When universities shut-down because of the pandemic most people thought they'd re-open within a month. It soon became evident that the virus was here to stay. Almost all public universities in Bangladesh have halls of residence. Some of them have Gono Rooms where too many students are housed in a single room. Re-opening would make social distancing a challenge to enforce. Thus re-opening prematurely disappeared from the equation.
Keeping public universities shut for a long time opened up twin challenges. First, session jams, for which public universities in Bangladesh are known, would become prolonged. The challenge that was unforeseen was the mental health of students. Staying at home with zero or minimum social contact was becoming detrimental to the mental health of students in what was coined as the "new normal".
Doing something may not solve a problem. Doing nothing will make a bad situation worse. Public universities had to re-open. Today's Echoes tries to explore where constraints lie for public universities. It's based on the experience of economics students of Jahangirnagar, Barisal, Mawlana Bhashani and BUP.
Constraints outside the control of universities: The first problem students across Bangladesh are facing is: connectivity. Most students don't have access to Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi isn't available everywhere. Although most students have a basic smartphone, weak network, frequent disconnection, and network fluctuation are posing a challenge to attendance.
Many students are getting out of the house and walking a distance to locate themselves to the nearest tower. If classes are being held for even four hours a day, many students are exposed to outside weather. They need an additional power bank for back-up power.
If experiencing online lectures in real time is a challenge, then streaming or downloading recorded lectures where made available is another challenge.
Data costs: This varies. It depends on data consumption per class and over a week or a month. Students from the above universities are spending Tk 150 on average per week for data connectivity. This constraint is partially in the control of universities. Mobile operators have started offering packages for online classes. Special packages at affordable rates for students can be arranged over time.
Mental health: Prolonged online classes and gazing at screens is posing a challenge not only to the eyes, but also to the mental health of students. This is a challenge that needs to be considered by universities, the students and their families.
Online education is here to stay for some time. It's the "new normal". What will work and what will not work will become clear only over time. Each university will have constraints that are unique to themselves. Respective university authorities can address them based on their experiences. There will also be some common constraints which can be addressed by the University Grants Commission, the parent body of universities in Bangladesh.
Cooperation between universities and their students; and students with their families may be the best way out of the challenges public universities and students are experiencing now. Our students are our future. They are very dear to us. Whatever we do, we'll have to put their welfare first, but also remind ourselves, we have to proceed ahead.
Special thanks to Refat Ferdous of Economics, University of Barishal; Subroto Dey of Economics, Mawlana Bhashani Science and Technology University and students of Economics, Jahangirnagar University, and Bangladesh University of Professionals for their cooperation.