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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused the shutdown of educational institutions throughout the world. In Bangladesh, educational institutions have been closed since March 17. The Ministry of Education has decided to impose the shutdown until May 31.[1] However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has informed the shutdown can continue until September provided the situation does not improve.[2]

In response to the shutdown, countries across the globe are adopting the use of remote learning measures, relying heavily on online classes or remote learning. But the situation has not been the same in Bangladesh. Some schools and universities have decided to hold online classes and assessments while others have not. There are concerns with regards to availability and affordability to technology to conduct remote learning.

The lack of remote learning facilities can hamper the education progress of learners, especially for students in the primary level and belonging to the lower-income groups. It also reflects technology inequality in the country that will lead to higher education inequality among students, based on their access to remote learning facilities. 

The lack of remote learning facilities show that digitalization of education in Bangladesh has not been fully achieved yet. As a result, many students across the country are now deprived of schooling which can create greater inequalities in the long run.

Policies adopted to digitalize education in Bangladesh

The government under its ‘Vision 2021 Masterplan’ outlined a vision for a ‘Digital Bangladesh’ where Information and Communication Technology (ICT) will be used in the fields of education, healthcare, and socioeconomic development. Since the inception for the vision in 2009, the government has taken the following policies:

PolicyRelevant Objective(s)
National ICT Policy-2009Increase ICT literacy
Research in ICT in the tertiary education level
Ensure global standards in ICT education at the tertiary level
National Education Policy-2010Create a knowledge-based technology-dependent economy by focusing on ICT-related education
ICT in Education Masterplan 2012Develop educators’ ICT and professional skills
Improve the quality of learning materials
Reach education services at the doorsteps of the public
Table: Policies adopted by the government of Bangladesh to digitalize education/Source: Ministry of Education

As per the policies taken, the government has introduced multimedia classrooms and ICT labs to digitalize classroom learnings. In addition, under the Access to Information (a2i) project and the Teaching Quality Improvement in Secondary Education Project (TQI-SEP), teachers have been trained in basic computer skills, use of software, internet browsing, and content development.[3]

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Bottlenecks to full education digitalization: Lack of access to technology for remote learning

The initiatives that have been taken by the government have ensured the digitalization of education in classrooms. However, education digitalization has not been extended beyond the classrooms. This limitation is due to the fact that resources required for a digital education like computers, mobile phones, and internet access are not available in most households. There is also a lack of training on how to properly use such devices for attaining a digital education at home.

As a result, a full digitalization of education has not been possible. This incompleteness has, thus, impeded the adoption of remote learning in Bangladesh during the current pandemic when students and educators need to stay at home.

Lack of equipment required for digital learning

Some of the basic equipment required for conducting online classes is absent in many households throughout Bangladesh. Ownership of computers, the internet, and even television is lacking in many households, especially those outside the capital Dhaka. There is also inequality between the rich and the poor households when it comes to owning the devices. 

Unequal ownership of computer and television sets

According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2019 conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and UNICEF, only 5.6% of households in Bangladesh have computers. Ownership of television sets is higher — 50.6% of households have television sets.[4]

Ownership of computers and television sets vary based on areas (urban or rural), division, and wealth index. The MICS found that only O.4% of households in the poorest quintile of the wealth index have ownership of computers compared to 21% of the richest quintile. On the other hand, 90.2% of the richest quintile have ownership of television sets compared to only 4.8% of the poorest quintile.[4] 

Figure: Ownership of television set and computers in households based on the wealth index quintiles/ Source: Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2019

The lack of computers and television sets, especially in lower-income households mean that the majority of students cannot access distant classes in the first place. The state-run Bangladesh TV (BTV) and Sangsad TV have started airing lessons for secondary students as a remote learning method.[5] However, the findings from the MICS show that such broadcasts will be futile as a maximum of only half of the students can access such lessons. 

