Is Education in 2021 Going Back to Normal?

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

Nafisa Binte

“Let’s mark the country into three zones—red, yellow, and green. Schools can be reopened in the green zones, where there are not more than ten live Covid-19 cases. If safety measures prove to be effective, the government can begin opening schools in the other zones as well,” Public health expert Be-Nazir Ahmed believes.

In the past years, online classes were an extension, but now they have become a necessity. The shifting to online classes is the culmination of the steps taken to prevent the spreading of Covid-19. Research in 186 countries shows that after the pandemic, more than 1.2 billion children have become affected on account of the school closure.

According to a research done by the Education Watch Report 2020-2021, 69.5% surveyed students lacked participation in online learning, while 58% did not have any devices or internet connection to attend their classes. The most challenging part of online classes remain poor internet connection and expensive mobile data.

“It is impossible to provide uninterrupted internet facilities because many areas are still without electricity connections and mobile network coverage,” says the Chairman of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, Md Jhohurul Haque.

In rural areas, around 69% students were not able to do online classes due to the lack of devices. Although over 16% of students were able to access, they skipped the classes as they found them monotonous. 75% students and 76% parents recommended reopening the educational institutions as distance learning remains ineffective.

Per the study, nearly 4 crore students stayed out of school. After the closure of educational institutions, the authority tried to continue imparting education by remote learning through Sangsad TV for primary and secondary school students. However, it proved futile due to lack of necessary resources.


What was the response of the students who have access to the internet?

13-year-old school-going Effat says, “While the better part of the day is when I attend class lectures through TV or internet, the worst part is when I cannot understand what the lectures are about.”

The students who can afford to have access remain distressed as well. A fourth-year-student of Islamic University of Technology (IUT) states, “Due to unstable network connection, the video lags, the audio becomes fuzzy, and the streaming quality drops drastically. As a result, I miss out on the most important parts of the lecture.”

In rural areas, due to the recent floods, students were not able to participate in online classes. Salauddin, a student of sociology at the University of Dhaka, said to The Business Standard, ”I am solvent enough to buy internet packages and I have a laptop. But because of the flooding, I cannot attend lectures.”

Meanwhile, teachers also recommend reopening the institutions as they are struggling through lack of cooperation and more challenges than they have ever faced. According to the recent survey carried out by RAND Corporation, 56% teachers said that they had covered only half, or less than half, of the curriculum content that they would have completed by this time last year.

“At least 40 per cent students cannot attend lectures due to internet and device problems. Moreover, the classes are not interactive. This is very unfortunate for us,” told Professor Dr Syed Manzoorul Islam, an eminent educator to The Business Standard.

Furthermore, only 1 in 5 teachers said that they were on the same schedule as that of past years. Most of the teachers face criticism as well as difficulties in using online platforms.

Would this slow the pace of learning?

In an interview with Education Week, Julia Kaufman, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a co-author of the report, said, “There are students who are also more likely to be falling behind and less likely to have access to a digital device or the internet. The odds are kind of stacked against them.”

“Online classes will create discrimination and will never be satisfactory for all students,” said one of the professors at the University of Rajshahi.

Due to slow internet connection, students face unanticipated obstacles such as frequent disconnections from the class, voices breaking up, not being able to get in at all, etc. Reopening schools has been recommended by the majority of students, teachers, and parents by shortening the time for examination and imparting more time on education.

What about affordability when digital learning has become a necessity?

According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2019 conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and UNICEF, only 5.6% households in Bangladesh have computers. For lower-income households, the study means that the majority of students cannot access distant classes in the first place. The educational broadcasts will be futile as a maximum of only half of the students can have access to such lessons.

Among three South Asian nations — India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh — mobile data in Bangladesh is the costliest. Only a few universities like BUET are trying to provide students with funds to buy internet packages. Many students are unable to afford internet packages on the daily.

Sabbir Ahmed, a Dhaka University student of the Public Administration department is unable to spend Tk200 per day to attend three online classes, each one-hour length, which led to mental pressure as there is no way for him to make up the academic gap.

Most businesses have closed after the lockdown. As a result of job cuts, the primary concerns of low-income families are to ensure food security, and internet packages comes as a luxury they can hardly afford. A recent survey has found that although 40% students are attending online classes, almost 50% students cannot attend the online classes due to a lack of device availability.

Hence, private institutions should come forward to lower the tuition fees as from the beginning, uninterrupted internet has been difficult to access. 


The drawbacks of online classes

The three primary requirements for online classes to be accessible are digital devices, high-speed internet, and a platform.

A study by Ookla has found that the median fixed internet bandwidth speed in Bangladesh has decreased by 12% in May 2020 from March 2020’s figure. The same study has found the median mobile internet bandwidth speed to decrease by 5% in the same time duration. Furthermore, data from the World Bank shows only 15% of the population uses the internet.

The negative aspects of online learning are time-consuming feedback from instructors, unavailable technical assistance from teachers, lack of self-motivation, lack of engagement, insufficient course materials, etc. In Bangladesh, most teachers are not tech-friendly or digitally well-versed. They are still facing numerous challenges while providing digital education from home such as lack of expertise in digital equipment, unfamiliarity with the LMS, proficiency in assessment technique, etc.


Are online classes suitable for special needs children?

Movement-related activities or physical activities are the main necessity for motor development — physical growth and strengthening of bones and muscles — of special needs children or the children who need additional needs or children with disabilities. As a result, an online classroom is not suitable for special needs children as classes need to be conducted by specialists.


The initiatives taken by the government 

The government is taking steps to restart schools and colleges on a limited scale from March, prioritising 10th and 12th graders.

“This syllabus will be shorter so that it can be covered within three to four months. Because the risk from the pandemic is now low, we will hold the exams this year,”  Education Minister Dipu Moni said.

She also said that schools will hold regular classes for students of grades 10 and 12 when educational institutions reopen and students of other grades will be required to attend one class a week at their institutions. The authorities have already prepared a short syllabus for the SSC and the HSC candidates of this year.

Following strict precautions and cautious approaches, educational institutions are likely to reopen soon. After analysing the Covid situation, certain precautions such as the use of masks, providing handwashing facilities, social distancing, clean washrooms, benches, etc are expected to be maintained.

After the closure of the educational institutions, the drop-out rate has increased according to UNESCO and so have academic losses, for which proper steps need to be taken by the authority. The re-opening should be made in phases and firstly in the areas where the rates of infection and death are low. Many recommendations have been made, such as cutting down holidays to increase class time, shortening the syllabus of SSC and HSC candidates, and cancelling PSC and JSC board exams. By ensuring the preventive measures above, further steps should be taken following the priorities to implement the reopening of institutions.

What would be the requirements of public universities?

During a meeting, the vice-chancellors of public universities decided that there would be one test each for science, humanities, and business studies’ students. The decision to hold centralised admission tests was taken on 1 December. Question papers are to be prepared based on the syllabus of higher secondary exams. The respective universities would later admit students depending on their scores and not hold separate tests.


Would things get back to normal?

This is a question that seems to have unclear answers. Though vaccines are now available and appropriate health and safety precautions are possible to ensure, it may seem like we are closer than ever towards normalcy. However, even if educational institutes start conducting classes again, it would not be easy to immediately get back to like how it was before pandemic. A year of social distancing and isolation has changed many of us. And, it may take all of us some time to learn to adapt and keep up once we do get back to a semblance of the old normal.


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