The Covid-19 pandemic has raised significant challenges as well as opportunities for the higher education community worldwide to learn and explore. During the pandemic a particular challenge was the urgent and unexpected request for previously face-to-face university courses to be taught online and vice versa near about the end of pandemic.
The shifting from traditional face-to-face education to online was not an easy journey for many institutions across the world – a bunch of changes in terms of digital competencies, pedagogical knowledge, psychosocial counselling, varied levels of interaction, engagement and assessment strategies, support structures, etc were required to be adopted in the institutional policies and practices.
Now at the post-Covid stage should we go back to the traditional face-to-face education leaving all these remarkable shifts or changes behind? Certainly not. Then what should be our strategies in the post-Covid education system in a digital world?
Let's start by understanding digital learning, phygital learning, blended learning, online learning and other relevant terminologies in order to get a clear and wide spectrum of post-Covid education in the days ahead. Digital learning is an umbrella term, which can be defined as any type of learning that is accompanied by digital technology or by instructional practice that makes effective use of it.
A wide spectrum of practices can be classified into digital learning such as adaptive learning, blended learning, gamification, classroom technologies, learning analytics, reusable learning objects, MOOCs, mobile learning, online learning, eLearning, OERs, ebooks, virtual reality, augmented reality, and so on. This type of learning is often better suited for adopting flipped classroom pedagogy, differentiated learning, personalized learning, universal design for learning, etc.
However, digital learning is not at all meant to replace traditional methods but rather to enhance the learning experience. Thus, a new term called phygital (a blend of physical and digital space) learning is gaining popularity in recent times.
It is the concept of using technology to integrate the digital learning space with the physical world for the purpose of providing a unique interactive experience to the learners. Phygital is NOT blended learning as the latter does not blend the best practices of face-to-face and online education instead operates both singly. In the 4th industrial revolution era with the high speed of the Internet, the post-Covid education is expected to be neither fully online nor face-to-face but rather phygital.
Daffodil International University (DIU), for instance, is considered as the country's top university in terms of blended and online education. While many universities in Bangladesh have failed to continue their education during Covid pandemic, DIU is disseminating quality education to more than 20,000 students online and all graduates are expected to complete their degrees in time.
It has become possible due to some revolutionary initiatives taken by the Honorable Chairman, Board of Trustees at DIU and other policy makers of the university, which includes One Student, One Laptop Initiative; Education loan scheme; Introduction of teaching innovation awards; Ensuring adequate training of teachers for blended and online education; Up to 100% tuition fee waiver, wide range of scholarship opportunities for poor but meritorious students; Insurance policies for students and their guardians, and many more.
The University has a customised and centrally managed learning management system (LMS), popularly known as BLC (Blended Learning Center). The LMS is integrated with video conferencing, learning analytics, interactive and digital content creation tools, and mobile applications in order to provide a better learning experience to the students. The University is focused on collaborative learning and student learning experience. Flipped classroom pedagogy is largely followed where lecture notes, audio-visual materials and further study links are provided in a well-structured way at the beginning of each semester and thus, ample opportunity is ensured to do drill and practice, critical thinking, further discussions, question-answering, etc during class.
At DIU interactions and student participation are considered important during online class, therefore, a wide range of tools and techniques are used such as on-screen writing using Microsoft Whiteboard or Google Jamboard, do drawing, highlight presentation slides, interactive sessions with Mentimeter, etc for easier understanding of the students. Besides, originality checking, smart attendance system, group assignment, discussion forums, quiz, creative writing, etc. play important roles in assessing students.
Student feedback and activities per month for each course are carefully analysed and meaningful patterns are extracted to improve the performance of teachers.
DIU provides institutional email, unlimited drive space to all students, teachers and staff. It has Human Resource Development Institute (HRDI), Tazkera and Golam Mustafa Center for teaching and Learning, and various platforms like GoEdu, IOU to offer need-based and time-driven short courses for professional development of teachers and staff.
The University introduces teaching apprentice fellows who are groomed to be the future leader and best practitioner of teaching for the university.
Teaching innovation awards are also introduced to encourage teachers for exhibiting best practices while their research publications are awarded through recognition and appropriate incentives.
DIU has a unique monitoring system called Smart Edu for better accountability of teachers at online education alongside many other useful features. Each teacher has to report monthly with evidence following a rubric comprising 8-10 aspects such as BLC course organisation, student engagement, teacher interactions, counselling and advising students, value additions, self-development, student feedback, research activities, etc.
Altogether, these tools, techniques and approaches have significant impacts in ensuring quality and improvement of teaching-learning at the university. After developing such a strong foundation for blended, online and other forms of digital education, DIU should not retreat from the digital education space but rather capitalise on it alongside face-to-face education.
Online education is not a problem by itself but rather the provider institution offering the program should be the key focus to investigate. For instance, an online program offered by Harvard University won't be the same quality as that at Dhaka University. Quality is an important but highly relative term; we have to focus on quantity as well.
Every year approximately 10 lakh students pass HSC exam, this year it is 13 lakh 67 thousand while public (except National University) and private universities can accommodate only 60-70 thousand and 2 lakh aspirant students respectively for higher education. And it is not possible to change the physical infrastructure overnight. Therefore, online education is the best alternative in today's Digital Bangladesh.
After a year-long digital education practices in different capacities at various institutions we have to think deeply about the possible implications regarding going back to the stage of traditional education where we were before the outbreak of Covid pandemic. Online education should be patronised and also liberalised through standardisation of policies and practices by increasing the number of provider institutions in both public and private sectors on a competitive and transparent basis.
The policy must follow a standard set of criteria, which may include but not limited to: (i) years of experience in blended, online & digital education; (ii) infrastructural resources (e.g. IT); (iii) human resources; (iv) rigorous quality assurance; (v) periodic compliance requirement; (vi) proper documentation and reporting of student feedback; (vii) support system; (viii) digital and pedagogical competencies of teachers and professional development; (ix) incorporation of teaching-learning analytics; (x) educational guidance and counselling, among others.
Technology plays an important role in blended, online or any forms of digital education but institutional practices that are built over the years by carefully crafted policies, investment of resources, and engaging a pool of expert teaching and support staff should not be wasted but rather provided opportunities to flourish.
Although DIU is currently offering online education to its students during the Corona pandemic, the University Grant Commission (UGC), Bangladesh may not allow DIU to continue its best practices of online education in the post-Covid era. Only two public universities in Bangladesh have mandates to offer online education and training.
However, none of our universities has yet made any significant contributions in the area of formal online program offerings whereas it is hard to find a single Australian or Canadian university not offering formal online education. Thus, Bangladesh is yet to mark its presence in the global online education industry, which could be the third biggest source of earning revenues after remittance and garment industry, if this sector is given due importance and carefully visioned straightaway.
Therefore, now is the right time for our policy makers to rethink the online education policy and facilitate private universities like Daffodil University having years of expertise in blended and online education to excel in today's transnational education system as a brand of Education Bangladesh.