The current pandemic has brought us to a new reality in the culture of education - learning online,which has been a major trendin the past four months. Online classestranscend geographical boundary, and introduceus with a virtual reality. In virtual classrooms, there are students who are connected with high-speed Internet from Dhaka while a few others joining from the country's remote areas struggle with unstable Internet.
The online class has also generated certain debates involving academics, scholars and the general public. Reportedly, a significant number of Dhaka University students are unable to attend classes due to lack of access to smartphones, inability to afford internet packages, and power supply disruptions. This is a typical scenario of most public universities in Bangladesh. Apart from rural-urban gap, children of poor and lower middle class families cannot join online classes. This disparity among the students in accessing online learning facilities has created a new debate on the social media,over what we call 'Digital Divide', a phenomenon which is not new either.
Since 2009 the World Wide Web Foundation is working on digital inequality. The foundation was established by Sir Tim Berners-Lee to advance the open web as a public good and a basic right. Who is Tim Berners-Lee? It is he who had developed world wide web as basic human right, not as business venture. The man could have been a billionaire but he chose to make www an equal, accessible platform for all people around the world.He and his foundation have been working restlessly for digital equality and net neutrality.
Even in a family, young children might be heavy users of internet when the father is a moderate user and the mother a very basic user. There are other forms of digital dividein terms of age, gender, regulation, education, business etc. Research findings suggest how society can minimise this inequality. Let me here focus on digital divide in online education system and how we can mitigate it for students.
Affordability of internet is the first and most important thing for users. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has asked the government to introduce free internet packages for university students to help them take part in online educational activities.Bangladesh has been placed in the 41stposition in the world and 14th in Asia, shows the Global Affordability Report, 2019. Affordability, according to standard definition, means: If anyone can buy 1GB mobile prepaid data with less than 2.0 per cent of his/her average monthly income,it is affordable for him/her.
In Bangladesh,the total number of internet usershas stood at around 100 million as of end of May 2020, said the latest report of the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC). This indicates that internet is still not accessible for a significant number of people.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened the case for universal internet access, fostering a clear consensus that it's too unaffordable to keep someone offline.The crisis has actually opened up a new window of opportunities.
The pandemic has taught us that basic access to internet is just not enough. Video calling and live streaming are its valuable features that require the highest level of Internet connectivity to conduct online classes. Unfortunately, there's not enough bandwidth for the students in remote areas of Bangladesh to make online education viable.
According to A4AI, the four features that matter most to internet usersare minimum daily internet access, a smartphone, an unlimited broadband connection at home/study/workplace and 4G mobile connectivity. A large number of university students in Bangladesh are already using these four features.
The World Economic Forum,reported even before Covid-19, that there was still strong growth and penetration of education technology, with global investment in technology hitting US$18.66 billion in 2019. The overall online education industry is expected to reach US$350-billion-mark by 2025. Online education is not only an alternative option to make up for losses of classes and learning during the pandemic,it's the future. It's essential to ensure four aforesaid features for every internet user to help the process of a paradigm shift in online education in Digital Bangladesh.
Md. Ashraful Goni is a lecturer at Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP).