Virtual classrooms in low-resource context

by Tasnima Aktar | Published: 00:00, May 21,2020


THE ongoing debate of teaching online during the COVID-19 outbreak in tertiary educational institutions is nothing unusual in the low-resource context of Bangladesh.

Online teaching is never like teaching in physical classrooms. Yet, we need to acknowledge that ‘emergency online teaching’ is different from ‘online teaching’. Emergency online teaching has now become a reality worldwide because of the pandemic. Emergency situations require emergency solutions as we need to survive.

In today’s world, distance education has already become a necessity and reality for many. Education providers work their best to serve education, the benefits being various for both parties. Many universities in the developed countries have also shifted to flipped learning to reduce physical, spatial and monetary loads, encourage self-study and create autonomous learners. Now COVID-19 has placed the world in a state where distance learning can be the best solution to head off the novel coronavirus transmission risks. But a shift to online teaching overnight has become an extremely difficult task for underdeveloped and developing countries which also have low resources.

We face some crucial hurdles in teaching online. Most universities, especially public universities, have not yet developed any virtual learning environment. We do not have platforms to store any digital materials that students can have an easy access to. When some teachers try on their own to provide online teaching, they face numerous problems regarding the platform or the forum to share materials, discussions, announcements and giving tests.

Uninterrupted internet access seems to be the most crucial, given the current internet facilities. This problem is two-fold — (a) even if teachers or many students can afford internet packages or WiFi, the speed is not adequate for online teaching; and (b) some students, especially from public universities, cannot afford access to the internet on a regular basis for online learning. Some students still do not have skills of online communications and many do not have an active e-mail account. Although teachers try to communicate with all students and share materials with them via e-mail, teachers struggle to get them on board.

One of the reasons is technophobia. Students seem to be intimidated to communicate via e-mail and use applications. For many teachers, there is always some sort of camera shyness. Some of the teachers do not also want to go through all the hassles of contacting students to get them on board in one single platform. Getting students on board and trying out different tools require a lot, in terms of time and motivation.

This does not mean we cannot do and will stand still. Given the circumstances of unpreparedness and low resources, it is we who need to figure out what works better for us and solve the problem well, as much as we can.

My experiences of working with public university could be pretty much different from what some private universities already set with virtual platforms even before COVID-19 offers. I started half-hearted, for two main reasons — not being much familiar with online teaching tools and students’ apparently low motivation in attending online lessons. I took some time for my students to get settled and, meanwhile, I accustomed myself with the tools. It was a mammoth task to motivate regular students to get on board. Due to its emergency nature, I concentrate on key topics and ideas left to be covered from the existing curriculum. I used to share PowerPoint slides and associated materials eg, articles of the next lesson in advance, often a day before, so that students could find it easy to follow the teacher while meeting on some platforms the next day. I asked a few who might have missed any of my lessons to get in touch. I also tried to do some formative assessment and also to make online teaching interactive by creating some quizzes so that students could do them remotely after the lessons. Reflecting on the initial lessons, I decided not to use group e-mail or streaming platforms. With the group of 12 students, I found video-conferencing very useful. The low-speed internet served comparatively better on Facebook.

It is difficult teaching online — exploring and learning to use new applications, motivating students and taking them on board, preparing well in advance, sharing materials, lecturing and discussing while being available on different modes simultaneously. At the end of the day, the 21st century skills of online teaching and learning are worth acquiring alongside keeping students’ education moving forward, however little.

I believe that there had been enough time that the University Grants Commission and university authorities could discuss how teaching and learning could continue during the COVID-19 shutdown. In that case, both teachers and students would have been more responsible and motivated to carry on education online. The commission can hold regular webinars on effective online teaching in the low-resource context of Bangladesh. The commission can have more discussions with other stakeholders to come up with some concrete directives for the universities to carry out minimum education during such a prolonged outbreak with a view to lessening discontinuity in the study and prolonged academic year. Within capacity, any constructive decisions regarding online teaching tools/platforms, emergency curriculum and examination and attendance policy can be taken depending on the universities and even as faculties and departments keeping to their requirement. I believe that the task at a personal level could be much easier and both teachers and students would feel more motivated if university authorities could decide how we would like to carry out this emergency online teaching. But flexibility is what is expected in emergency online education.

What does the current situation tell us about the future of education? The lesson should be learnt. The education sector should be armoured enough to fight against any odds and keep the wheels rolling. Sustainable education is what should be sought for and ensured.


Dr Tasnima Aktar is associate professor of English at Comilla University.

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