In September 2020, a Harvard Business Review article suggested that a shift to a digital learning environment was long overdue, and the pandemic had enabled American schools to take this step. The following year, The Guardian spoke about e-learning and how it was set to make education more accessible to younger people.
What I can say from all these bullish headlines is that most developed countries were pretty excited to see how an online education system would unfold. For them, this revolution was a step in the right direction.
Many North American and European institutes have made the most of this system, while many others have failed. In Bangladesh, it was rather one-sided. Needless to say, our students did not welcome this new system with open arms, especially since they didn’t know what to expect, lacked resources and often faced academic incompetence.
After almost a year and a half of online learning, as we gradually return to classrooms, we’re asking for more. Do we have what it takes to adapt to a fully online education system? If not, what are we doing wrong?
“Most students find online semesters quite stressful,” says Samiha Haque, senior lecturer at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) at Brac University (BracU). “While viva voce and regular homework test students’ progress and help them cover the curriculum, it also forces them to deal with back-to-back deadlines with barely any free time.”
Students here lack the resources to participate in online classes without a hitch. One of the main problems in this regard is the lack of high-speed internet, especially in rural areas, which is why BracU has built its own e-learning platform. However, was it enough?
“Pre-recorded lectures are time-consuming to watch, but they are useful for students because not everyone is lucky enough to have good internet connectivity to attend live sessions,” says Samiha. “They can also skip live sessions and prioritize their personal emergencies without worrying about losing attendance points or not understanding a topic because of it.”
“However, many students watch recorded lectures just days before their deadlines or exams,” she adds. “Therefore, they don’t have time to clear up their confusions or fully grasp the subject. Also, it is sometimes difficult to create and record new content between semesters due to time constraints.”
BracU hasn’t completely abandoned live classes, however. They were still going, but most students didn’t show up because attendance wasn’t mandatory (at least not during the early days of the pandemic). This is another reason why Samiha and other BracU faculty feel that their students could not get the most out of this system.
Most university students complain about live virtual sessions. They say most instructors don’t know how to use technology to deliver these classes. However, these students often forget that many of these teachers did not grow up surrounded by such technology.
Samiha is new to the teaching profession; she was already familiar with online tools. On the other hand, for experienced teachers and professors, adapting to this new system has proven to be a challenge. Still, many of them adapted to this new environment over time, but ultimately failed to fully utilize it due to lack of student interest.
“E-learning was not a complete struggle, but there were initial learning and technical start-up issues,” comments Dr. Jawadur Rahim Zahid, senior professor at the Institute of Business Administration at University of Dhaka (IBA, DU). “Over time, I managed to find an improvised way to lecture. However, the students were hardly cooperative.”
Dr. Zahid has been teaching for 32 years. Even after three decades in the profession, he welcomed the new method for the benefit of his students. Likewise, many other instructors actively learned new skills for their work.
However, even they do not know if e-learning has a future or not in Bangladesh.
“Online learning can never replace the in-person teaching experience,” adds Dr. Zahid. “At best, it may restructure the remote courses we had before the pandemic.”
And what about the students? What was their experience of moving to a fully online learning system?
One of the biggest hurdles to online learning is finding a way to incorporate hands-on lessons or lab work. Although laboratory courses involving the use of equipment, chemicals for example, could not be taught online, it was still possible to do so for some engineering students.
“It’s hard to replicate a hands-on course online,” says Abdullah, a final year student at BracU. “However, given the circumstances, I will not pretend to have been disappointed with the way my university organized these courses.
What was important in these online courses was for faculty members and university staff to maintain good communication with their students. To some extent, many colleges and universities (or at least specific departments) have been able to achieve this.
“We not only received adequate technical support from the department, but also sufficient emotional support, which was important given that we were living in the midst of a raging pandemic,” says student Abdul Mohaimen Al Radi. in Engineering from the University of Dhaka. . “Overall, I think it was a pretty fair effort from their side.”
Abdullah shares the same sentiment, as does Joyita Faruk, a second-year student in the CSE department of the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB).
“Most of the faculty members were responsive,” recalls Joyita. “They also provided us with their personal phone numbers and Google Meet tutoring hours. Some of them even opened up social media groups for us that they kept in touch with through class reps. “
Despite all the efforts on the part of the universities, the students were still dissatisfied. The main reason behind this was how universities sometimes did not stay true to their words.
“Although they tried to keep their promises, the authorities were caught between maintaining a good standard of education and making things easier for its students,” says Abdullah. “More often than not, students had to meet multiple unrealistic deadlines to survive, which was never the original plan.”
Joyita’s experience hints at the same reality. “I personally think the teachers and the authority were more understanding at first, but later on they just increased the workload to exorbitant amounts, which made them feel like they started to see our time at home as free time for more classes,” she says. “For some reason, IUB gave us a shorter semester break than usual. As a result, many students were exhausted and had little time to recover.”
Therefore, we can come to a conclusion where most students prefer in-person classes over online learning.
As Mohaimen explains, “Online courses are like a poorly orchestrated MOOC with real grade consequences. I have no problem with online teaching. However, I don’t prefer it. If I was given choice, I would definitely choose to be in the Classroom.”
In contrast, the few students who would choose online learning, like Abdullah, would only do so for personal circumstances. Abdullah is currently dependent on online learning due to certain situations in his personal life. If things had been different, he too would have opted for in-person lessons.
At this point, it might feel like everyone is pointing fingers at each other. It is anything but true. Every stakeholder in this e-learning situation seems to have their own reasons why things aren’t working. The reasons explained and the situations discussed so far are very real, and everyone who has been part of this learning system has faced at least one of these situations.
Therefore, we end up back to the question: where did we go wrong with online education? Was online education just a failed experiment, something we dove into because time demanded it? It probably was, as we are not yet convinced of its benefits.
1. Harvard Business Review. The pandemic has pushed universities online. The change was long overdue.
2. The Guardian. “Covid has been a big catalyst”: Universities plan for post-pandemic life.