Ownership of mainly basic phones

At 95.9%, the percentage of households owning mobile phones in Bangladesh is quite high. The disparity among areas, division, and even wealth brackets is less. According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 98% of households in the urban area have a mobile phone compared to 95.9% of households in rural areas. 

Despite such a high percentage, the majority of mobile phone users in Bangladesh use either a basic phone (which has only text and call features) or a feature phone (which has additional capabilities including multimedia and Internet). At 24%, the smartphone (phones having an operating system like Android or iOS and a touch screen) penetration is quite low.[6] The low smartphone penetration hinders students to access education apps, online classes, and learning materials like slides and ebooks.

Figure: Ownership of mobile phone handset by type in Bangladesh in 2019 (in percentage)/Source: LIRNEasia

Low internet access

According to the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the total number of Internet Subscribers has reached 103.253 Million at the end of March 2020.[7] Despite such an increase, the percentage of the total population covered by the internet still remains low. Data from the World Bank shows only 15% of the population uses the internet.[8] 

Slow internet speed

In addition to access, there are issues with internet speed as well. Although Bangladesh fares better than most of its regional counterparts, its broadband speed is low compared to global standards. Bangladesh ranks 96th out of 174 countries in broadband internet bandwidth in the Speedtest Global Index of April 2020. The same index puts Bangladesh in 130th out of 139 countries in mobile internet bandwidth.[9] The low internet speed makes it hard for accessing multimedia educational content, such as slides and videos. 

Figure: Internet Bandwidth Speed in South Asia (in Mbps) for April 2020/ Source: Speedtest Global Index

Furthermore, internet speed has decreased since the declaration of public holiday throughout the country. A study by Ookla has found that the median fixed internet bandwidth speed in Bangladesh has decreased by 12% in May 2020 from March 2020’s figure. The same study has found the median mobile internet bandwidth speed to decrease by 5% in the same time duration.[10]

Affordability

The affordability of the internet should not be a problem for many in Bangladesh. At BDT 59.27 or USD 0.70, the average price of a 1GB mobile internet package in Bangladesh is one of the world’s cheapest.[11] But as most businesses are shut down due to the government announced public holidays, many income-earning individuals, especially in the low-income brackets, might find it difficult to purchase internet plans when their primary concerns are to ensure food security. Thus, many students, especially in low-income households, may not be able to afford internet packages to avail online learning classes.

Will a technology inequality lead to an education inequality in Bangladesh?

As shown throughout the article, students from low- income households are facing the most impediments to access digital education during this pandemic. The lack of equipment and internet access has contributed to such barriers. On the other hand, students from upper income households can access digital education during this time. Such discrepancy can lead to an education inequality where students from richer backgrounds come from the pandemic as more skilled than students from poorer backgrounds.

The inequality is not restricted to the student side only. Although school and college teachers have been trained under basic ICT skills, they might have problems utilizing the technology for conducting online classes, such as web conferencing software. Schools and colleges of urban areas can provide learning resources to such teachers who can then conduct online classes. However, rural educational institutions and their teachers might not have the technology in the first place. As a result, teachers there may not even be able to take the classes even if they have the skills.

In order to tackle such a situation, the government should utilize existing technologies available to many households to provide digital schooling to children. Already, there are broadcasts of secondary classes on television. But as shown before, such broadcasts will reach only to half of the total student population, especially to those from higher income backgrounds. 

On the other hand, the government can utilize the high mobile penetration in the country to offer online learning facilities. Partnering with telecommunications providers, the government can provide data plans at subsidized or free of costs to students. Such initiatives have been taken in Bhutan, where providers such as Bhutan Telecom (BT) and Tashi Cell have placed proposals to their government to provide additional data at lower charges for educational purposes.[12] The government of Bangladesh can similarly partner with its telecommunications operators to provide free cost data plans for students.

Farhan Uddin, Content Writer at LightCastle Partners, has prepared the write-up. For further clarifications, contact here: [email protected]

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