Online Education: How Deep is the Digital Divide?

Source: The Daily Star


E D U C A T I O N – B A N G L A D E S H


Yashfeen Karim


After the dawn of the novel coronavirus in the country, Bangladesh officially declared its first lockdown in the nation effective from 26 March which extended, thereafter, as weeks passed and the number of cases increased. For all students across the country, the shutdown followed soon after students from the University of Dhaka protested to suspend all physical academic activities on 16 March due to the rising cases, and Education Minister Dr Dipu Moni announced the closure of all academic institutions.

How effective has online learning in Bangladesh been?

As the pandemic worsened and the lockdown extended over months, students from kindergarten to high school adapted to online teaching methods to continue their education. However, difficulties to adjust to a completely digitised version of schooling unfolded soon.

On one hand, the minority of privileged schools with students and teachers both having access to the internet quickly adapted — being acquainted with technology prior to the lockdown. Largely belonging to the urban population, they could finance the cost of virtual education along with being well versed in computer literacy.  

However, the majority struggled with the sudden change. Since late March last year, the pandemic has barred 3.86 crore students of all education levels, and 76% of them study in high schools located in rural areas, according to a report by Deutsche Welle. This vast number of highschoolers live in such rural areas where there are either poor internet facilities and infrastructures with a scarcity of digital devices and uninterrupted electricity, or no facilities. Areas where online programmes are accessible, nevertheless, face issues when classes are held inconsistently due to unsteady connection, data expiration, and frequent power outages.

A study by BRAC reports that 54% rural households in Bangladesh are deprived of the internet and 59% lack smartphones. It is indeed an extra costly expense to already poverty-stricken families. Paying tuition fees was another battle altogether. In response, Education Minister Dipu Moni encouraged mobile phone operators to dispense free or low-cost internet to students in July 2020.

As per another study conducted by Save the Children, 7 out of 10 girls in rural areas do not have access to distance education.  

In response to such inaccessibility, Education Specialist of UNICEF Bangladesh, Iqbal Hossain, shared, “To reach marginalised students and create more equitable access to remote learning, UNICEF is facilitating learning using basic mobile phones and text messages instead of smartphones.” 

Nonetheless, this was not a permanent solution that catered to every single child in the country. Remote learning still persists to be a challenge for many. Although television and radio-based education accredited by the government exist, the absence of a fundamental cable connection hinders their education every day. 

Teachers faced difficulties, as well, to tutor without the conventional means of schooling.

Sayeed Ibrahim Ahmed, a Senior Lecturer of Finance at American International University Bangladesh (AIUB) shared his opinion to Dhaka Tribune, “What would have taken a mere five minutes on a physical blackboard took nearly 20 minutes of my time as I tried to gauge by my students’ faces, whether or not I had made any sense to them.

A few hours inside the virtual classroom would drain the life out of all of us. What I realised was that, although technology has been a blessing of the 21st century, working in defiance amidst major disruptions is not something we humans prefer in the long run.”

Another professor at the University of Chittagong, Mohammad Sahid Ullah, commented, “We began delivering lectures online in the face of challenges like our students’ limited access to digital equipment and technology. Many faculty members show no interest in delivering online lectures, exacerbating our limitations.”

Catholic schools of the country responded similarly. Jyoti F. Gomes, Secretary of the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board spoke, “This will be a difficult year for education, which will require extra efforts like additional classes during weekends and holidays for recovery.”

Yet, online programmes such as Amar Ghore Amar School arranged by Sangsad TV and scheduled assignments for respective grades by NCTB have allowed a proportion of students to remain in regular exposure to their studies.

Digital literacy is the outcome of numerous determinants that are interdependent. CGAP Policy Lead Gregory Chen said, “Only when all these different determinants are identified and addressed, will the level of digital literacy improve.”

What the government has decided for SSC and HSC 2021 students

Around 20 lakh students are expected to sit for their SSC exams and 13 lakh for their HSC and equivalent exams in this year. However, as the pandemic outbreak has not recovered substantially as of yet, the exams have been delayed and shifted to June and August from February and April, respectively.

While the government has denoted that schools and educational institutions could be reopened sometime soon before March, Dipu Moni has announced that once schools restart, HSC and SSC candidates will be expected to attend their institutions six days a week to complete a retrenched shorter syllabus for their board exams. In the process, the schools’ goals and concerns will be pivoted to core subjects and key skills required by the students. University admission offices and the NCTB under the Ministry of Education have not declared anything in response to how university admissions and applications of students will be handled as of now.

School dropouts and repeating academic years

Numerous institutions have disclosed low attendance of their students, regardless of their ability to access online education. Common to both rural and urban schools, demotivation and depression have affected students throughout the country, taking a toll on their mental health. In addition, more problematic issues have surfaced from the lack of engagement to studies.

Experts say as the rate of school drop-outs increases, cases of child marriage can be predicted to escalate. Bangladesh already accounts for more than 3.8 crore child brides, predominantly of backgrounds in rural and poorer households, who are likely to not accomplish anything more than their secondary education, as sourced by the UNICEF. This situation can only worsen in the shutdown of schools. Child labour can be speculated to increase likewise.

Owing to the fact that TV-based education in rural area often prevents students from actively learning and participating in their academics, some schools such as St. Francis Xavier’s Junior High School, located in Pabna, had opted long ago to repeat their classes the next year, as reported by UCA news. Such decisions have put long term restraints on rural students since the outbreak of the virus.

What does the future hold for exam candidates?

When the first corona patient was determined on 8 March, the Ministry of Education had begun to create awareness and prescribe policies in all primary schools to keep the number of cases under surveillance. Institutions were still open during the time. While a very few had the necessary sanitation resources, many lacked mere sanitisers or soaps.

If schools are reopening shortly, they will need to strictly maintain safety protocols for all their students.

Educationalists theorise that the national budget allocation in the education sector cannot recuperate the extensive loss of an entire academic year.

Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal allocated Taka 66,400 crore in the sector for the 2020-21 fiscal year, but it remains at a minute 2.09 per cent of the country’s GDP. In his speech on the budget in June of last year, although he reassured that “enough resources” will be available to amend for the loss, educationalists believe a minimum of 15 per cent allocation is required.

A Campaign for Popular Education; CAMPE executive director Rasheda K Chowdhury stated that the traditional education budget will fail to meet 2020-21’s requirements, “With the allocation, it will not be possible to recover the learning loss due to Covid-19.”

In urban institutions, for O and A levels examinations, assessments were only paused and cancelled for last year’s May-June session, and have resumed since then with students physically appearing for their exams in October and January after preparing online. In comparison, since NCTB-following schools are less prepared, these institutions plan on maximising their time when they reopen. However, for them to be implemented well, students and their families’ literacy, health concerns, and affordability need to be taken into consideration before a revised decision is announced. 

 

Rounding up to a year’s worth of gap in two months’ time with inadequate resources in most divisional and rural institutes, along with the incomplete syllabus of board exam candidates, the government has to design concrete plans to serve these students their needs. It is likely that alterations in the following academic year will be demanded to be outlined and considerations made for university admission exams.

 


Yashfeen Fatima Karim’s world revolves around scrumptious food, an engrossing book, or a Netflix series she can binge-watch. 

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