Some universities are reporting how great their online education is going with at least 70 per cent attendance. But if you look at it from the other side – that means 30 per cent of the students are not being able to participate. That is not acceptable. This prevailing situation is an opportunity to assess the problems in online education and think about solutions.

These observations were recently made by the Acting Vice Chancellor of Independent University Bangladesh (IUB), professor Milan Pagon. He was speaking in an interview with Prothom Alo about higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic and the way ahead.

When asked about how IUB was going about online classes to ensure education during the pandemic, he said, “At IUB we decided we need to be realistic. We did not want to follow some others who are making statements regarding how their online education is going and that everything is smooth and so on. I fully agree with the University Grants Commission (UGC)’s recent assessment that, overall, Bangladesh is not fully ready for a full-fledged online education. That is why we decided to implement this gradually. It is about the future of our students and we don’t want to put them in a situation where they will not be able to continue with their education.”

Despite all the hype about online education, with people saying that this is the future of education, there are certain things that cannot be done online. He highlighted the need for a ‘blended model’, meaning that certain things are online and certain things have to be done face-to -face as soon as the situation permits

IUB’s new semester starts on 1 July and this time is being used to get everybody -- both faculty and students -- ready for online education.

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“Online education is a new concept in the Bangladesh context. Previously only the Open University had the permission to conduct distance online classes in Bangladesh,” professor Pagon said, emphasising the need for ample preparation.

However, he was also quick to point out that despite all the hype about online education, with people saying that this is the future of education, there are certain things that cannot be done online.

He highlighted the need for a ‘blended model’, meaning that certain things are online and certain things have to be done face-to -face as soon as the situation permits.

He elaborated, “What we do with our students is to prepare them for the future, for jobs. Most of their jobs will be done face-to-face, even in the new situation. We can’t expect everything will be done online. People graduating from universities will go on to real life face-to-face situations and if you prepare somebody exclusively online for four years and then send them to the real life situation, they are going to have problems.”

“While the situation is really bad in terms of the number of deaths and infections, we are resorting to only online activities but as soon as the situation improves, we will have to add face-to-face components, especially for practical and lab-based classes,” he said.

IUB first selected the platform Google Classroom and prepared in detail for the faculty and students. They are now in the process of equipping all the classrooms with the necessary additional hardware.

“Our decision is that the faculty will come to campus and take classes from the classrooms and we are running trial online classes with Google Classroom. That gives the opportunity to the students and faculty members to get hands on experience with this new platform and, above all, we can identify the problems that are happening in the process,” the acting vice chancellor explained.

In an online exam you don’t know who is sitting on the other side. You don’t know if it is really your student or some ‘boro bhai’. So there are many problems.

He realises that such efforts need collaboration and that the UGC, the ministry and the government will have to work together to ensure education can reach every corner of Bangladesh. While saying that for the students in Dhaka this may not really be a big problem as they are better off, have the devices and so on, he pointed out in the villages in Bangladesh where sometimes there is no electricity, their phones have no charge, internet connections are problematic - these are issues that a university cannot solve on its own. It has to be a joint effort.

Milan Pagon went on to explain that online education was a completely different mode of education than face-to-face education and, as stated in the UGC report, most of the teachers have never experienced this and are not used to it. “For example,” he elaborated, “ in an online exam you don’t know who is sitting on the other side. You don’t know if it is really your student or some ‘boro bhai’. So there are many problems.”

Our major concern now is to make sure our students will be able to afford education. We relaxed a lot of criteria. We are not lowering any quality standards, but we are lowering the administrative barriers for students to continue their education

Online education doesn’t mean that you just email material to the students, help them study and that’s it, he continued. That is not online education. Online education means you have to have interactive contact with your students. You have live lectures where students can interrupt, ask questions, you have group discussions, you have team work and so on. You upload links to your presentation so students watch it and then you come together and have discussions. It takes a different mindset. A lot of faculty members, not just in Bangladesh but all around the world, are not used to this.

Students, to Milan Pagon, are the most important. “There is no quality education without the students, he said, “The first thing is to make sure that our students are enabled to participate in education, that they don’t drop out due to financial reasons. Our major concern now is to make sure our students will be able to afford education. We relaxed a lot of criteria. We are not lowering any quality standards, but we are lowering the administrative barriers for students to continue their education.

For example, in the past to be a regular student of university, you had to take three classes and nine credit hours per semester. So now if someone cannot afford 9 credits, that should not mean they will have to drop out. So we now lowered the bar to 6 credit hours to be a regular student. In special cases, we will consider one course. If a family cannot afford to pay only for one course, that student will still be allowed to continue as a regular student. For financial aid in the past, it was 12 credit hours, 3 classes minimum to avail any kind of financial aid. We now lowered that to 6 credit hours. In the past we reassessed the financial aid every semester. Now in this situation we try to keep everyone who received financial aid in the last semester, without any reassessment.”

The university is also adding categories of financial aid and has created a student welfare fund where employees, faculty, staff, and the trustees, and soon the alumni too, are contributing from their own pockets to create the fund so students will be able to continue. So, Pagon reiterated, the first condition is that you need to have students to have quality education. And quality must not be lowered.

A lot of effort should be just on improving the quality of secondary level education in Bangladesh and move away from this rote memorisation model where students are used to memorising something without understanding and then repeating it and getting good grades. The government has done a lot, and a lot of progress has been made, but more is to be done

He pointed out that the job of the faculty members is not just teaching. There are three components involved – the service component, the research component and the teaching component. “We are finding ways of how all this can be done in the new scenario when it will be hard to go out to the field and collect data and interview people. In the whole landscape of higher education, including research, we have to adapt. There is no other option.”

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Asked to give recommendations about online education in the prevailing situation, the professor said it was difficult to come up with recommendations as there were many factors that influence decisions. “One of the things we need to be aware of is,” he said, “there are more than 100 private universities in Bangladesh. Not all are of acceptable standard. The government should put emphasis on making sure only those who meet all of the criteria can be allowed to do the job.”

“My second recommendation would be, and I know it is easier said than done,” the professor continued, “we need to improve the quality of secondary education. When you get students to the English medium institutions of education like the private universities here and if a large percentage of the students do not understand spoken English, it is a serious problem. A lot of effort should be just on improving the quality of secondary level education in Bangladesh and move away from this rote memorisation model where students are used to memorising something without understanding and then repeating it and getting good grades. The government has done a lot, and a lot of progress has been made, but more is to be done.”

The IUB acting vice chancellor was happy to say, “Two days ago we were informed that in the Time Higher Education (THE) Asia Awards, out of all the institutions in Bangladesh, IUB was the only university shortlisted in the category of campaign for student recruitment. Obviously we are doing something right!”