The Financial Express

Digital divide in online class during Covid-19 pandemic

Digital divide in online class during Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown have forced many educational institutions all over the world to offer online classes. In Bangladesh, all educational institutions were shut down on March 16, 2020. According to the University Grants Commission (UGC), after about two weeks, 63 out of 151 public and private universities started online classes. However, the viability of online classes needs to be weighed against the digital readiness of Bangladesh. In the 2020 Network Readiness Index, Bangladesh ranks 105 out of 134 countries. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, in 2019, only 5.6 per cent of households in Bangladesh had a home computer and only 37.6 per cent of households had access to the internet at home. These data point to the existence of a deep digital divide and we set to explore how the sudden initiation of online classes influences the existing or latent digital divide.

We conducted an online survey of 204 private university students of Bangladesh who are from ten different online classes taught by us and our colleagues. The students are from top-tier private universities and therefore represent a relatively higher income cluster compared to other similar groups in Bangladesh such as public university students. We categorise the respondents into five income groups to understand income based digital divide - low (monthly household income below Tk. 50,000), lower middle (Tk. 50,000-100,000), middle (Tk. 100,000-150,000), upper middle (Tk. 150,000-200,000) and high (Above Tk. 200,000). 27 per cent of our respondents belong to the low-income group; 42 per cent belong to the lower middle-income group; 16 per cent belong to the middle-income group; 8 per cent belong to the upper middle-income group; while 7 per cent belong to the high-income group.

Our analysis reveals that students belonging to the low and lower middle-income groups have been hit harder during the pandemic. 10 per cent of our respondents do not own own personal computer or laptop and they perceive it to be a problem for effectively attending online classes. Among these respondents, 95 per cent belong to the low and lower middle-income groups whereas only 5 per cent belong to the three higher income groups combined. Many university students take up part-time jobs to fund their personal expenses including internet usage expenditure. 34 per cent of our respondents who had a job/multiple jobs before the pandemic report that they have lost at least one job since the pandemic began. This proportion is 77 per cent for the low-income group and 0 per cent for the high-income group. Overall, 57 per cent of the respondents who had an income before the pandemic report a loss of income since the pandemic started. This proportion is 73 per cent for the low-income group and only 30 per cent for the high-income group.

Unsurprisingly, a positive correlation exists between monthly household income and internet spending both before and after the lock-down. In normal circumstances, the high-income group can spend more on the internet and get better service. The low-income group in the past was able to reduce this divide by using either on-campus internet facilities or shared arrangement with their peers. However, during the pandemic when every student has to attend online classes, the lower-income groups suffer since they now have to spend a higher proportion of their income to level the playing field with their counterparts. We observe that the lower the income, the higher is the increase in Internet spending since online classes began. The low-income group had to increase median Internet spending by 60 per cent whereas the high-income group was able to decrease it by 3.3 per cent. This divide is also palpable in the fact that 38 per cent of the respondents in the low-income group complain about lack of money to buy data or internet packages whereas only 11 per cent in the high-income group do so.

39 per cent of our respondents are women and our research reveals a gender based digital divide in students' online class experience. In Bangladesh, women usually perform a disproportionately larger share of household work. Families that can afford household help hire either full-time or part-time people. These helpers generally do all types of household chores including cleaning, cooking, washing, babysitting etc. The pandemic and the associated lock-down forced families to lay off the helpers, mostly the part-time ones. What naturally transpired is that women had to take up most of the workload in addition to their prior responsibilities. In our research, we focus on two types of online classes - live/real-time classes and recorded video lectures. In our sample, women are likelier to mention about time flexibility problem of online live/ real-time classes; 60 per cent of the women see it as a problem whereas only 40 per cent of the men do so. Among undergraduate students, 36 per cent of men see time flexibility as a problem in contrast to 60 per cent of women.

Among graduate students, this men-women proportion is 48 per cent versus 59 per cent. These findings point to the fact that a woman in Bangladesh, regardless of her age, has to bear a greater proportion of workload at home and more so during the lock-down and therefore, it is more difficult for them to attend online live/real-time classes. This divide is also reflected in how our respondents' grade expectations changed after online classes had begun. More women expect a lower grade though at the undergraduate level the man-woman difference is small (60 per cent versus 62 per cent). In contrast, in the case of graduate students, a much larger proportion (59 per cent) of women who are likelier to be married and have children expect a lower grade compared to men (46 per cent).

All the students in our sample had the experience of attending both online live/real-time classes and recorded video lectures during the pandemic. On average, 68 per cent of the courses that a student took offered live/real-time online lectures while the remaining courses offered recorded video lectures. 42 per cent of the respondents prefer live/real-time online classes while 58 per cent prefer recorded video lectures. Of the students who prefer recorded lectures, 74 per cent like the flexibility of being able to watch the lectures in their own time, 71 per cent report that they can go over the recordings as many times as they need, 50 per cent like the fact that they can download the lecture once and watch it offline, 46 per cent report that they can ask relevant questions to the teacher at their preferred time, and 45 per cent report that they get an equal chance of asking questions even with a relatively slower internet connection. Of the students who do not like live/real-time classes, 84 per cent complain about connectivity problems, 51 per cent report that some materials presented during the live/real-time classes become inaccessible later, 47 per cent complain about the lack of time flexibility, 43 per cent complain about people with high-speed connections getting undue advantage, while 40 per cent suggest that ensuring attendance during the live sessions is stressful.

This greater preference for recorded lectures, in fact, points to the digital divide that surfaced during the pandemic and was not present during normal times. We observe that income level has an influence on the type of lecture the students prefer. Among respondents who prefer recorded lectures, 46 per cent in the low and lower middle-income groups perceive that students with higher internet speed is getting an advantage in online live/real-time classes in contrast to 34 per cent respondents in the three higher income groups. Overall, the preference for recorded video lectures is also the highest (71 per cent) among students belonging to the low-income group. Similarly, 54 per cent of the low-income group respondents who prefer recorded video lectures appreciate the fact that with recordings, the files can be downloaded and then viewed later offline, whereas only 22 per cent of the respondents from high-income group perceive it as an advantage of recorded video lectures. Along the same line, among the respondents who prefer recorded video lectures, 31 per cent belonging to the low-income group find recorded lectures as a cheaper option while only 11 per cent of respondents of the high-income group mention it as a reason for their preference.

Our research illuminates that during a crisis like Covid-19 pandemic, students make logical choice between online live/real-time classes and recorded video lectures depending on their personal situations. A deeper look reveals an income and gender based digital divide that can impact students' online class experiences. This research has important implications for the education sector, mainly in the developing countries.


Dr. Asad Karim Khan Priyo, Assistant Professor and Chair, Department of Economics, North South  University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

[email protected]

Dr. Ummaha Hazra, Assistant Professor, Department of Management, 

North South University, Dhaka, Bangladesh. [email protected]

[This article is based on research conducted by the authors, which is forthcoming in the North South Business Review under the title "Understanding digital divide in online class experiences during Covid-19 lockdown in Bangladesh".]

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