Prospects and problems
In his famous essay Boi Pora (Reading Books) Pramatha Chowdhury wrote - "Every well educated person is self educated." May be he is justified in his thinking but is it possible to be educated without the help of others? Probably not and for this reason so many educational institutions have been established all over the world. Millions of students are studying in these institutions regularly but deadly corona virus has disrupted everything of normal life including education. During corona pandemic educational institutions are closed sine die, examinations are uncertain, students and teachers are sitting idle, government and guardians are concerned about academic future of students. Under such disaster online education is being considered as the immediate way to adjust the loss already happened.
Roughly speaking, online education is a system of education where students receive education through internet using their personal computers. Mainly non-traditional students follow this electronically supported procedure without coming into direct contact with teachers. It is basically learning from distance but the idea is nothing new in our country. In 1957 the Education Reform Commission recommended to establish a correspondence school on trial basis for students intending to receive education without attending regular classes. Since then different distance educational institutions were established. The Bangladesh Institute of Distance Education (BIDE) was formed in 1985. For non traditional students the Bangladesh Open University (BOU) was established under an act of parliament in October 1992 and BIDE was merged with it. During lockdown, like many other countries of the world, government and some institutions in Bangladesh are trying to apply online education system for regular students also.
A common perception prevails that there are many advantages of online education primarily as classroom, chair, table, bench, building, supporting staffs are not required for it. Proper utilisation of online education may be more effective than classroom teaching. Maximum 100 students can be accommodated in a classroom but through intensive online course 10,000 persons may be covered at a time. It can minimise not only educational expenses but associated costs also. Students can contact their peers staying within the country or even abroad. It helps students to prepare academic papers in co-operation with others, makes them culturally sensitive and capable to understand other environments easily. Online education may give students access to specialised courses which may not be available at a local college or university.
Apparently, these are the prospective sides of online education but our reality is far different due to many problems. A personal computer or android phone is the initial necessity for online education. It may be procured even under financial hardship but internet connection is more essential which is not available everywhere, particularly in rural areas. Continuous power supply and uninterrupted internet connection are still uncertain. Professor Zafar Iqbal has written that one of his students had to draw 2.5 kilometres power line at his own expense but all guardians are not equally solvent and technical problems are not ignorable. Students need to be connected through messenger but is it possible for a teacher to collect messenger ID of 50 or more students. A teacher may conduct class with 50 students staying at different places but everybody may not have internet connection. Even if they have, many of them may remain beyond connection during class time due to mechanical problem. Is there any certainty that all students of a class will be attentive to online class? Environment of a classroom is certainly different from that of house room.
Apart from these there are academic problems also. Online education may be applicable to subjects of arts and social science only. For science subjects, medical, engineering and agriculture it will never be effective because integral parts of these subjects are practical class, laboratory demonstration and field work which are never available through online. It is beyond question that direct interaction with teachers is essential for proper understanding. For this reason classes are held on holidays for students of Bangladesh Open University. During pandemic Germany and France have decided to form a group of 15 students for classroom teaching.
Academic attainment of a student can be ascertained through examination only. What will be the procedure of holding theoretical and practical examination, collecting, distributing and evaluating answer scripts, scrutinising, tabulation under online education? Aim of education is not only acquiring a certificate, socialisation covers an important part of it. A student can be socialised mainly through interaction with classmates, teachers, other students, teaching staffs etc. Art of speaking, way of presentation, leadership quality, extra and co-curricular activities, individual shortcomings, broadness of mind are learnt directly from educational institutions. Can online education provide these?
Online education has become an item of trade. Normally, after two months of holding public examinations results are published and procedure of admission into higher education begins. Just after HSC examination or even before students are enrolled with coaching centres for preparation to get admitted into universities and medical colleges but this year is abnormal. Nobody knows when HSC examination will be held but some coaching centres have already started online coaching admission in the name of preparation for appearing at university admission test. Fees has been fixed at 17,000/- (UCC), Udvash is collecting Tk. 19,000/- for engineering and Tk. 17,000/- for science departments. Moreover, coaching classes for class eight, nine and ten are continuing. Educationists think that this is nothing but trade which is very unfortunate. It is alleged that in addition to normal tuition fees students of some schools are being forced to pay for online classes.
Another problem is litigation. Tuition fees are very high in developed countries. It costs average $21,950 for one year of tuition, room and board at a four-year public university and $49,870 at a private school in the United States, As campuses are closed during corona pandemic authorities have decided to continue academic activities through online. A timely decision indeed but students have filed cases against this decision. Students have filed around 100 suits seeking refunds arguing that they paid tuition fees for acquiring knowledge directly from teachers in classrooms, using laboratories, attending seminars and group discussions, not for online education. Undergraduates have sued more than 50 schools demanding partial tuition, room-and-board and fee refunds after lockdown. Many of the suits are related to compensation for the difference in quality between online and classroom education. Officials apprehend that if students win then it will be certainly difficult for most of the institutions to pay the refunds. Education in our private universities, medical colleges and some so called English medium schools is also costly. What will happen if our students prefer the American instance?
Recently education minister has said that total education system will be online based. Very optimistic (please read - utopian) idea but before that answers to many questions and solution to many problems are initial necessities.
The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes