One thing that we have all begun to appreciate since the arrival of the Corona-virus Pandemic has been the importance of scientists and those that support them. It is clear to the world that until there is a vaccine there is no real chance of bringing the situation under control. Governments have endeavored to wrestle with the need to minimize risk and deaths, and social distancing has become a key aspect of those efforts. Progress is being made, but it is often fitful and patchy, and there is always the ever present danger of further peaks of infection if we ease up too quickly, or simply resume life as it used to be before the arrival of COVID-19. The reality is that the ways of behavior, of interaction and doing business need to change and already there are signs of a new normal emerging, one that is predicated on the need to be cautious, vigilant and aware of the fact that anyone can catch the disease, and that anyone can spread it. Yet for all that, there is a pressing need to try and return to some form of normality, mindful of the fact that the disease remains a very real danger.
One sector that has found itself severely disrupted by the Corona-virus has been that of higher education. Universities and colleges have been closed, academic and support staff left in fear for their futures, and students’ studies interrupted, and exams cancelled or postponed indefinitely. It is as if the pause button has been pressed on the entire sector, and yet this is the very sector that provides those scientists and others that will tackle future crises. Looking at the higher education sector it soon becomes apparent that the current paralysis need not exist, with a little imagination, and some technical know-how learning can continue. Granted the traditional face to face teaching that we have all been used to cannot go ahead at present, but various technological platforms mean that academics and students can interact in a controlled and professional manner. Already hundreds of institutions around the world have realized that they can justify their existence by conducting online teaching, with staff finding the process something of a revelation. Naturally, there have been a few technical glitches and teething problems, but once these have been ironed out all concerned seem to feel that the process is beneficial and what is more know that learning is being maintained and advanced.
So, what are the challenges for such a process in Bangladesh? Well, one of the greatest hurdles to surmount is the psychological one in respect of resistance to change. Some academics and many members of leadership and management teams are not particularly tech savvy and do not entirely grasp how online learning platforms might work. There are understandable anxieties about the need for training, and the development and availability of suitable learning resources. Such processes require total commitment, and that means that staff think through what material is made available and how lessons or units develop along with the learning objectives and assessment tasks. Many staff have little or no experience of such learning and so fear being exposed by such a process. Everyone needs to engage in some heuristic learning – learning by doing, and overtime ambivalence or hostility to such learning evaporates, and it can often be found to be a iterating experience. What is more institutions are finding that they can develop units and courses that can be easily offered to students who for whatever reason actually prefer distance learning. With planning and the appropriate monitoring and checks and balances, and of course safeguards around privacy etc. there is potential to tap into a way of learning that is undergoing exponential growth across much of the world.
For such learning to be effective in Bangladesh it is paramount that all students have access to the learning platforms, and this might well mean that tablets and other devices become a standard learning tool, one that is issued to all students and if necessary built into the fee structure. Rather than viewing such technology as a cost, it is needs to be seen as an asset, one that helps facilitate and optimize learning. It is vital that internet connectivity is improved and consolidated, something that is integral to the national economy. So, with this in mind, there are some questions that need to be asked of each and every HE institution:
1) What learning is available online?
2) What plans are afoot to develop online learning?
3) How often are staff given training to support the introduction of online teaching?
4) What funds have been budgeted for the development of online learning? If not, why not?
5) What is being done to ensure that all students can access the online learning platform?
6) What lessons are being learnt from what is being done internationally?
7) Who are the Online Learning change-makers in the institution, and are they being adequately supported?
8) What are the chief concerns about online learning and how might these be addressed?
9) Are various stakeholders being consulted in order ensure that the system works efficiently and effectively?
10) What mechanisms are in place to protect IT systems from viruses and hackers?
11) Could time and resources be saved by holding more meetings via online meeting platforms?
12) How is online learning being recognized and celebrated?
There are very real opportunities at the present time to innovate, not just for the time of the Pandemic, but for the future. The most forward-thinking institutions have already recognized that this is a golden opportunity to embrace positive chance, to ensure the sector is both relevant and dynamic. No one is saying that it is easy, but it certainly can be exciting. When people embrace change and are helped to adapt to it remarkable things happen. Now is the time to harness the country’s considerable IT talent to ensure that it becomes trans formative in the field of higher education and beyond. Quietly and relentlessly a revolution is taking place, one that will broaden all our horizons about what learning and indeed the world of work can become. Looking further afield we will notice that resistance is futile, change is already happening, it is just that the situation arising from the Corona-virus has speeded things up. No one should be in any doubt that there will be challenges, but the simple fact is that these are far outweighed by the opportunities.