ON AN October afternoon in 2001, as I was leaving the central library of the University of Dhaka after interviewing a librarian, who was showing me out, for a report on the library automation project, we met a teacher of a then fledgling department, on the ground floor of the library building, who was holding a handwritten sheet of paper. The librarian I interviewed jokingly asked the teacher to learn how to send e-mail and not to depend on the library staff for such small chores. He even cut a joke, telling the teacher, whom I knew but he did not know me, that I was a journalist and could make a good story on a teacher resorting to others for help to send an e-mail.
A few years before the time, we heard of an initiative for a joint academic network of a sort that would connect public universities. It had been in discussions among the enthusiasts and at one point, we heard that only the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and the University of Dhaka, with the Bangladesh Agricultural University later joining in, submitted proposals for campus network plans that would be precursors to the academic network. We later heard that the project had been shelved as no other university stepped in.
The University Grants Commission, however, claims to have developed such a network, BdREN, or Bangladesh Research and Education Network, connecting, as its web site claims, 34 public universities, 8 private universities, 2 international universities located in Bangladesh, 10 medical colleges and 10 research institutes, offering education roaming services, high-performance cloud computing and online education support with a corporate licence of the video-conferencing platform Zoom.
A few years before this in 1996, Bangladesh commissioned its first VSAT-based data circuit for an access to the internet, which had until then, since 1993, been an offline e-mail affair that we would call UUCP, or Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol. Two days after the very small aperture terminal had been commissioned, the first internet service provider began its journey, with the second one appearing on the scene the next month.
By the time Bangladesh had its first connection in 2006 to the undersea cable South East Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 4, after having missed out on chances for free connection to SEA-ME-WE 3 twice in 1991 and 1994, there had been about 150 internet services providers around. The undersea cable connectivity left all VSATs to be used as redundancy systems in times of trouble. Bangladesh had the second undersea cable connection to SEA-ME-WE 5 in 2017, further bolstering its internet connectivity. A third connection to SEA-ME-WE 6 has been in discussions since 2019 and may happen any time.
While all this was taking place in 1996, mobile operators started coming in, one after another. The state-run mobile operator began its journey in 2004. Mobile communications technology was upgraded to 3G in 2013 and to 4G in February 2018.
All this lent an impetus to the furtherance of computer technology, which started thriving in Bangladesh with the first large-scale exhibition — BCS International Computer Show ’98 — that was held at IDB Bhaban in December 1998. In next September, IDB Bhaban was turned into a computer market, known as BCS Computer City, with the staging of a computer exhibition that had continued for a fortnight. The moves and measures that actors in both the private and the public sector took led to a rapid growth in home use of computers, which much later slowed down with the government’s levying taxes, amidst widespread criticism, as the growing home computer segment was a potential source of revenue. Governments everywhere are almost always after easy money.
About a quarter century after the formal internet connectivity in 1996, the Bangladesh Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey that the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics published in December 2019 says that only 5.6 per cent of the households have a computer and 37.6 of the households have access to the internet through devices of any kind from home. Private estimates say that there are 66.44 million internet users, as of January 2020, accounting for an internet penetration of about 41 per cent. Bangladesh has also posted, as private estimates show, an impressive 99 per cent mobile penetration, having covered, theoretically, 163 million of the population. Social media penetration is, however, said to have been comparatively limited, having been used by 22 per cent, or 36 million, of the people. The BBS survey says that 50 per cent of the households do have television sets and earlier studies suggest that roughly a third of them are in rural areas, the situation may have changed a bit for the better by now though.
Now when an estimated 40 million students have been idling away their time at home because of the closure of all educational institutions since March 17, nine days after the first detection of COVID-19 cases on March 8, educationists, educationalists and education managers started struggling to manage national education. The government started running an outreach programme, My School at My Home, by airing classes on one state-run television channel, with 20-minute classes for secondary students beginning on March 29 and for primary students beginning on April 7. While the quality of teaching in online classes came to be criticised, it soon gave rise to concern that this would only widen inequality in education along the rich-poor divide and the rural-urban divide, suggesting an increase in dropout in near future and associated malaise. A few private schools and universities started running online classes using Google Classroom, Zoom or Facebook video-streaming, equally driven by factors that learning should continue and that institutions should get the money from students.
The proposition spilled over to public universities and non-government educational institutions, with many trying to continue with teaching on Google Classroom and Zoom. The more the issue rolled on, the more concern came up, on part of teachers who started complaining of inadequacy on their part, questioning their ability at preparing educational materials and using computer programmes to run classes and the absence of the required connectivity and on part of students and guardians many of whom do not own television sets, do not have devices to connect to the internet or are still off the internet. Even if many of them have television sets, devices and the internet, a sustained connectivity and uninterrupted power supply have remained big issues to deal with. In private universities, where education is expensive and students are said to be more from well-off families, a third of the students keep, as educationists say, facing the problems of device, computer or high-end mobiles or tablets, and the connectivity which entail a burden of additional spending that many students cannot bear. The University Grant Commission’s network, however, fails to come of any use to colleges and schools.
It has been a long time since the internet stepped in and traversed a long journey, from dial-up connection to broadband and wi-fi. It has also been a long time since a University of Dhaka teacher was not able to send e-mail on his own and had to take help from others. It has been a long time since many other associated happenings took place. But we have miserably failed to train our teachers, from pre-primary schools to universities, in effectively and adequately using computer and digital communications system. We have also miserably failed to connect universities, colleges and schools among themselves and from one to another network and reach the internet connectivity to students. Public universities are learnt to have struggled to even manage e-mail addresses of the students. Three decades are a time long enough for any government to do this. Bangladesh with two undersea cable connections still fails to connect the teachers and students. This is not becoming of a country that often boasts of ‘a digital Bangladesh.’
In the new normal, with the COVID-19 outbreak continuing for a few more years or having been over at one point, formal education is said to be a blend of in-person and digital attendance of classes. Even if, on a hypothetical plane, teachers are trained and educational materials are prepared and students are given devices, a need for a strong internet connectivity through whatever means would remain the single-most important area for the government to work on to deliver education from the institutions to students. In an increased use of computer and the development of the internet connectivity, actors in both the public and the private sector have so far focused on business and money, leaving connectivity as a core issue having been ignored. Such a crisis for national education could be a once-in-a-life-time happening — in the nation’s life; and we have miserably failed to get through it.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.