Digital Divide Impeding E-learning in Higher Education Obstacles and Way Forward for Bangladesh -Imran Nazir

Tech

Most of the public university students along with National University are passing idle time while private university students are regularly participating in online classes. All types of educational institutions were shut down fearing the spread of Coronavirus since the middle of March. Later on, many concerned authorities have started to think of alternatives to conventional classroom to resume higher education. Obviously e-learning came out as a favorable option bypassing social distance. Consequently University Grant Commission (UGC) has responded with permission to hold online classes and exams with conditionality. Private universities went on online classes.
In contrast, the University of Dhaka, a pioneer of Bangladesh having reputation of first mover, announced its inability to hold online classes in early May. Dhaka University, like other public universities, do not lack meritorious students or capable teachers to conduct online classes rather the question of access to digital technologies and expertise of using related materials to online classes stood as the greatest impediment to introduce e-based education in higher education.
Above mentioned two counter scenarios in higher education of Bangladesh reflect the popularly used term “digital divide” where one group is going ahead while majority remains left behind due to technological disparity. This technological inequality or inefficiency depicts the overall inequality existing in Bangladesh society. Public universities’ inability to move in e-learning depicts how unprepared we are to celebrate Digital Bangladesh 2021. Technological revolution after the mid-20th century has altered all spheres of human lives differently. Technology diffusion made human life easier but the fruits of technological innovation have been concentrated within few areas and limited classes’ people among and within countries. Its advancement did not bring prosperity for everyone rather created a new type inequality. However, digital divide refers to the gap between individuals, households, groups, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels regarding their available opportunities and access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and usage of internet for wider purposes. This divide can occur through access to technology and intelligence to operate digital technologies. Income and economic capability directly influence a person or group of people to choose digital means over conventional techniques. Literacy level of a person or community broadly influences their competency to adapt with new technologies. Lack of generating new ICTs creates further digital divide.
By general virtue, we can see developed countries tend to use more technologies in their daily tasks while developing countries lag behind introducing new technologies replacing traditional methods. Affordability is the main reason here. Despite recent developments, ICTs are still comparatively expensive and inaccessible to a major part of world population. Their lower economic condition is broadly responsible for their backwardness. So, we cannot neglect socio- economic condition of a country and its technological level of advancement. On the other hand, e-learning concept is digital mode of learning which is highly dependent on technological means and internet for its operation. ICTs virtually provide an environment where teachers and students interact for the purpose of education. E-learning enables participants to exchange views, information with each other with multi directional facilities from distant places.
So without making sure access to digital technologies and level of expertise among e-learning participants, it would be imprudent to continue e-learning due to the possibility of digital inequality.
E-learning is an emerging phenomenon in higher education worldwide. Unfortunately e-learning gained lesser footing in Bangladesh. Our education system hardly thought of alternative to traditional crowded classrooms. But the spread of Coronavirus is compelling Bangladesh hard like other countries to go for e-learning since social distance remains the most concerning factor.
Higher Secondary Education Board is broadcasting class lectures on television and private universities are taking online classes. Interestingly most of the world-class universities (both public & private) are continuing their semesters and exams via online assessments. Regrettably our public universities could not comprehend current deadlock reality and exploit e-learning to reduce educational losses. Technological backwardness is grossly responsible for this. Let’s see what major challenges are in quest of e-learning in higher education. Access to internet and technological devices are two crucial elements to conduct e-learning. Though the number of internet users is expanding in Bangladesh according to BTRC data. There were only 40182.207 thousands internet users (mobile internet, ISP+PSTN) in March of 2012 then and now 103.253 million internet users. Lack of statistics on public university students’ internet usage prevents us from claiming on their access rate. Hypothetically we can say that on average 90% public university students use internet occasionally, if not regularly. And many of them use university provided internet connection. Wi-Fi connections are less costly and speedier but only available in major cities. Interestingly 70% public university students live in village. On the other hand, mobile internet connection is poor in many parts of Bangladesh while data price is expensive to afford for most of the students. Notably current lockdown reality further squeezed many students’ livelihood and family income. Gender centric internet access cannot be denied. Poor internet connectivity, unavailability of broadband connection and strong mobile network in many rural parts and expensive data price remain major impediments in quest of e- learning.
