The Covid-19 pandemic has raised significant challenges as well as opportunities for the higher education community worldwide to learn and explore. During the pandemic, a particular challenge was the urgent and unexpected request for previously face-to-face university courses to be taught online and vice versa near about the end of the pandemic.
The shifting from traditional face-to-face education to online was not an easy journey for many institutions across the world — a bunch of changes in terms of digital competencies, pedagogical knowledge, psychosocial counselling, varied levels of interaction, engagement and assessment strategies, support structures, etc. were required to be adopted in the institutional policies and practices.
Now at the post-Covid stage should we go back to the traditional face-to-face education leaving all these remarkable shifts or changes behind? – certainly not. Then what should be our strategies at the post-Covid education system in a digital world?
In the fourth industrial revolution era with the high speed of the Internet, post-Covid education is expected to be neither fully online nor face-to-face but rather phygital in Education 4.0. Let's start by understanding digital learning, which can be defined as any type of learning that is accompanied by digital technology or by instructional practise that makes effective use of it.
A new trend called phygital (a blend of physical and digital space, phygital = physical + digital) learning is gaining popularity in recent times. It is the concept of using technology to integrate the digital learning space with the physical world for the purpose of providing a unique interactive experience to the learners. Phygital is more comprehensive than digital or face-to-face education and it is not blended learning as the latter does not blend the best practices of face-to-face and online education instead operates both singly.
To ensure digital education in the higher education sector, each university should have a customized and centrally managed learning management system (LMS) such as Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard or at least Google Classroom. Besides, a smart-education type platform is important to have for monitoring, management and accountability of all academic and administrative tasks. Universities should provide necessary arrangements to ensure that all teachers and staff effectively use these platforms regularly.
Modern LMS integrates web conferencing, learning analytics, video engagement, interactive digital contents and mobile applications, thus its usage enables changes in the quality of education. There is no alternative to professional development in the digital education system, particularly for reducing the gap of practices in academia and industry as well as for developing the ethics and professionalism of teachers.
Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform could be highly useful in this regard. Student feedback and accountability of teachers — these two aspects should be the key considerations for continuing digital education. Student monthly feedback and activities for each course are carefully analyzed and meaningful patterns are extracted to improve teaching-learning.
Each teacher should submit a monthly report with evidence following a rubric comprising 8-10 aspects of the SmartEdu type system. Altogether, these approaches may have significant impacts on quality education, if universities monitor and oversee these tasks regularly and sincerely.
Few of the public and private universities have been doing quite good in the digital education sector since the outbreak of the Corona pandemic such as Daffodil International University, Brac University, North South University, Bangabandhu Digital University, Bangladesh University of Professionals, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology.
Among them, Daffodil University is considered the country's leading university in blended, online and digital education. Daffodil started digital education officially through the establishment of Blended Learning Center in 2013. Currently, the university has integrated numerous solutions for conducting teaching-learning digitally which includes but not limited to its own LMS, MOOC platform, Smart-Edu system, etc.
The distribution of more than 30,000 free laptops to students under the campaign of ‘One Student, One Laptop' has played an important part in the university's digital progress. Recently North South University has introduced Canvas LMS and Brac University introduced the edX platform to their students. Among the public universities Bangabandhu Digital University, Bangladesh University of Professionals, Shahjalal University and few others are continuing education online through different platforms since the very beginning of the pandemic.
Summative assessment is the biggest challenge for online education, particularly in developing countries where the device, price and speed of the Internet, and socio-economic issues are prevalent. In our assessment system, 70-80 per cent marks are assigned to summative exams for mid-term and semester final, which does not commensurate at all to the modern assessment strategy followed around the world.
On the other hand, online proctored exams do not have many success stories, particularly in this region. Thus, a mixed approach of assessment could be effective, for example, 60-70 per cent marks for a creative assignment, quiz, case studies, presentation, project development, etc. and the rest 30-40 per cent marks could be allocated for traditional type of examinations.
A consortium could be formed by including Bangladesh Open University, National University, and Union Digital Center. This may result in high quality blended and online education particularly assessment, counselling, video streaming like services to all utilizing their nationwide large physical infrastructures.
Online education is not a problem by itself but rather the provider institution offering the program should be the key focus to investigate. For instance, an online program offered by Harvard University won't be the same quality as that of Dhaka University. Quality is important but quantity needs to be focused on as well. Every year approximately 10 lakh students pass the HSC exam, this year it is 13.67 lakh while the public (except National University) and private universities can accommodate only 2.5 lakh aspirant students.
And it is not possible to change the physical infrastructure overnight. Therefore, online education is the best alternative in today's Digital Bangladesh. Online education should be patronized and liberalized through the standardization of policies and practices by increasing the number of provider institutions in both public and private sectors on a competitive and transparent basis.
The policy must follow a standard set of criteria, which may include but not limited to: (i) years of experience in blended, online & digital education; (ii) infrastructural resources (e.g. IT); (iii) human resources (w.r.t. digital and pedagogical competency); (iv) rigorous quality assurance; (v) periodic compliance requirement; (vi) proper documentation and reporting of student feedback; (vii) support system; (viii) professional development options; (ix) incorporation of teaching-learning analytics; (x) educational guidance and counselling, among others.
Only two public universities in Bangladesh have mandates to offer online education and training. However, Bangladesh is yet to mark its presence in the global online education industry, which could be the third biggest source of earning revenues after remittance and garment industry, if this sector is given due importance and carefully visioned straightaway. Therefore, now is the right time for our policymakers to rethink the online education policy and facilitate private universities like Daffodil having years of expertise in blended and online education to excel in today's transnational education system as a brand of Education Bangladesh.
The author is the Director of Blended Learning Center (BLC) at Daffodil International University, Bangladesh. Views are personal.