Emeritus professor of Brac University, Manzoor Ahmed
Emeritus professor of Brac University, Manzoor Ahmed

Veteran educationist and emeritus professor of Brac University Manzoor Ahmed has spent much of his life working on education. In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, he spoke of the country’s education system, its challenges, how to proceed during the coronavirus pandemic and related issues

The government has taken up some cluster plans to overcome the losses in education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is initiative to bring HSC and SSC students back to the classrooms. The government is also planning to take the final exams of both these levels. What are the challenges in implementing these plans?

It is difficult to say when and how we will be freed from this pandemic. After the closure of educational institutions for almost a year, policymakers are still undecided on how to settle the health and life risks and the loss of education in this unwarranted situation.

However, it is understood that the government is giving importance to bring students back to the normal routine by organising public examinations for secondary and higher secondary levels. These tests are scheduled to be held mid-2021. It is also being considered to bring other level students gradually back to the schools.

The main prerequisite for examinations and bringing students back to school safely, is to ensure the health and safety guidelines. In the school, both the teachers and students must wear masks, sanitise their hands and maintain social distancing. Simply issuing directives from the centre is not enough. Each school needs to make a plan based on their own circumstances.

After the consideration of the school’s needs, a working group has to be formed in every upazila with the education officer, the local government, and education-related NGOs. We also need to ensure the financial support for this task.

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If schools reopen in February, we will have to complete two years of studies within 10 months. This will require special preparation and instructions. How can that be done?

It is not possible to make up for the losses of two years in 10 months. We have to take two strategies in this regard. Firstly, we have to chalk out plans out for the next two academic years (2021 and 2022) to make up the losses.

Secondly, the curriculum needs to be redesigned to overcome the crisis. We will have to exclude some less important subjects from the syllabus and to put more effort on basic skills. The class periods should be extended, giving more time to lessons and reducing time to prepare and arrange for exams.

At the primary level, more focus should be on Bangla and mathematics. At the secondary level, priority should be given to Bangla, English, mathematics, science and technology.

The time for organising and preparing public examinations in schools should be reduced. Taking advantage of this crisis, we could think of changing the annual academic calendar. Considering the natural calamities and climate in Bangladesh, many think that the academic year is not suitable as per the current Gregorian calendar.

Like many other countries, experts think that education year should start from September to June and the long summer vacation could be from July to August.

The academic year of 2021 may start from February to August and the next academic year may be introduced from September to June 2022. The current academic year could be completed by excluding the summer vacation and limiting other holidays.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the PSC, JDC, JSC and SSC exams were not held in 2020. There are strong views that these tests should be abolished. What do you think?

The objective of introducing the PSC, JSC and JDC examinations has not achieved. On the contrary, these tests have increased the reliance on memorisation, private coaching and using commercial guide books at the junior level of education. Instead of being students, children have become the examinees. The propensity for corruption including leaking question papers has increased.

In the fresh curriculum of 2022, the method of student assessment is also being considered among various reforms. School-based continuous assessment has been given more importance and the public examinations at primary and secondary levels have been discouraged.

With a view to making proper reforms in students and education assessment, teachers need to increase their competence in assessing the students’ achievements along with removing these public examinations. Institutional skills and research are needed.

Higher education has also faced big losses. While private universities have been able to make up for the losses through online classes, public universities have not. Will one or two academic years be lost for students of public universities? How can this loss be made up?

This initiative from the private universities has been relatively effective, because they already had some preparations in terms of technological aspects. The students of private universities have more opportunities to utilise technology as they are relatively wealthier. The public universities did not have the preparation to use technological facilities during the prevalence of coronavirus. Teachers also had relatively limited technical skills in this regard.

Completion of degree courses has been delayed after public universities lost almost the entire academic year, creating a session jam. An action plan needs to be adopted within two to three academic years to overcome this loss. The plan should include extra classes, reducing vacation time and rearranging the curriculum to some extent. There should be coordination between distant learning technology and classroom education. Under the overall directives from the University Academic Council, each department and institute of the universities should decide its own activities. The University Grants Commission has a role to play in encouraging universities in this regard and in reviewing their initiatives

New curriculum is being introduced. There are no separate science, humanities and commerce departments. How do you see this combination?

It is not that there are no science arts and commerce divisions where subjects are concerned. It has been decided to start the division from the eleventh class and not from the ninth class. This was the system until the eighties. For the twenty-first century, considering the type of skills and knowledge, it is considered appropriate not to apply the division in different streams strictly at the secondary level.

Adequate proficiency in language, mathematics and technology is considered essential for all the students to succeed in professional life and higher education. Rationality, creativity, problem analysis and problem solving skills are considered more relevant than subjective knowledge. For this purpose, all the students are being given importance in acquiring some much needed general skills at the secondary level in the new curriculum.

However, in order to achieve this objective, it is necessary to ensure the recruitment of a sufficient number of qualified and skilled teachers for science, mathematics, English and technology. There are many shortcomings in this regard currently.

Under the pressure of the COVID situation, we realised that a lot of educational activities can be done online. What is the way to use this medium more effectively in the future when the pandemic is over?

The weaknesses, discrimination of opportunity and the lack of quality in the education sector have become apparent during the time of coronavirus. Returning to the previous state cannot be our goal. We have to take action plans for the recovery of education by utilising the experience we gathered during the time of pandemic. Accurate and extensive utilisation of technology will be a key context in this trial.

The combination of distance learning and classroom education needs to outline the 'new normal'. Laptops, smartphones, tablets and these kinds of gadgets should be more available to the students and educational institutes. Internet and Wi-Fi connections should be readily available. The telecommunication authority has to take coordinated initiatives with the regulatory agencies and the service providers. Integrated initiatives must be taken involving the telecommunication authority, regulatory agencies and the commercial service providers.

In the same way, the contents of education through technology should be made widely available in Bangla. Teachers need to be prepared for technology-based teaching. Inequality in the availability and use of technology-based education is creating new social discrimination and divisions.

Teacher’s mediation is needed in this case. They will help and advise the students who are lagging behind. A new horizon of education can emerge with the dedication, honesty, ethics and responsibility of the teacher. This requires new thinking about the skills, qualifications, preparation and dignity of the teacher. We have to move forward with at least a ten-year plan and new ideas.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition NH Sajjad and Ashish Basu

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