Technological devices are obvious to conduct any form of e-learning. There are 165.227 million mobile users in Bangladesh. We are not certain how many of them use smart phones exactly.
Fortunately UGC has conducted a wider encompassing survey recently and found that 86% public university students possess smart phones. This number is quite encouraging but have-nots should not be ignored. Many public students are coming from rural poor families. Bringing them under the umbrella of e-learning enabled devices is still a great hindrance to run online classes.
However, we cannot expect a better digital Bangladesh outstripping a sizeable number of students behind by taking inequitable policy.
Resource scarcity is another impediment in starting wider online based education. Resource term is multidimensional. We hear its necessity behind all kind of development. Public universities lack both human and non-human resources in conducting e-learning. Quality human resource is prerequisite to any sustained development. Hypothetically almost all university teachers have an average quality to deliver lectures but most of them lack liveliness. E-learning brings additional challenge to maintain an interactive environment while physical contact is absent here. Teachers’ inadequate skill to accommodate students virtually would hinder quality education attainment. We do not know how much they are prepared technically and ergonomically with e-learning.
Similarly the level of students’ capability to adapt with e-learning is an open question. To talk about non-human resources, we refer contents of education. Providing understandable quality study materials for students is an obstruction to go with e-learning in Bangladesh. Due to inexperienced journey with e-learning, our education system did not give any effort previously to digitalize e-learning friendly contents significantly. Currently we do not have any concrete framework or standard as well for e-learning. So it would be a risky journey for public universities to introduce e-learning without acquiring both human and non-human resources. Addressing Digital divide and Promoting Equitable E-learning: Previous sections have shown how digital divide has created an unequal environment for e- learning in Bangladesh. If we really want to have a sustained future of e-learning, we must narrow down digital divide first, otherwise highly stratified society would be further divided by technological inequality. Few measures can be taken reflecting previously stated challenges. Reducing socio-economic inequality is prerequisite for a balanced society. Addressing inequality through macroeconomic policies could be a good instrument along with other social safety measures. Serious schemes should be taken with existing policies to uphold all citizens’ overall well-being which would in return eradicate all of kind inequality including technological one. Lower internet connectivity and data price hamper perusing e-learning in Bangladesh. What government can do here is to incentivize mobile operators to provide data for students at a concessional price or free and expand their connectivity area as well. Stationing more submarine cables could be a good option to expand cheaper and speedier internet connection in ling run.
However, we have observed two giant mobile operators’ competition resulted in giving extensive amount of internet package offering for doctors. So it is also possible for mobile operators to provide students because they are also the future of Bangladesh. If education is wasted, companies will lose elite customers consequently in future. Asian Development Bank is planning to offer free internet for students until September in Bangladesh. On the other hand World Bank is keen to take the responsibility of technological and logistic matters for e-learning. Government should pursue such kind of possible options and evaluate its failure to popularize Doel laptop programme. Instead of always thinking cheap, we should focus on multi-functionality of devices. All responsible stakeholders exactly need to identify those who have not access to devices and unable to buy technologies on their own. We understand that it is not rational to ask government a high quality device to every student. But we can fairly expect Bangladesh Ministry of Education to replicate the Ministry of Agriculture’s subsidy policy where farmers are free to choose any brand’ tools convenient for them and then government would pay part of its price. This policy would make students responsible and accountable as well. Statistically saying there are not many students having no e-learning compatible devices. So it would not be that tough for government to cover all students efficiently. By making sure accessibility, government should focus on codifying e-learning framework. Adequate convenient measures should adopt teachers and students. At the same time, we need to build some assessment standards. Otherwise self-created standards of universities would bring haphazard consequences. Remember e-learning is not only conducting video classes. So, we have to focus on other ethical factors as well. Then we can go for e-learning. We can go for e-learning after addressing impediments properly.

The author is an undergraduate student of the University of Dhaka.