Education today is not confined to the boundaries of a classroom. Although traditional classrooms are still the dominating mediums for imparting lessons, especially in developing countries, education now has multiple faces and mediums. Educational Technology or EduTech has not only revamped the way classrooms operate but has also created a new arena for it, digital classrooms. Hybrid models of education where traditional classes are complemented with online assignments and assessments have already begun in some of the schools and universities in the urban areas of Bangladesh. International platforms providing MOOCs, and educational applications for learners of all ages are increasingly becoming more prevalent. Bangladesh had already started its migration towards online education, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only made the move more imminent.
Due to the limited access of the mass population to the internet, for a long time, the government relied on mediums like television, radio and newspaper columns. Bangladesh Open University (BOU), BBC Janala, and educational radio programs 10 hours per week are some of the noteworthy government initiatives. However, focus gradually shifted towards offering education through the internet. The Government of Bangladesh took initiatives to promote the use and knowledge of ICT by making computer subjects mandatory in different educational levels, making primary and secondary level textbooks available online and providing an uninterrupted internet connection to hundreds of educational institutions in the country. Through partnerships with numerous other governments and institutions, ICT training centers for education, cost-effective internet connections and computers, and ICT training for teachers and students were ensured. The formation of Access to Information (a21) in collaboration with UNDP, was perhaps the most notable step in this regard in recent times which led to the development of an Online Library Management System, the Master Plan for ICT in Education and Muktopaath, a platform offering courses by individuals and organizations.
The initiatives of the government initially focused more on promoting the use of ICT and creating a friendly environment for it. But with changing times the objectives and mediums for the government initiatives changed. BOU began offering formal and non-formal programs as certificates, diplomas, degrees and masters. The Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Digital University (BDU), was established as the first complete digital public university of the country which is soon to offer MOOCs from leading universities of Bangladesh, catering to the need for online courses of higher quality. As more private enterprises came into the market, the focus shifted to creating quality content for traditional as well as non-traditional subjects for the students.
International platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX are becoming popular among learners of all ages in Bangladesh because of the user-friendly quality content from renowned universities available on them. An increasing number of startups are now operating in Bangladesh with a range of services and products. While some provide school management systems like Eshkul, others provide quality educational content for academic courses and entrance examinations such as 10 Minute School. Platforms like CoderTrust, Light of Hope, and BYLCX are also in plenty which provides courses on the more demanding skills of the modern world like coding, leadership, creativity. These organizations have been performing well, especially with the growing internet penetration in the country, encompassing 41% of the population in January’20.
Despite the steady growth in online learning platforms and traditional classroom education, the official literacy rate in Bangladesh has increased from 58.6% in 2014 to 72.3% in 2017 , this progress can easily be derailed during the lockdown. Covid-19 has caused many disruptions to normal life, among which school closure is one, in Bangladesh education has come to a halt for the 38.6 million students since March 17th. To mitigate the loss of learning due to discontinuation of classes– 63 private universities, along with few private schools–have already started conducting online classes using platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom, which can partially explain a spike of internet usage by 12 percent from February to April.
Along with that, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) has taken measures to engage school level students through various distant learning platforms such as electronic media, mobile phones, radio, and internet. Currently, pre-recorded lessons for primary and secondary level school students are broadcasted on electronic media platforms such as television. Along with that lessons for technical and Madrasa students are also broadcasted. Inclusiveness is an issue as only 46% of the households have a television set,  so to mitigate lack of reach, other platforms are being explored by the Ministry of Education (MoE). One such medium is the mobile phone as there are currently 166.114 million mobile subscribers, while the radio is a viable alternative as it can be accessed through either a dedicated radio player or a mobile phone.
Not only has the lockdown provided an opportunity for the government to explore different learning platforms, but it has also provided the wherewithal for the digitally connected population to explore different online learning platforms. Online learning platforms such as Coursera have taken advantage of the situation by introducing programs such as Coursera Campus Response Initiative which provides access to over 3,800 courses to any global universities. Along with that many universities in Bangladesh, both private and public, have provided students free access to certified courses through the use of the university email address. Bangladeshi online learning platforms such as 10 Minute school have conducted live online classes reaching over 16,000 students daily and 390,049 students during the lockdown period. Many students, teachers, and parents do not have adequate knowledge on how to learn using online platforms, as most are using the online learning platform for the first time, to help with that many online platforms have created new resources while also offering guidance to schools about the best practices in online learning. Local companies like Thrive EdTech have brought forward revolutionary services keeping in mind the challenges of accessibility, literacy and poverty specific to Bangladesh. The integrated educational platform that Thrive offers not only helps the teachers to schedule and take classes in a systematic way, but also ensures that the students are able to learn with low internet speeds or even via phone calls. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, this company has been offering its services for free to eligible non-profit educational institutions, which can be an example for the private companies in Bangladesh to follow.
Online learning is not only applicable for students, but also for working professionals, who can also use Ed-tech platforms to enhance their knowledge horizon while enhancing their skill-sets. Business managers should also encourage capacity development as they cannot push a pause button on company-wide aspirational transformation and reskilling at a business unit level, the manager will also require a strategic plan on how to conduct digital learning sessions. The International Labour Organization (ILO) have estimated that up to 25 million worldwide could be out of a job during the economic recession caused by Covid-19, so it not surprising that almost three-fourths of the workforce become jobless and another big portion have retained their jobs but without pay, so working professionals must take this opportunity to enhance their skills and knowledge, if they are to find employment opportunities.
There are online platforms such as Skillshare and OpenSesame that have training modules to help build the capacity of working professionals. In Bangladesh, no such large-scale training modules have been designed or adapted for the local context to help build expertise of the working professionals.
