is full of uncertainty. The phrase black swan describes totally unpredictable events, where past experience doesn't exist from which a solution can be found.

Until the year 2019 BC (Before Corona), classes happened the same way for centuries. The teacher enters. Students rise. The teacher calls attendance. Class starts. Interaction is face-to-face. In 2020, the black swan pandemic came and disrupted everything. Nobody knew for how long it would last. Nobody knew how it would affect our lives. Nobody knew how to solve the challenge. Each nation had to play safe.

For health safety, education institutions had to be shut down. The next question was: for how long? Once again, nobody had an answer. The pandemic appeared as a black swan. Nobody was prepared. Time was ticking away. Schools, colleges, and universities had to find a response. Unless you respond, you'll never know what works and what doesn't. Apparently, life doesn't move in a straight line. Schools, colleges, and universities each faced different problems in online responses.

With schools, students come from similar social backgrounds. They don't live too far away from the school. Colleges tend to attract students from more diverse social backgrounds and geographical locations. Universities attract students from the most diverse social backgrounds and geographical locations. When education institutions were shut down, school students weren't living too far away from each other. Their access to net speed and devices were similar. Thus, it was possible for some schools in large urban centres to go for online classes via platforms like Zoom that require good devices and high net speed.

With universities (and also colleges), students come from different parts of Bangladesh, where the net speed varies from urban to rural centres. Students of universities also come from diverse social backgrounds. They don't have similar access to devices and net speed. When universities shut down, students went back to their homes scattered throughout Bangladesh or at least scattered within a regional division. This created a big challenge.

How did the teachers fare? Teachers weren't ready for online classes. Some faced problems because they either lacked computer literacy or couldn't choose online platforms when they thought about net speed and devise access to their students. Moving away from face-to-face contact meant lack of interaction. Delivering lectures on maths or technical topics became a big challenge.

There are some structural problems to consider. Not all platforms can record when students enter the lecture, or if they attended the entire lecture. This can affect learning outcomes. Finally, the challenge of online exam-assessments is a grey area that needs to be carefully thought. Credibility of exam-assessments forms a fabric of the moral foundations of education institutes.

If education institutes are shut down for a long period, schools, colleges, and universities will have to carefully re-think how they deliver education. A post-pandemic world may never be like 2019 BC for a long time. Meanwhile, looking before we leap; thinking even more carefully; and observing the experience of others is the safest bet to play. Stay home. Stay safe.


The author teaches economics in classrooms. Outside, he watches Test cricket, plays the flute and listens to music & radio podcasts. Email: or

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