Even a few years ago, nobody would have thought learning would be as easy as watching television
One fine afternoon on March 16, Afsara Tasnim, a second year university student, stumbled upon a news link on social media that said all educational institutions would be closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On the one hand, Afsara was relieved that she would no longer have to travel during such a difficult time. On the other, she was troubled by the prospect of her semester being halted midway.
However, for millions of students like Afsara, online learning has become the next phase of education since they are unable to go to their institutions.
Although popular in many countries, the idea of e-learning is fairly new to Bangladesh.
In 2015, the first full-fledged case of e-learning was brought forth to the mainstream by Ayman Sadiq in the form of an online school called "10 Minute School".
Since 10 Minute School was introduced, the e-learning industry in the country has considerably expanded to give room to more platforms such as eShikhon, Repto Education Centre, StudyPress, and Educarnival, to name a few.
"E-learning helped me a lot at the start of my college days. I used to take lessons from websites such as Coursera, and even today, I regularly visit e-learning websites," Ayman Sadiq told The Business Standard.
Five years ago, e-learning was merely a concept. But the last five years have helped newcomers to join the industry and older ones to reach new feats.
When asked about online learning in local context, Sadiq said, "E-learning in Bangladesh still has a long way to go. However, the government has started to broadcast classes via television channel during the shutdown. Robi-10 Minute School also live broadcasted the classes on the app and responses have been overwhelming."
Previously, 10 Minute School used to teach three lakh students from their app. Now, the number has more than doubled to seven to eight lakh students a day.
Every day, six to seven thousand people are installing the app whereas earlier, the figure was only three thousand.
"If I have to speak about my platform, I would say that the traction has doubled and growth level is great," said Sadiq, adding, "I think this industry will experience a majority of its boom from the rural community spectrum within the next five years as the government has started to take initiatives to normalise online education throughout Bangladesh."
Regardless of mass acceptance of digital education, stability of internet connections remains a problem.
"As optic fibre connections are increasing in number, with time, e-learning services will reach institutions in even the most rural areas," Sadiq remarked.
"Educational hubs that are yet to introduce e-learning can now play the role of middlemen with service providers and integrate teachers and parents within the learning process. This way, the ecosystem will grow faster," he said while projecting the industry's growth.
Sadiq hoped that within the next five years, 1.7 lakh educational institutions in Bangladesh would become a part of the ecosystem.
Schools are one of the hardest hit sectors due to the prolonged global lockdown. According to a report by Unesco, over 850 million children and youth – approximately half of the world's student population could not attend classes due to the pandemic.
Sadiq said, "The impact, indeed, is massive. 4.27 crore people in Bangladesh have been cooped up indoors due to the shutdown. That is one-third of the total population."
However, from April, the state-run Sangsad Bangladesh Television has been broadcasting lessons for grades one to five.
Every day, from 2pm to 4pm, a program titled "Ghore Bose Shikhi" broadcasts lessons on every subject for 20 minutes.
Technological adaptation in Bangladesh still leans toward the weaker end of the spectrum, which is why many educational institutions could not conduct orientation on e-learning before the prolonged shutdown.
Moreover, the announcement to suspend all classes had come suddenly, which did not leave much room for preparation.
"As soon as the pandemic hit Bangladesh, many people left for their hometowns and for some, their financial situation prevented them from continuing to learn amid the crisis," Sadiq said.
In order to help the education industry sustain, the government has outlined policies with the University Grants Commission (UGC).
Subsequently, the commission has said it will assist universities through its Bangladesh Research and Education Network (BdREN) services.
10 Minute School is one of the support providers of the government's initiative.
"We have been helping such initiatives in the form of video production and policy-making," Sadiq informed.
In 2020, most universities in the country have conducted online classes, primary school lessons have been broadcast on national television and some tutors have held classes through platforms such as Google Classroom and Zoom.
One of the older participants of online education is the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).
For the past five years, the institution had been developing a management system called MOODLE.
While it was mostly being used as supplementary to classrooms, the university authority decided to migrate to MOODLE to conduct classes and assessments during the shutdown.
Although ULAB students in Dhaka have had fairly easy access to online classes, those who are in their hometowns lagged behind due to issues such as poor internet connections and lack of equipment.
"I think that stable internet connection is one of the major drawbacks behind the industry not being able to reach its full potential. But the government has plans to provide optic fibre connections to all educational hubs in order to bring them under one umbrella," informed Sadiq.
Connecting all education hubs and its students will help to eradicate infrastructural barriers and improve pliancy.
He further said, "We need to work from two ends to make this happen. Firstly, the infrastructure and platforms need to be designed to perfection. Secondly, the content needs to be focused upon."