As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, causing classrooms to stay closed, online education becomes more imperative. Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) acting Vice Chancellor Professor Milan Pagon in a recent interview with The Daily Star said that online education is much more than just emailing educational material to students and he was sceptical about the ability of many Bangladeshi universities to offer proper online education.
Below is an abridged version of the interview:
TDS: What are the plans and strategies for online academic activities of your university during this ongoing pandemic and beyond?
Professor Pagon: With no respite from coronavirus, we will conduct the coming semester completely online.
To make sure that the quality of education is not compromised, we will not offer lab and practical courses this semester. As soon as the situation gets better, we will aim for a combined model of education -- where certain classes will be offered online and others on campus.
TDS: Readiness towards this new approach for both students and the institution are important. What's your take on that?
Professor Pagon: Distance and online education have not really been practiced in Bangladesh until now, except for the Open University.
And it seems that many people even consider it "online education" when they email educational material to their students and ask them to send the assignments back. Online education -- when pursued properly -- is so much more than that.
Since most of the faculties and students never experienced online education, how can we expect them to be prepared for it? So, we need to accept that we will go through some initial problems and necessary adjustments before we get everything right.
To address these concerns, we selected a uniform online platform for all IUB courses (Google Classroom with some added functionalities), prepared detailed instructions for the faculty and the students, and ran a week of mock online classes for undergraduate and graduate students.
We are now addressing the identified issues, as well as preparing appropriate guidelines and more training sessions. We are also intensely working on preparing an efficient system of online assessment and grading for the coming semester.
TDS: Interactive lectures and presentations are key to keep the students attentive. There are allegations that many online classes are not interactive.
Professor Pagon: The best antidote to the lack of student attention is to make classes interactive, interesting, useful and relevant.
In addition to attending online classes, students need to be involved in group projects, discussions and chat rooms with their peers.
Also, the existing Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and Online Learning Platforms can be incorporated in the university's own online courses, and proper guidance and coaching should be provided to the students regarding those courses. Every IUB student is eligible for free Coursera online courses, using their IUB email address.
TDS: Digital devices are needed for online classes but government studies show that in Bangladesh only 5.6 percent of households have a computer or tablet. On the other hand, only 30 to 40 percent of 10 crore cell phone users have smartphones. How can we address this issue?
Professor Pagon: Most of our students come from middle or upper-class families. And a large proportion can afford basic devices needed for online education.
Having said that, I do acknowledge that some percentage of our students might need help in this regard but, again, let's keep in mind that almost all of our revenue comes from the student tuition and fees, so it would be hard for the university to provide necessary devices to those students.
The banks or even the government might consider providing appropriate student loans for this purpose.
TDS: Uninterrupted internet connection is the backbone of online classes but only 37.6 percent of households in the country have access to the internet. How can this problem be fixed?
Professor Pagon: We are currently in discussions with some mobile service providers to explore the opportunities for a university-subsidised subscription that would enable our students to access Google Classroom through a mobile network for a nominal fee or even for free.
However, there is only so much the university can do on its own. The onus here lies on the government. They should mandate service providers to offer available student mobile plans; ensure uninterrupted electricity supply during class times; provide free Wi-Fi access points in remote locations, etc.
TDS: During physical classes, a teacher can pay extra attention to the students who are lagging behind. How would this issue be addressed through online classes?
Professor Pagon: In an online class, a teacher can still observe the students on the screen, but to a limited extent. Google Classroom, however, enables the teachers to conduct in-session quizzes, which helps them assess which students have trouble following and understanding the material.
Once identified, these students can be advised or coached separately outside the class. They can be given additional materials; they can be paired with peer tutors who have a better grasp of the subject; they can be encouraged to enroll in a particular MOOCs course etc.
TDS: During a pandemic mental health of students also needs attention…
Professor Pagon: Even before the pandemic, the so-called 'tele-health' became quite popular around the world. At IUB, we have been offering 'tele-counselling' to our students and employees from the very beginning of this pandemic.
Once the situation improves, we will resume offering our usual psychosocial counselling on campus. Academic advisors can play an important role, by advising students to select appropriate courses and reasonable course load, thus avoiding unnecessary stress -- both financially and mentally.
