POST TIME: 22 June, 2021 11:41:27 PM / LAST MODIFIED: 22 June, 2021 11:46:28 PM
Rethinking higher education policy in the post-Covid era
Phygital is more comprehensive than digital or face-to-face education. Phygital is also better than online education as the latter does not include the best practices of face-to-face learning (e.g., engagement, exams), which results in poor recognition of online degrees and graduates in the community and job sector.
Dr Md Aktaruzzaman

Rethinking higher education policy in the post-Covid era

The Covid-19 pandemic has raised significant challenges as well as opportunities for the higher education community worldwide to learn and explore. During the pandemic a particular challenge was the urgent and unexpected request for previously face-to-face university courses to be taught online and vice versa near about the end of pandemic. The shifting from traditional face-to-face education to online was not an easy journey for many institutions across the world – a bunch of changes in terms of digital competencies, pedagogical knowledge, psychosocial counselling, varied levels of interaction, engagement and assessment strategies, support structures, etc. were required to be adopted in the institutional policies and practices. Now at the post-Covid stage should we go back to the traditional face-to-face education leaving all these remarkable shifts or changes behind? – certainly not. Then what should be our strategies at the post-Covid education system in a digital world? Let’s start by understanding digital learning, phygital learning, blended learning, online learning and other relevant terminologies in order to get a clear and wide spectrum of post-Covid education in the days ahead. Digital learning is an umbrella term, which can be defined as any type of learning that is accompanied by digital technology or by instructional practice that makes effective use of it. A wide spectrum of practices can be classified into digital learning such as adaptive learning, blended learning, gamification, classroom technologies, learning analytics, reusable learning objects, MOOCs, mobile learning, online learning, eLearning, OERs, ebooks, virtual reality, augmented reality, and so on. This type of learning is often better suited for adopting flipped classroom pedagogy, differentiated learning, personalized learning, universal design for learning, etc. However, digital learning is not at all meant to replace traditional methods but rather to enhance the learning experience. A new trend called phygital (a blend of physical and digital space, phygital = physical + digital) learning is gaining popularity in recent times. It is the concept of using technology to integrate the digital learning space with the physical world for the purpose of providing a unique interactive experience to the learners. Phygital is more comprehensive than digital or face-to-face education and it is NOT blended learning as the latter does not blend the best practices of face-to-face and online education instead operates both singly. Phygital is also better than online education as the latter does not include the best practices of face-to-face learning (e.g., engagement, exams), which results in poor recognition of online degrees and graduates in the community and job sector. In the 4th industrial revolution era with the high speed of Internet, the post-Covid education is expected to be neither fully online nor face-to-face but rather phygital in Education 4.0.

To ensure digital education at the higher education sector, each university should have a customized and centrally managed learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard or at least Google Classroom. Besides, smart-education type platform is important to have for monitoring, management and accountability of all academic and administrative tasks. Universities should provide necessary arrangements to ensure that all teachers and staff effectively uses these platforms regularly. Modern LMS integrates web conferencing, learning analytics, video engagement, interactive digital contents and mobile applications, thus its usage enables changes in the quality of education. There is no alternative of professional development in digital education system, particularly for reducing the gap of practices in the academia and industry as well as for developing ethics and professionalism of teachers. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform could be highly useful in this regard. Like the popular MOOC providers in the world - edX, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, FutureLearn – universities could develop their own platforms with a range of need-based and time-driven courses, which may result in better and more impactful learning and teaching.

Collaboration and student engagements are considered as one of the most important aspects in today’s digital education. World-renowned universities largely follow flipped classroom pedagogy for this purpose and provide lecture notes, audio-visual materials, and further study links well ahead of scheduled class to the LMS, thus ample opportunity is ensured during class for higher order cognitive knowledge and skills including group discussion, question-answering, drill-practice, more subject-based discussion, etc. Nowadays a wide range of tools and techniques are used at LIVE classes such as on-screen writing using Microsoft Whiteboard or Google Jamboard, drawing, highlighting presentation slides, interactivity with Mentimeter, etc. for better students understanding of the classes. Each class is usually recorded and made available at LMS by adding video engagement quiz to it, which helps to grade students appropriately. Besides, originality checking, smart attendance system, group assignment, discussion forums, quiz, creative writing, etc. play important roles in assessing students better. Student feedback and accountability of teachers – these two aspects should be the key considerations for continuing digital education. Student monthly feedback and activities for each course are carefully analyzed and meaningful patterns are extracted to improve teaching-learning. Each teacher may submit a monthly report with evidence following a rubric comprising 8-10 aspects such as LMS course organization, student engagement, teacher interactions, counselling and advising students, value additions, self-development, student feedback, research activities, and an overall video presentation. Altogether, these tools, techniques and approaches may have significant impacts to quality education, if universities monitor and oversee these tasks regularly and sincerely.

