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That is the total number of students in Bangladesh. Forty-two million potential leaders of tomorrow. Forty-two million reasons to be hopeful for the country’s future.
Forty-two million students who, suddenly, were left without classrooms, without their friends, without their schools and colleges – without formal education.
This was the reality for Bangladesh’s students in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the world, with Bangladesh being no different and at the mercy of its devastating effects.
As we move on from the strict lockdown regime of past months, slowly but surely, businesses and offices are resuming operations. However, one thing has remained shut in Bangladesh since March 2020: educational institutions.
This closure indeed has been a crisis. What will happen to education as we know it? The third grader in 2019 who got promoted to the fourth grade in 2020 not only missed fourth grade entirely, but also forgot what she learnt in the third grade while being promoted to the fifth grade in 2021.
The plight of that 2019 fourth grader is even more devastating when you consider that she finished primary school and got promoted to secondary school in 2021. According to UNICEF, barely 46 percent of the 95 percent who pass the primary school level make it to secondary schools, which is the lowest in South Asia. When learning achievement is already so low, what will this prolonged closure of educational institutions do to our students?
Crisis, however, brings innovation. It forces us to make do with what we have. When our back is against the wall, we think of alternatives.
Pre-existing platforms provide some relief
The Digital Bangladesh vision, with the slogan “Service at Doorsteps”, has increasingly provided services to citizens without them having to go to government offices. This led us to wonder whether we could deliver “Education at Fingertips”?
With children at home from school, we had to think of the means to bring lessons to them. Online classes were an obvious first choice, and thankfully, Bangladesh already had multiple pre-established platforms with which to work.
Recognizing the value of engaging with teenagers in a manner they can identify with, the platform Konnect (K stands for kishore which means youth in Bengali), was developed. Konnect is an “edutainment” online platform where nearly 300,000 Bangladeshi teenagers and adolescents are learning 21st century life skills, all the while remaining entertained, engaged and productive through over 30,000 edutainment contents.
Another innovation, the Teacher’s Portal, was developed to introduce a modern approach to teacher training. Devised for primary and secondary school teachers, this online social platform not only allowed for more efficient and modern methods of professional development for teachers, but also allowed a peer-to-peer component. Nearly 1.5 million teachers are now members of this portal with the number of teacher-generated contents dramatically increasing to well over 500,000 through the pandemic months.
All of these platforms were made possible thanks to joint efforts of the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, and a2i – the flagship digital transformation program of the Government of Bangladesh and UNDP Bangladesh. Between these platforms, tens of thousands of live classes have been shared, and millions of learners have benefitted from them.
Of course, these platforms make up only a small percentage of what is actually available as learning options for students. From Robi’s 10 Minute School to Repto Education Center to the many Facebook-based education pages, it is a concerted, multi-organisation effort that is pushing education digitally. The social media platforms became an even more predominant platform for internet-based educational content delivery. For example, every edutainment video uploaded by Konnect secures millions of views over Facebook and YouTube.
However, given that only about 35 percent of secondary school students and less than 20 percent of primary school students have access to the internet, the majority of our students remained deprived of any education.
COVID-19 gave traditionalists new courage, and Parliament TV started broadcasting thousands of lessons for primary, secondary, madrassa, and vocational education, this time reaching students in tens of millions. An alternative, using old technology, was born.
Unfortunately, these new ways of learning are not without shortcomings. Here’s a scenario: Think of two students — one from a wealthy family, and the other from an impoverished background — who attend BRAC University. When classes are held on campus, they receive the same lessons, the same learning environment, and have access to the same facilities the university offers. Now, with classes online, that is no longer the case. While the wealthy student has a room to herself, steady internet connection, and an overall positive learning environment, the other student lacks all of those amenities, while simultaneously being worried about the family’s ability to sustain themselves during the pandemic.
This is an extremely important lesson that education practitioners must address. Yes, technology is a great enabler, and has allowed us to devise alternatives and find solutions to the most incredible of challenges. Yet it must be remembered that technology, particularly for a country like Bangladesh, undoubtedly exacerbates pre-existing inequities that plague our society, as the example above demonstrates, creating a wider digital and subsequently education divide. Further insights into how best to leverage the benefits of technology to support student learning is required to ensure we are able to make cost-effective investments into this space to drive better learning outcomes amongst the most marginalised. We look forward to working with EdTech Hub and other partners to undertake research in this space that can meaningfully impact decision-making on the use of EdTech in Bangladesh.