Education experts and teachers say it was an unwise decision to launch virtual classes without making the necessary preparations
Shiblee Noman, lecturer in journalism and media studies at Jahangirnagar University, has conducted six classes online since July 12. He has continuously tried to increase students' participation, but a maximum of 60 percent of them attend the lectures.
The anthropology department of the University of Rajshahi has seen the participation of a maximum of 40 percent of students in online classes; while 50 percent of teachers of the department are not ready to deliver lectures on the internet.
Online classes were launched when educational institutions were closed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, costly data packages, a lack of digital devices – including smartphones and laptops – and the lack of availability of internet connections have been mentioned as among the key reasons behind the poor participation of students in online lectures.
The scenario of online classes is unsatisfactory at almost all public universities, including the University of Dhaka, with education experts and teachers saying that students are facing a digital divide.
They say it was an unwise decision to launch online lectures without making the necessary preparations.
Professor Dr Syed Manzoorul Islam, an eminent educator, told The Business Standard there is no exam plan at any public university and online classes began without proper arrangements having been made.
That is why many students do not participate in classes, he said.
"At least 40 percent of students cannot attend lectures due to internet and device problems. Moreover, the classes are not interactive. This is very unfortunate for us," Manzoorul said.
He said the government must create a database of poor students, and provide them with laptops and internet facilities.
Otherwise, the quality of online classes will never reach a satisfactory level, he added.
Dr Bokhtiar Ahmed, chairman of the anthropology department at the University of Rajshahi, told The Business Standard online classes had begun at a time when teachers were not ready for that.
"On the other hand, most of our students are not able to attend such classes," he said.
"We discussed this with the university administration when we met with them. We expressed our doubts about the effectiveness of online classes," he continued.
"We told them online classes will create discrimination and will never be satisfactory for all students, but they did not pay us any heed," Bokhtiar explained.
He questioned whether a 40 percent class participation rate could be termed satisfactory. "This is the scenario not only in my department but also in others of our university."
Bangladesh Chhatra Union, a left-leaning student organisation, recently conducted a survey, and found that 43 percent of students of the University of Dhaka were unable to attend online classes.
The survey also found that 56 percent of students were absent from a law lecture, and 72 percent from a physics class.
The Business Standard found that a maximum of 60 students out of 140 in the history department at the University of Dhaka always attend online lectures.
Vice-Chancellor of the university Dr Md Akhtaruzzaman told The Business Standard he has no data on attendance of students at online classes.
"We are working to identify poor students to help them buy digital devices," he added.
Vice-Chancellor of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology Professor Farid Uddin Ahmed said 50 percent of students of his university sought help to buy digital devices and internet packages.
"Students' participation in online classes is still satisfactory. But, that will not continue if we fail to provide support for needy students," he added.
The recent floods have also contributed to a falling class participation rate.
Salauddin, a student of sociology at the University of Dhaka, said he could not attend classes as his home in Bhola was inundated by flooding.
"I am solvent enough to buy internet packages and I have a laptop. But because of the flooding, I cannot attend lectures," he said.
The Bangladesh Teachers' Network said online classes had started in an unplanned way.
Dr Bokhtiar Ahmed, leader of the association, told The Business Standard their prediction that unplanned online education would be suicidal for universities was coming true.
Virtual lectures cannot be a substitute for in-class education to recover the academic losses of students, and they will be harmful if delivered in an unplanned way, said the association.
It has made some recommendations, but none of them have been implemented yet.
One of the recommendations is that the government make a long-term plan to improve the quality of higher education.
Also, needy students should get a monthly stipend of Tk3,000 for a year, and 50 percent of pupils should be given Tk20,000 to buy digital devices.
Other recommendations include reducing tuition fees at private universities by at least 50 percent, and drawing a roadmap to revisit the public university curricula.
The association also said the Digital Security Act 2018 must be eliminated to allow teachers and students to have freedom of expression – as online lectures will not be effective if the law exists.