Distance learning revolution in Bangladesh

Over just two years, BdREN, the national research and education network (NREN) of Bangladesh, has almost tripled its number of participating institutions from 60 to 175.

According to BdREN CEO, Mohammad Tawrit, the steep rise in interest from the research and education community in Bangladesh is closely related to the possibility of conducting online education.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, we all got scattered. However, thanks to our participation in an international collaboration, BdREN was able to provide many university faculty members with Zoom licenses. Thereby they could set up digital classrooms. This was a revolutionary change for education in Bangladesh.”

Initiated by the regional research and education network of the European Nordics, NORDUnet, Bangladesh and several other countries with emerging NRENs have joined forces in promotion of distance learning.

“We are happy that we could help during the COVID situation, but I would like to say that we actually see a much bigger perspective,” says NORDUnet CEO René Buch, continuing:

“If you look at a country like Bangladesh with some 170 million inhabitants of which a very large proportion are young, it is evident that the demand for education is enormous. Especially for children and young people in remote areas, access to online education has the potential to be life-altering.”

“Give a man a fish…”

As part of the project, NORDUnet provided BdREN with Zoom licenses. Distributing these licenses among faculty members at the BdREN membership institutions, a wide range of online classes were created.

Soon, BdREN member institutions would host some 5,000 classes daily with 60-70 participants per class on average.

Initially, the online classes were hosted by the NORDUnet servers in Denmark but as demand rose this was no longer sustainable. In collaboration with NORDUnet, BdREN managed to set up an on-premises solution. Further, the Zoom licenses were converted from global to on-prem.

This fits in nicely with the thinking behind the international project, comments René Buch of NORDUnet:

“We never saw this to be an aid-like project with us providing BdREN and the other emerging NRENs with licenses and knowledge. The old saying applies “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So, our initial help was just to get things going and obtain proof of concept. We were confident, that once the national research and education community saw the benefits in practice, the demand for online learning would come in place.”

A national policy for online education

Apart from starting a distance learning revolution in Bangladesh, the initiative has meant a change in the status of its NREN:

“We used to chase people asking for a chance to tell them about what BdREN can offer. Suddenly things are reversed. They are calling us to hear if they can join the network,” Mohammad Tawrit adds smilingly.

Further, a University Grants Commission in charge of monitoring and administering the proceedings and the budgets in higher education institutions in Bangladesh has drafted the “national policy for online education” which is under approval of the ministry of education.

“Once the policy is in place, we can expect to see more organisations emerging with distance learning mode of pedagogy. Obviously, we cannot continue running things as a project indefinitely.”

Physical and digital education will blend

While the almost instant success of the initiative may, to a large extent, be attributable to the necessity created by the global pandemic, Mohammad Tawrit is confident that distance learning has come to stay in Bangladesh:

“The project will have ramifications that reach beyond the current pandemic. I believe the future will bring some form of blended education, with some courses conducted as physical and others digitally. Just to give an example, it is not unusual to commute 1.5 hours in the morning and 1.5 hours in the late afternoon due to the traffic situation here in Dhaka. So, when a course or a meeting can be held online, each participant has 3 extra hours of working time.”

This has inspired a wider trend, Mohammad Tawrit adds:

“Traditionally, bosses would want all their employees working right beside them so they can give them instructions. In the new reality, more leaders realize that they don’t need so much the employee but rather the work of that employee. And often that work can be carried out more efficiently from other locations than the company office.”

Looking forward with confidence

The formal name of the project created by BdREN, NORDUnet and other partner NRENs is “Facilitating Distance Learning using Digital Conferencing Facility”.

Through the project, a long series of learning courses, seminars and meetings have been held.

“While many differences exist between the countries, we do have some common challenges as emerging networks. First and foremost, we all need to find a format that is financially sustainable in the longer haul. To that end, it has been valuable to learn how other emerging networks are organizing their financing, and take advice from older networks,” Mohammad Tawrit explains.

The project was initiated in September 2018. It was formally terminated by late summer 2021. However, the collaboration between the partners continues, and NORDUnet has prolonged the licenses and continues its assistance to the emerging NRENs.

“For BdREN, we can say that some issues are outstanding before a fully sustainable long-term setup is found. Still, the project has meant a big lift for us, and we are looking forward with confidence,” Mohammad Tawrit concludes.

Published: 10/2021

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