COVID-19 and the conundrum of online classes

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Apr 19,2020


On March 16, the government has declared all educational institute closed to avoid spread of the COVID-19 among the students. A prolonged suspension of academic activities is a concern for students, teachers and university administration. In this context, the decision to offer online classes in many private universities should have been a blessing, but in reality it became a burden for the students. Nahid Riyasad writes about the realities of online classes in the time of corona

MEHEDI Hasan Tarek is a third year business student at a private university in Dhaka. When the government announces the shutdown of all the educational institutes of Bangladesh to prevent the spread of the CODIV-19 on March 16, he went to his hometown in Tangail. He shares a flat in Dhanmondi with three other private university students who all went home.

When Tarek came to know that his university is going to conduct online classes and all the students are instructed to attend the classes, it was a disaster for him. He has a desktop computer at his flat in Dhaka which he could not carry to home, he has no laptop and he uses a feature phone which cannot be connected to the internet. At a very important juncture of his academic career, he feels that he has been excluded by the university authority from participating in his classes, by their insensitive decision.

Irina Mehrin Rumpa is a fourth year engineering student at a well-reputed private university in Dhaka. She lives with her family in Panthapath and has a wi-fi connection at home which gains her access to the online classes that her university has been conducting. ‘We are more or less instructed in the classes to access internet materials for our courses. I am an engineering student which needs extensive hands-on education and I did not pay Tk 15,500 for a single course to learn things from Youtube videos,’ she expresses her frustration with New Age Youth.

These are only two cases among a sea of private university students, many of whom are at loss, as their universities are conducting online classes. Many of these students have left Dhaka for their hometown where internet access is not readily available and mobile data are expensive with lukewarm speed. Moreover, class tests, assignments and examinations in this process, as many students expressed their concerns, can bring poor mark ultimately affecting their final grades.

On top of that, a number of private universities have asked the students to pay their due tuition fees and complete registration for the upcoming semesters. During a pandemic which has already wreaked havoc in the global and local economic sectors, where most of the family’s income have significantly shrunk, poses a serious question to the private universities non-profit organisation status as well as their lack of willingness to consider students’ psycho-social wellbeing.

The University Grants Commission, monitoring authority to oversee the operation of tertiary education in Bangladesh took time to make a decisive intervention. On March 24, in a press release, the UGC advised the private universities to take classes online with a view to recoup the academic losses by the suspension of academic activities during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On April 5, UGC, in another press release, expressed its concern that a number of private universities are ignoring their directions and conducting online examinations, grading students’ scripts and rolling admission for the next semester. In the absence of a definitive direction, some private universities took chances to burden students with sitting on online exams when many of the learners are not well equipped to cope up with the changed channel of education.

What are the problems of online classes? New Age Youth talked to student from different private universities and followed conversations in social media groups of private university students to understand the students experience and opinion in this regard. One student in a public group pointed out

that in her hometown, only Grameenphone offers somewhat usable internet, even though, she has to sit or stand in specific place like rooftop to get uninterrupted connection. Her post also gives a rough estimation, to attend online classes, of the already expensive internet data package.

She uses 4 GB pack for TK 108 with a validity of 7 days. From March 16 to April 13, in the one-month time frame, she required two packs of data per week (two classes per day each needing roughly 500 MB and 500 MB more to download videos and required documents for that class) meaning Tk 864 for internet per month, which is a burden for her limited monthly allowance. Moreover, she had to go outside several times only to recharge her internet which put her at risk of catching COVID-19.

Rafid Hasan, a private university second year student said, he is not the brightest in his class and had difficulty grasping the lectures. So, he is used to ask a lot of questions and talk to his teachers during the consultation hours. ‘In the online classes, you simply cannot ask a lot of questions because of the nature of the channel. Moreover, as I cannot use the consultation hours, I am seriously concerned that I will perform poorly in the upcoming examinations’.

Nahid Abedin Anik posted in Facebook that despite his university’s decision of closing all online classes by April 13, his course teacher set an online ‘practical class’ on April 15 and final examination on April 16. He asks that who will take the responsibility if he fails or performs poorly in the exams?

An e-mail of a teacher of a top private university in Dhaka to the course students said that they have to submit an assignment by April 12 to be assessed as 60 per cent of the total course mark. If the university does not count this as final exam, the students have to sit for a written examination when the institution opens. The e-mail also asks the students to pay their due tuition fees.

And all this was going on when there was clear directive from the UGC sent to the Bangladesh Association of Private University on April 10 that asked the association to suspend all academic activities until further notice.

Students also expressed concerns online and to New Age Youth that different course instructors have relied on different platforms like Zoon, Skype and Hangout. They are finding it difficult to download and maintain accounts in different platforms for different courses. Again, with poor internet connection, using different software to stream real-time video is a nightmare, according to them.

Private universities are not only conducting classes and examinations in this crisis moment, but also asking the students to complete registration for the next semester. Uttara University, in a notice on April 9, extended their enrollment date from April 8 to April 20. This has to be understood that enrollment or registration or pre-registration requires a student to pay a certain amount of money to be paid within a fixed date.

Northern University, in an April 9 notice congratulated the students for completing their syllabus online and asked them to enroll and pay for the next semester online. What is commendable in their notice is that they waived all fines in case of late payment. However, students from a number of universities told New Age Youth that their university have already fined them for late payments.

East Delta University has also shown similar empathy, in an April 4 notice, they have waived late fines and relaxed required results to be eligible for scholarships. United International University also extended the time for last payment till April 30.

Jannatul Mohua is MBA student at a private university in Dhaka, in a conversation with New Age Youth, described her condition. ‘I am self-financing my studies with the earning from my job. A few months ago, my husband and I have invested an amount to start our own business but the COVID-19 has jeopardised that venture. Now, I have no idea if I can continue my studies as my university is asking to pay tuition fees for the next semester’.

A recent graduate from another private university, Fazly Rabbi said that his younger brother is still a student. ‘My father recently went through a third heart attack because he had to endure a huge loss in business for the current crisis. Now, we have to worry about our father as well as my brother’s future because we don’t know from where we can manage tuition fees for the next semester’.

These cases are testament that students are not only worrying about online classes but also, worried about financing their studies. Amidst the current economic condition, which is bound to worsen in the upcoming months, is taking serious toll on their mental health.

One student writes in a social media platform, ‘When we are experiencing people dying because of COVID-19, thousands of people are tested positive and our universities are expecting us to be productive, attend classes and do our assignments in time as if we are insensitive objects, not emotional human beings’.

New Age Youth talked to the director of UGC, Md Fakhrul Islam, private university department, to get an overall view of the situation. He told us that a number of private universities have not cleared the teachers’ salary and many of those universities are taking examinations and assessing the students in the name of online classes as well as asking to pay for the summer semester. ‘We have received e-mails and screenshots in our whatsapp which clearly shows that many universities are violating our directions. Also the universities have to understand that not every department need online classes at this moment’.

When asked about what measures UGC will take against these institutions, ‘We have asked the universities to submit information about their online classes and activities. We will sit with the chairman of the UGC and officials from the education ministry after April 25 to decide on the next measures’.

Md Fakhrul Islam clearly mentions that assessing students in this crisis situation, not paying the teachers and asking for tuition fees for the next semester are clear violation of their directive and UGC will take necessary actions against them after the April 25 meeting.

Private universities’ rush to complete the semester through online classes and assessments signifies one thing ─ they can enroll fresher only if they can finish the current semester. In this process, it has been exposed that even though, by status, these are non-profit organisations but they mostly run with one single goal ─ profit. It is not surprising that many students think that private universities are operating without the students’ interest at heart.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.

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