Frustration over traditional brick and mortar universities have contributed to a rise of alternative educational platforms, such as EduTech, in the US even before the Covid-19 lockdown began. It has been estimated that by 2025, the online education market in the US would reach USD 350 billion. In 2019 alone, EduTech investment reached USD 18.66 billion, which was largely due to companies and schools having a large adoption rate of education-related technologies, while Edu-Tech companies invested in language applications, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, and online learning software. A study conducted by Research and Market found that the USA is the leader in global online education, mainly due to the introduction of e-learning courses and distance learning programs across various states.
Other alternatives to traditional classroom models such as hybrid models of learning are also gaining popularity worldwide. One such hybrid model is the Flipped Classroom model, which is based on the idea that traditional teaching is inverted and what is normally done in class is switched with what is normally done by the students out of class.
If we look at our neighbouring country, India, schools have been closed for almost two months, and as the pandemic continues like most other countries, the education system in the country has been left impaired. Governments in different states of India are taking their own approaches to come to terms with the scenario. In Andhra Pradesh, virtual classes are being conducted using Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc. with over 24,000 students. For the student without access to the platforms, the government has also directed that the lectures be uploaded on YouTube and the notes be sent to the students via email or WhatsApp. For all the lower grades, the online classes in June and July are planned to be telecasted and broadcasted.
Although the foreign universities were allowed to offer completely online degrees, it was restricted for the Indian universities, mandating them to offer at least 80% of the degrees via traditional mediums. The government of India was already planning on removing this restriction from the top 100 academic institutions (excluding law and medical courses) before the pandemic broke out, which has only made the imminence of the change more apparent. Private partnerships are also occurring in India in order to make education more accessible to the mass regardless of their income and location. HP has partnered up with an Indian company, Gamooz, to build a community for educators and students to come together and make the learning experience more fun. Fortinet, a global cybersecurity provider, is also providing free online courses on cybersecurity and related courses for the rest of the year.
As schools continue to remain closed, the traffic at online education platforms has been increasing. BYJU, one of the learning giants in India has not only welcomed 6 million new students to its platform in March alone, but has also seen an increase of about 200% in the engagement on the application. Foreign platforms like Udemy have also seen a rise in demand in India by over 200%. With parents opposing sending students to schools right after the lockdown is lifted, steps are being taken for the long haul regardless of the future state of the pandemic. The National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) has proposed not hosting assemblies or seminars for at least a year and running schools in shifts. The NCERT has even proposed a model where schools run alternatively with 50% of the student body at a time, post-Covid-19.
Lessons can also be adapted and incorporated from various African nations when they have faced the Ebola virus crisis. Countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone have already started to broadcast their pre-recorded lessons daily to over 32 radio channels catering to different educational levels. Private education entities such as Rising Academy, which primarily focuses on radio-based education, have a working relationship with over 140 education institutions from neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The radio broadcasting lessons aimed to engage with the students and help them ease into the educational system once the schools start to reopen. This would also help with increasing the rate of return to schools from Low-Income Community (LIC), as the economic fallout will hit them the hardest. While radio is a great educational channel to reach the masses, it is not the best medium to interact with children, so the countries’ Ministry of Education started using text and phone calls to check in with the pupils and also publishing homework exercises in the local newspaper.
Adoption of technology in education is inevitable but a number of structural challenges remain for ensuring wider adoption across different socioeconomic strata. Lack of accessibility is the major challenge that needs to be addressed. Despite the government’s initiatives to provide uninterrupted electricity to 100% of the population, it is still a dream for many. The majority of the students, especially in the rural and hilly areas do not have access to televisions, smartphones, or the internet, making it hard for any government or private project to reach them. While around 46% of the households in rural Bangladesh have television, an even smaller range, 33% of the rural population have access to the internet. Even the individuals who do have access to the internet have been struggling with slow internet speed ever since the lockdown was imposed, which hampers the content one can access if it can be accessed at all.
An obstacle in the path of online education that may be easier to solve is the high mobile internet charges. The broadband internet service providers are concentrated more in the urban areas, for which the telecom networks are heavily relied upon by the rural population. Even though the 3G networks now reach around 90% of the country, the prohibitive costs of mobile data, especially for the bottom of the pyramid limits internet usage in the country. The content on educational platforms needs to be of high quality, with relevant updated information for the target audience and communicated in a way that would be easily understandable to them. Most courses available in Bangladesh are not interactive and don’t allow the learners to experiment beyond the syllabus. Qualified teachers are also absent in Bangladesh who understand the content and delivery style required for online education. The overall ICT infrastructure is not strong either. While some schools and universities have transitioned to online platforms, others don’t have the infrastructure or capital to achieve so. Finally, even if the students completed courses or degrees online, they would have another challenge to face. In Bangladesh, online certifications are not perceived to be valid by individuals and organizations which in the long run discourages students from pursuing online degrees.
The pandemic will provide an exceptional learning opportunity on the viability of EduTech in Bangladesh, while also showing the use case and benefits of distance learning and online learning. In the short-term, online platforms such as Khan Academy, 10 Minute School, Mukhtopaath, and Bangladesh Open University may be repurposed to fit the need to deliver lectures. Relevant policy amendments have to be made for promoting online education, which is considered inexpensive (compared to classroom degrees) and convenient for students and professionals scattered across the country. Alongside, the ICT ministry should channel grant funding and investments for supporting private service providers like Repto, Esho Shikhi and 10 minute school to scale their repertoire of course content.
As technology forges ahead, the scope to revolutionize the education system also expands exponentially. Bangladesh should utilize and scale-up the EduTech industry further, to meet the changing needs of the time.
Author: Khandaker Muhtasim Rafi, Business Analyst and Mashiath Khurshid, Trainee Consultant, LightCastle Partners.
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