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Covid-19 and higher education: Is distance learning the way forward?

In the changing situation, the Covid-19 has forced public and private universities to adopt distance learning. However, the separation of learners and teachers has raised number critical issues like psycho-pedagogical, technological, and socio-cultural, which need greater attention. Online teaching methods, pedagogy or andragogy, differ from traditional classroom based teaching and learning.
Md Akther Uddin and Sakera Begum
Covid-19 and higher education: Is distance learning the way forward?

The world has experienced many unprecedented moves since the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic. The global education system has been disrupted badly.

According to UNESCO, as of June 1, 2020, 68% of world’s total enrolled learners of 144 countries were affected due to the closure of educational institutions. One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, over 800 million students, more than half the world’s student population, still face significant disruptions to their education, ranging from full school closures in 31 countries to reduced or part-time academic schedules in another 48 countries. UNESCO also estimates that two thirds of an academic year lost on average worldwide due to Covid-19 school closures.

The situation is even dire in Bangladesh. All the educational institutes, from school to university, have directed to be closed since March 17, 2020. On this backdrop, universities, initially private universities and later a few public universities, have been experiencing a tectonic shift from traditional face‐to‐face education to online education. According to Bangladesh’s University Grants Commission (UGC), as of June, 2020 only 7 out of 46 public universities and 95 out of 107 private universities were running academic activities online. Thus, distance learning has emerged as a new normal and only choice for educational institutions for the continuation of educational activities.

Distance learning, also called distance education, e-learning, and online learning, form of education in which the main elements include physical separation of teachers and students during instruction and the use of various technologies to facilitate student-teacher and student-student communication. Distance learning has been emerging since the beginning of this century with the rapid development of Internet and Communication Technologies (ICTs).

Nowadays, we can see many types of distance education systems in the world. The most common is 100% online education, where from teaching to evaluation takes place online without any face-to-face interactions. Blended learning, another type of distance learning, where students take 30-40% class on campus and the rest 60-70% online. Most of the time, in this system, final exam or comprehensive viva takes place face-to-face. Blended learning is getting momentum across the world. At the same time, many universities in the developed and developing world have integrated online learning management system (LMS) in their traditional classrooms. LMS act as a single platform where students can register, get course materials, communicate with teachers and peers, submit assignment, see final grade and so on. Interestingly, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Coursera, edX and others have become trendy as it offers quality learning materials from renowned universities at an affordable price. Students and professionals are taking various paid or free courses often with a certificate from reputed universities for professional development or career move.

Distance learning in Bangladesh is not a new phenomenon at all. Bangladesh Open University is a pioneer in this field and offer many degree programmes. Interestingly, there had been many foreign university campuses in Bangladesh offering online degrees before they were closed by the government due to gross irregularities including selling certificates. In the changing situation, the Covid-19 has forced public and private universities to adopt distance learning. However, the separation of learners and teachers has raised number critical issues like psycho-pedagogical, technological, and socio-cultural, which need greater attention.

Online teaching methods, pedagogy or andragogy, differ from traditional classroom based teaching and learning. Traditional lecture method will be less effective in online setting as students have shorter attention span and easily distracted by online environments. Active and interactive approach is required to engage students in discussion and various online activities. Teachers must develop a lesson plan in a way to incorporate different learning styles, visual, auditory, kinesthetic or tactical. As students spend more time in various social networking sites like Facebook, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, teachers need to integrate them in teaching and learning. It is evident that not all students can be equally successful in online setting. Students with low motivation tend to face many difficulties in online learning. Learner autonomy plays a pivotal role as students need to take responsibility for their own learning. Moreover, teacher must understand a student's readiness of online learning as it is important in developing confidence and perception towards online learning.

Technological aspect of distance learning is often neglected or forgotten. Bangladesh has made a phenomenal growth towards digitalization. According to dataportal.com, a website, the internet user of Bangladesh is 47.61 million among which 7.7 million are new user between 2020 and 2021. Among these users 68.2% use mobile connection and 31% use laptop and pc and rest 0.8% use tablet to access internet. Internet penetration has been increasing rapidly thanks to mobile Internet but it is still lower than many developing countries. Moreover, we cannot ignore the growing digital divide. Many students do not have smart phones and those who have but living in rural areas can't join online classes due to poor network coverage and slow internet connection. In addition to that, the expenditure on Internet is an extra burden for most of the middle and lower income households. Most importantly, we have seen some initiatives from TeleTalk, a state mobile operator, to provide greater access to students and teachers but it is still insufficient.

Last but not the least important factor is socio-cultural aspects of online learning. It is well established that culture plays a critical role in teaching and learning. There are people, teacher, students and parents, who tend to believe that online learning is ineffective as traditional classroom socialization is a major missing in online education setting. We know that educational institutions are very important place for social interaction. Many students will miss social interaction based activities which are essential for their leadership growth and lifelong learning due to suspension of academic activities. However, the research shows that distance learning is not only effective and but also can develop learner autonomy and self-regulation among students.

In conclusion, we cannot deny that there is a paradigm shift in higher education of Bangladesh during Covid-19 pandemic. Distance learning has naturally evolved as a viable alternative. However, there are number of challenges in implementing distance learning in developing countries like Bangladesh. The growing digital divide would create greater inequality in education. It is high time we develop regulatory framework and set standards for distance learning as it is going to play a critical role in the post-Covid higher education. Initiatives needed to develop digital literacy at the school level. Teachers are not quite ready for this kind of paradigm shift in education. All stakeholders should come forward to organize regular training, seminar, webinar and symposium on distance learning. It is important to create mass awareness and demonstrate that distance learning tools, if implemented properly, can be as good as traditional classroom based learning. However, the success of it depends on how efficiently we handle psycho-pedagogical, technological and socio-cultural challenges.

Dr Md Akther Uddin is an Assistant Professor and Sakera Begum is a Lecturer of Business School at the University of Creative Technology Chittagong. Emails: [email protected] & [email protected]

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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