TDS: What are essential resources required to succeed in this 'New Normal' setting?
Professor Pagon: Effective online education requires a lot of investments. It can be very expensive to professionally prepare and deliver materials required for that purpose, such as instructional videos, interactive tutorials, high-quality recordings of lectures and discussions, adequate e-storage facilities, proper bandwidth, high-end software and hardware, just to mention a few.
Those who are asking of the universities to lower the tuition if the classes are offered online, obviously do not understand the real meaning of online education. Having said that, it needs to be ensured that a proper online education is actually being offered.
Echoing the report of the University Grants Commission (UGC), I am very sceptical about the ability of many Bangladeshi universities to offer proper online education at this time.
The problem is further complicated by the fact that private universities in this country do not get any government funding. Almost all their revenue is generated by collecting student tuition and fees. In a situation when many students might not continue their studies due to Covid-19 related financial difficulties, it might be even harder for many private universities to offer high-quality online education.
TDS: Considering the current economic fallout caused by the pandemic, many universities are offering waiver of their tuition fees and other steps. What about IUB?
Professor Pagon: We would not charge any activity/semester fees for the coming semester, as the students will not use on-campus amenities.
A regular student will need to enrol for a minimum 6 credit hour in place of previous 9 credit hours. In justified cases, a student may even continue studies by enrolling in one course (3 credit hours).
The normal requirement for financial-aid eligibility has been decreased from the usual 12 to only 6 credit hours. whoever was receiving financial aid in the previous semester will continue receiving it, if they register for at least 6 credit hours.
Students in financial difficulties may pay their registration fee in three equal instalments. The instalments were 50, 30 and 20 percent, respectively.
Freshers in financial difficulties will be allowed to attend classes just by paying the admissions fee. They may also pay their registration fee in three equal instalments.
We reintroduced different categories of financial aid, such as sibling discount, children of IUB alumni discount, need-based financial aid upon entry, etc.
The students who were on probation will be allowed an additional chance to improve their performance, so no cancellation of admission will be executed for those students at the end of Spring 2020 and Summer 2020.
Re-registration fee will be waived for students who have become irregular for unauthorised leave of absence by one semester and now wish to continue their studies.
In addition, a Student Welfare Fund has been created with voluntary contributions of the IUB management, faculty, and staff. Now we are in the process of involving the IUB trustees and alumni in this initiative.
For next academic year, about Tk 20 crore has been allocated for scholarship and financial aid for the students. Almost 4,000 students have been offered scholarships and financial aid in different categories for Summer 2020, which is 300% more than the previous semesters.
And finally, the university board has already approved the insurance scheme for students. The university will bear the cost of the insurance premium for all students.
TDS: How can Bangladesh's higher education meet the requirements of rapidly changing global demands?
Professor Pagon: Let me first share the experience from my country in Europe. If the government approves any university programme, they also provide the funding if the course meets very stringent criteria, and the students can study for free -- regardless of whether the programme is offered by a public or a private university.
The government would also fund academic programmes at a limited number of private universities, while some programmes at public universities might not get funded.
That would ensure quality in government-sponsored higher education and clearly distinguish between high-quality universities and the rest.
Consequently, different rules should be applied to different categories of universities. As I keep pointing out, it makes no sense that a full-fledged university gets approved the same number of seats per programme as some university operating from a rented building, with hardly any full-time faculty members.
Only high-performing universities will be able to adapt to challenges of ongoing pandemic and the 4th Industrial Revolution.
It is the role of the government to make sure that distinctions between the universities are properly identified and clearly known to the public, and that public funds only go to those who qualify.
In this regard, I have high hopes for the newly established Accreditation Commission and UGC leadership.
For the universities, my suggestion is to give proper focus on research and publication. Overall research productivity in Bangladesh is very low, which is also reflected in a very limited presence of Bangladeshi universities in various international rankings.
For the students and parents, my advice is to pay attention to the above-mentioned issues when deciding which university to enrol in. Making a wrong choice might have far-reaching consequences for the graduates' lives and careers.