“Blended learning is what we will need in the next few days”

Dr Kazi Shahidullah

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Dr Kazi Shahidullah

Professor Dr Kazi Shahidullah, chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), former chairman of the history department of Dhaka University and former vice-chancellor of the National University, talks to the Daily Star’s Naznin Tithi on how universities can recover from lost learning when they resume face-to-face classes and why our universities should continue online education alongside classroom education.

As universities (public and private) prepare to resume in-person classes soon, how do you think the learning loss of the past year and a half can be recouped? Does the UGC have specific directives for universities, especially public ones, to deal with this problem?

There is a lot of salvage work to be done. But I believe that our public universities will find a way out of this crisis. After reopening, the jam session would undoubtedly be a problem. The jam session is nothing new here. Public universities have faced jam session issues in the past and have overcome them successfully. So, there is no reason why they cannot do it now. Additional efforts must come from all parties (teachers, students and administrators) to tackle the problem. Being a former DU professor, I know how the university went through many times of crisis and also recovered. Ways and means of recovering from learning loss should be discussed and worked out by the respective universities. In public universities, university unions, academic councils, dean’s committees as well as academic committees of respective departments need to discuss the issue and find a solution.

As far as I can remember, UGC sent out guidelines to universities about two months ago suggesting our ideas on how to recoup the learning loss in order to help universities resolve the issue. We made proposals such as trimming the lesson plan focusing on the most important parts of the program. Another proposal we made was to reduce vacations after reopening. Teachers may have to sacrifice vacations and work overtime, if necessary, to overcome this crisis. They will have to organize the exams on time and publish the results on time, which will require greater coordination and cooperation from all. Another suggestion would be to extend class time to one hour instead of the current 50 minutes. These are just a few basic ideas. I’m sure our public universities will measure up and find ways to tackle learning loss. It will not be resolved overnight; we will need time for that.

The digital divide in higher education has become a source of serious concern during this period. What lessons have we learned from it? How will universities deal with the issue in the future?

The digital divide is a reality for us. The rural-urban gap and the rich-poor gap are quite significant here. In March 2020, when universities closed at the request of the government, we at UGC suggested keeping online courses open. The idea was to keep students engaged in education. At the time, we had no idea the pandemic would last that long. Later, we realized that online classes were the only option we had left.

We noticed that the private universities wanted to open up but the public universities were not responding as much. We had to conduct some investigations to understand the reasons for this and we learned that many students in public universities did not have the necessary devices to participate in online courses. After giving a lot of effort, we were able to raise funds and for the first time in the history of this country, UGC granted loans to students of public universities to buy devices. When the device issue was somewhat resolved, we learned that many students did not have the money to purchase the high-priced internet packages. We then sat down with the ISPs to discuss the issue and got good answers from them. Based on our discussions, they have offered exclusive internet packages only for students. But even that did not give us the desired result as students in rural areas had connectivity issues. Another obstacle the students had to face was the interruption of the electricity connection in the villages. It is therefore undeniable that the digital divide has been a big problem during this time. UGC has tried to do everything in its power to make online education a success. But it cannot do anything for infrastructure development, the government must do it. We hope that the situation will improve in the future.

At present, only a few public universities have made progress in immunizing or enrolling their students for vaccines, while the rest are still lagging behind. What is the current situation in this regard? Will this have an impact on the reopening plan?

We have around 3.5 lakh of students in our public universities. Among them, 2.5 lakh students took the first dose of the vaccine. There are about 1.3 lakh of students at public universities who are residents of the hall. Of these, 1.18 lakh took at least one vaccine injection. I think the situation is quite satisfactory.

However, if we take into account the students of the national university and the seven colleges of the University of Dhaka, the total number of students would amount to around 43 lakh – among them, around 18 lakh have registered for the vaccines. And, of those 18 lakh, 5.5 lakh received the first dose of the vaccine. So there is still a lot to cover. By the way, those are the statistics from last Monday.

Of course, one of our goals is to bring the vaccination to a satisfactory level before the start of in-person classes. But I don’t think it will affect the plan to reopen universities as each university will reopen after they complete their preparations. If the authorities of a particular university feel they are not ready, it may take a while for them to reopen, but many universities will reopen very soon. While one university may start in-person classes in, say, five days, another university may need 15 days to start the process, but that shouldn’t be a problem. What is most important is that universities will have to reopen maintaining all health and safety guidelines. Vaccinating all students is the most important part, but it’s not the only way to fight the pandemic, according to all experts. Vaccinations will help, but students will also need to maintain other health guidelines such as wearing masks, washing hands, and maintaining a safe distance from each other.

As Covid-19 will continue to be a factor for the foreseeable future, experts have stressed the need to accommodate in-person and blended / hybrid learning to be able to respond to any emergency. What is the UGC’s plan for possible future disruptions to academic activities? What kind of reforms does the higher education sector need based on what we have learned over the past 1.5 years?

Blended / hybrid learning is especially important for a country like ours where we face many types of adversities from time to time in our higher education sector. What we have achieved during this pandemic is that we should continue to take online classes alongside in-person classes. It will now be an integral part of our education system. Since we have to live with Covid-19, blended learning is what we will need in the coming days.

One of the basic problems is that our teachers do not have the expertise in online teaching. It is also a new concept for them. Teachers must be trained to meet the expectations of students. What UGC is trying to do is train university professors to teach online. We are now devoting our time, energy and resources to capacity building. About a month ago, we ran an online teacher training program in conjunction with the American Cultural Center. We also worked with the Commonwealth Educational Media Center for Asia (CEMCA) to organize a workshop attended by 1,000 of our teachers. As I speak to you, a workshop is underway with CEMCA titled “Online and Hybrid Learning in Higher Education” which will last 20 days. Through these workshops, our teachers will acquire the skills necessary to provide students with a quality education online. UGC runs such programs to give our teachers first-hand knowledge of the technical processes involved in e-learning.

We have seen many changes in the higher education sector in the 21st century. New technologies have started to emerge, which impacts our work environment. So now the challenge facing our university administrators is to transform our curriculum from stale to updated. At the same time, they need to focus on skills development and infrastructure development, in order to be able to provide the talent needed for an innovative and digital economy. The growth and prosperity of our country will critically depend on the ability of universities to adapt to changes in society and the economy. Our university administrators must always remain vigilant and do their best to be able to modify and modernize the program according to the needs of the rapidly changing global economy. This is how our graduates will remain relevant to the demands of the market.


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Norma A. Roth