Online education and artificial intelligence
As we all know, Covid-19 struck Wuhan on New Year's Eve in 2019, and the city embraced total lockdown. Soon, the rest of China and the world followed. But what many don't know is Chinese education never went into lockdown.
Within less than three months, Beijing Normal University (BNU) started a new semester offering more than 3,000 online courses. BNU could do so only because of China's comprehensive education technology (EdTech) drive in the preceding years, as a blog post at the Oxford Internet Institute elaborates. With EdTech, China combined computer hardware, software, and educational theory and practice to continue education. In 2017, it adopted a vision to become a world leader in EdTech and artificial intelligence (AI), giving top priority to implementing AI solutions in the education sector. In 2018, Zhejiang University on China's east coast had already built smart classrooms equipped with audio recognition and simultaneous interpretation. When the pandemic struck, all the tools were ready for recording video lectures or live streaming. It was not only the universities; most Chinese primary and secondary schools also commenced online schools on February 9, 2020 with nearly 200 million students.
How did Beijing achieve such a phenomenal feat? According to a UNESCO post, "How is China ensuring learning when classes are disrupted by coronavirus?" the Chinese government mobilised every related ministry, private entity, and telecom company, and above all, teachers and students. It also launched 22 validated free AI-based online course repositories. Schools and teachers chose suitable modes of delivery based on local e-readiness. But China's EdTech drive also highlighted its deep digital divide. As of 2018, many schools in remote areas didn't have reliable internet connections. The Ministry of Education (MOE) started providing every public school with at least a 10-Mbit broadband connection to overcome this problem, achieving 95 percent coverage in April this year.
The drive for Internet-based learning also attracted many big corporates—such as Alibaba and Tencent (both tech giants) and SoftBank Group (Japanese multinational conglomerate)—into China's lucrative private e-tutoring market. They each launched one or more EdTech platforms and deployed every means to secure a market share. With Chinese parents' willingness to spend extra money for children's education, such practices triggered intense market competition. E-tutoring and homework consumed the students' weekends and holidays, creating an unsustainable situation. The trend prompted the MOE to set up a division to oversee all private EdTech platforms. Beijing also launched a crackdown on the big ones, several of which had become unicorn companies (private companies valued at more than USD 1 billion) as listed by Holoniq.com.
USA is the other country where EdTech saw a surge giving rise to unicorn companies such as Articulate and Udemy. It already enjoys a long-running public education infrastructure comprising schools, state administration, funding, parent-teacher committees, and the like. After the onset of the pandemic, EdTech added value to the existing system by providing technology products and services to facilitate learning and administration. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators use technology for meetings, enrolments, attendance, student support, counseling, and feedback. But the digital divide is a problem in the USA also, as Boston Consulting Group reports. Almost 30 percent of K to 12 students cannot follow online school because they couldn't afford proper internet connection or suitable devices.
How do the Chinese and the American EdTech drives compare, and what's their relevance to Bangladesh? China embraced a paradigm shift and introduced AI, making remarkable strides in public education delivery through EdTech. On the other hand, USA further strengthened its existing education system with EdTech. A Forbes article states that the American system is ground-up, while the Chinese approach is delivered centrally with a top-down approach. Whatever their policies, Bangladesh needs to learn from these experiences and address its problems with solutions focusing on local situations. Its education is stuck in the pandemic, and scientists are predicting more such pandemics in the future. Most Bangladeshi schools and universities have started online lectures and exams. Yet, none have found any reasonable solution that can replace the in-person experience. Students attend lessons and take exams over poor internet connections with insufficient devices, often unable to follow or communicate with the teachers. Mobile data quickly runs out, and students have to step out to buy additional packs. It's an untenable situation, and Bangladesh's education is in jeopardy.
Thankfully, Bangladesh has a few advantages too. Several NGOs, such as Brac, specialise in delivering education through a network of schools, teachers, and volunteers. There is also the government education infrastructure down to the upazila level. Two full-scale ministries are responsible for delivering education from K to 12 and at the tertiary level. There are already a few Bangladeshi EdTech initiatives ready to help this sector. What actions can Bangladesh take to embrace education for all in a digital era? Here are a few ideas.
First, adopt a vision to implement education through digital means regardless of the pandemic situation. Second, prepare a policy to implement it. Third, mobilise all professionals such as students, teachers, subject matter specialists, educationists, and pedagogical experts. Include social influencers such as NGOs, political leaders, and the mass media in the process. Third, bring in the infrastructure providers such as telecom companies, internet service providers, cloud platforms, and hardware manufacturers. Fourth, set up an AI and Augmented Reality research center for applications in education. These are, however, not entirely new ideas. Bangladesh government has already adopted a policy to implement the "Digital Bangladesh" vision. All that is needed is a vision for delivering quality education through online platforms.
No one should miss out on education for lack of digital connectivity. The returns from the factories and businesses are easy to see, and there is a strong lobby to keep them running. But the benefits of education are long-term and profound. Suspending education for any period may cause irreparable damage, erasing decades of progress.
Dr Sayeed Ahmed is a consulting engineer and freelance writer.