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Covid-19: Highlighting the necessity for rethinking higher education

A key concern in online education is student engagement. Keeping a student engaged for 50 or 90 minutes in a purely lecture based class is difficult even in a classroom setting, let alone virtual.
M. M. Shahidul Hassan & Orchi Hassan, Ph.D
Covid-19: Highlighting the necessity for rethinking higher education

Over the past year, the global higher education landscape has dramatically changed due to the coronavirus outbreak. Most, if not all, universities across the globe had to cancel in-person instruction and moved to online-only instructions.

Even in Bangladesh, where the prevalent method of teaching is traditional classroom education with little to no online education infrastructure in place, most universities had still managed to shift their classes online within two months of the first reported Covid-19 death in the country. Universities, students, teachers all tried to adapt to the challenging situation as fast and as best as they could given the circumstances, while assuming this would be a temporary situation. But here we are today, going through our third lockdown, fearing the third wave, we can no longer treat this as a temporary situation. As the situation continues to develop, we need to address not only the immediate but long-term challenges associated with conducting online education and perhaps take a deeper look into our current higher education system itself.

The teaching and learning experience in a virtual classroom are very different from a traditional face-to-face classroom. Naturally, this sudden shift to online platform has created a lot of challenges for the teachers, students, and university authorities as well. The initial challenge was to make the shift itself where students needed reliable access to internet and teachers needed to adapt to using technology as teaching tools. Now one year into it, the key challenges that remain include ensuring student engagement in virtual classroom, conducting virtual laboratory sessions for relevant disciplines, and student assessment. But if we think about it, most of these issues exist even in in-person instructions, the online platform has only intensified it. Educationalists have been trying to address these issues for decades. In 1995 Barr and Tagg had proposed the learning paradigm as a solution. But a sudden shift in paradigm from the time and tested methods may end up causing more issues. Instead, if we could look at the concepts as solutions to our most pertinent online education challenges and introduce them, these trying times could actually facilitate a beginning to the much-needed shift.

A key concern in online education is student engagement. Keeping a student engaged for 50 or 90 minutes in a purely lecture based class is difficult even in a classroom setting, let alone virtual. In the existing teacher-centric teaching paradigm called the instruction paradigm, knowledge is transferred primarily through lectures and students are expected to learn from just listening to it. This passive role of the student in the learning process encourages memorization, often without internalization of the materials and thus is not considered effective. The learning paradigm is based on the idea that to learner effectively, the learners must construct and reconstruct knowledge themselves. Research actually finds that it is impossible to teach if a student does not want to, or is not able to do so themselves. The teachers play the role of a facilitator in this case. Only a portion of class-time is spent on lectures and the rest of the time teachers work to create an interactive learning environment by allocating time for group discussions and Q&A sessions. This can actually be facilitated online easily by availing breakout room options. The chat option allows for even the most introverted students to post questions and interact with teachers directly. The teachers can also asses if knowledge is being transferred effectively through these direct interactions. Active participation of the student in the learning process is the answer to effective learning be it online or in classroom settings. Encouraging group-study, assigning real-life projects and challenging problems are some of the means to ensure active-participation. Using the online platforms students can discuss and share their ideas and opinion with peers to solve these problems and assignments. They also use various synchronous and asynchronous tools that increase the possibilities for interaction, decreasing feelings of isolation and increasing a sense of community.

What is perhaps the biggest concern for university authorities right now lies is in fair evaluation of students in an online setting. Administering examinations maintaining academic integrity online is a difficult task. Although ideally it is expected that at the tertiary education stage, a student would have developed academic integrity, but it is hardly the case in reality. Especially when following through with the traditional assessment technique based on high-stake examinations. Most universities have resorted to purchasing expensive proctoring software as means of catching acts of academic dishonesty. But as educators we must also look into why is it that students cheat, why is it so prevalent and focus on what can we do to prevent it. There are a couple of well- identified reasons behind this. First, students are more likely to cheat if they have low expectation to succeed. This happens in courses designed to have high-stake exams where all of the grades lie in a single exam, like what is traditionally seen in public universities across the country. If the assessment is divided into lower-stake tasks and exams, students may be encouraged to tackle the problems more readily which helps facilitate learning and build their confidence. In an online setting the teachers have access to many formative digital assessment tools such as Edulastic, Flipgrid, Google Classroom Question Tool, Quizlet, Google Forms, etc. which even makes the evaluation process simpler. Second, students often cannot relate learning with grades. Aligning learning outcomes with assessment grades is not really shown in traditional teaching. Recently, University Grants Commission (UGC) has asked universities to implement outcome-based education (OBE). In OBE curriculum of a discipline develops based on some defined learning outcomes.  Students are also more likely to cheat, when they feel anonymous. Class size plays a crucial role here. Addressing each student, building a relationship with each one individually is very hard in a large classroom setting.  Reducing class size allows the teacher to interact directly with each student and also makes it easy to proctor examinations as well. So, while using the expensive proctoring tools may help identify and punish students for cheating, these tools do not address the main reasons behind why a student actually looks to cheat in the first place.

If we look closely, the fundamental problems and challenges the teachers are facing in an online class is just actually a consequence of our present learning paradigm. The same challenges exist in classroom teaching, the shift to a virtual platform has only further highlighted them. Hopefully, universities in Bangladesh will acknowledge the shortcomings of instructional paradigm and will be encouraged to adopt the learning paradigm in both online and classroom teaching. Of course, this doesn’t mean we abandon instructional paradigm and shift to the learning paradigm overnight; rather the shift should be gradual, integrating the key aspects of the learning paradigm along the way so that it is an evolution of instructional paradigm rather than a revolutionary leap into the learning paradigm.

M. M. Shahidul Hassan is Vice-Chancellor, EWU. Orchi Hassan, Ph.D, is Assistant Professor, EEE, BUET.

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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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