Few of the public and private universities have been doing quite good in digital education sector since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic such as Daffodil International University, Brac University, North South University, Bangabandhu Digital University, Bangladesh University of Professionals, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology. Among them Daffodil University is considered as the country’s leading university in blended, online and digital education. Daffodil started digital education officially through the establishment of Blended Learning Center in 2013. Currently the university has integrated numerous solutions for conducting teaching-learning digitally which includes but not limited to its own LMS, MOOC platform, Smart-Edu system, etc. Distribution of more than 30 thousand free laptops to students under the campaign of ‘One Student, One Laptop’ has played an important part in the university’s digital progress. Recently North South University has introduced Canvas LMS and Brac University introduced edX platform to their students. Among the public universities Bangabandhu Digital University, Bangladesh University of Professionals, Shahjalal University and few others are continuing education online through different platforms since the very beginning of the pandemic.

Summative assessment is the biggest challenge for online education, particularly in the developing countries where device, price and speed of Internet, and socio-economic issues are prevalent. In our assessment system 70-80 percent marks are assigned to summative exams for mid-term and semester final, which does not commensurate at all to the modern assessment strategy followed around the world. On the other hand, online proctored exams do not have much success stories particularly at this region. Thus, mixed approach of assessment could be effective, for example, 60-70 percent marks for creative assignment, quiz, case studies, presentation, project development, etc. and the rest 30-40 percent marks could be allocated for traditional type of examinations. A consortium could be formed by including Bangladesh Open University, National University, and Union Digital Center. This may result in high quality blended and online education particularly assessment, counselling, video streaming like services to all utilizing their nationwide large physical infrastructures.

Online education is not a problem by itself but rather the provider institution offering the program should be the key focus to investigate. For instance, an online program offered by Harvard University won’t be the same quality of that at Dhaka University. Quality is important but it is highly relative term, thus quantity needs to be focused as well. Every year approximately 10 lakh students pass HSC exam, this year it is 13 Lakh 67 thousand while public (except National University)and private universities can accommodate only 60-70 thousand and 2 lakh aspirant students respectively for higher education. And it is not possible to change the physical infrastructure overnight. Therefore, online education is the best alternative in today’s Digital Bangladesh. After a year-long digital education practices in different capacities at various institutions we must think the possible implications deeply regarding going back to the stage of traditional education where we were before the outbreak of Covid pandemic. Online education should be patronized and also liberalized through standardization of policies and practices by increasing the number of provider institutions in both public and private sectors on a competitive and transparent basis. The policy must follow a standard set of criteria, which may include but not limited to: (i) years of experience in blended, online & digital education; (ii) infrastructural resources (e.g. IT); (iii) human resources; (iv) rigorous quality assurance; (v) periodic compliance requirement; (vi) proper documentation and reporting of student feedback; (vii) support system; (viii) digital and pedagogical competencies of teachers and professional development; (ix) incorporation of teaching-learning analytics; (x) educational guidance and counselling, among others.

Technology plays an important role in blended, online or any forms of digital education but institutional practices that are built over the years by carefully crafted policies, investment of resources, and engaging a pool of expert teaching and support staff should not be wasted but rather provided opportunities to flourish. Although many universities are currently offering online education to its students during the Corona pandemic, the University Grant Commission (UGC), Bangladesh may not allow them to continue its best practices of online education in the post-Covid era. Only two public universities in Bangladesh have mandates to offer online education and training. However, none of our universities has yet made any significant contributions in formal online program offerings whereas it is hard to find a single Australian or Canadian university not offering formal online education. Thus, Bangladesh is yet to mark its presence in the global online education industry, which could be the third biggest source of earning revenues after remittance and garment industry, if this sector is given due importance and carefully visioned straightaway. Therefore, now it is the right time for our policy makers to rethink the online education policy and facilitate private universities like Daffodil having years of expertise in blended and online education to excel in today’s transnational education system as a brand of Education Bangladesh.

The writer is a Digital Education Expert & Director, Blended Learning Center, Daffodil International University, Dhaka. He is also the founding head of ICT & Education Dept(s), Bangabandhu Digital University. Email: [email protected]